Forty years ago, Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the second big game-changing science fiction blockbuster of the year after Star Wars (1977). Back in cinemas now in a new 4K restoration, what better time to reacquaint ourselves with some of the extraordinary, iconic images from the film. In truth Close Encounters is a kind of showreel for the very best of Spielberg and there some scenes – the opening discovery of the aircraft of Flight 19, the press conference, Roy Neary (Richard Deyefuss) trashing his house to build a model of the implanted vision that has been driving him mad – that we could have included here but a line had to drawn somewhere. Just have a look at these ten incredible moments to remind yourself how great the film is then go and watch it again. You know you want to…
Air traffic control
Technicians at Indianapolis air traffic control monitor a very close encounter between a couple of airliners and an unidentified craft that flies unnervingly close to them. As with the shark in Jaws (1975), Spielberg teases us with the consequences of the UFOs’ actions long before we actually get a good look at them.
Neary’s first encounter
Electrical repairman Neary is on patrol looking for the cause of a huge power outage (we know it’s the work of the UFOs, he has no idea yet) when he’s buzzed by one of the UFOs. It’s not at all clear why the aliens should feel the need to trash poor Roy’s van this way nor what they’ve got against road signs that makes them so angry but it’s a fantastic sequence and the first indication of just how weird things are going to get both for Neary and the audience.
Minutes after his first encounter, Neary almost crashes into a runaway Barry Giler (Cary Guffey) while rushing to the scene of an apparent sighting. While comforting his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon), the aliens turn up for our first proper glimpse of their beautiful, luminescent spaceships. In an early version of the film, the old man in the back of the truck watches the ships fly past and mutters “they can fly rings around the moon, but we’re years ahead of them on the highway.” a line missing in almost all currently available versions of the film.
The aliens are being pursued by a team of scientists led by Claude Lacombe, played by the great French director Francois Truffaut, the only time he ever acted in a film that he didn’t direct. First seen in the Special Edition but shot for the original film and removed before release, this brief but memorable restoration sees Lacombe’s team finding the missing cargo vessel the Cotopaxi stranded in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. In real life, the SS Cotopaxi was an American tramp steamer that disappeared in December 1925 sailing from Charleston, South Carolina to Havana in Cuba.
Lacombe’s scientists – who also include Bob Balaban and Lance Henriksen – do a lot of globe-trotting but get their first real breakthrough India where villagers claim to have heard the now-famous five-note musical sequence being sung to them from the sky.
Jaws (1975) may have the shark, Duel (1971) the truck and Jurassic Park (1993) the rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex but the alien assault on the Giler home is one of Spielberg’s most terrifying moments. Of course it makes no sense at all – the aliens are later revealed to be largely benign so why are they terrorising a poor single mum with exploding kitchen equipment, a menacing hoover and some gratuitous Johnny Mathis? – but as a piece of heart-in-your-throat cinema it’s hard to beat.
Mashed potato mountain
Driven to the edge of madness by an implanted message after his close encounter, Neary’s breakdown manifests itself at the dinner table when he is again gripped by the vision of a strange mountain that he can’t quite work out the meaning of. Spielberg cleverly balances the huge idea that we’re not alone in the universe and that “they” might be here to visit us with these tiny but effective scenes of the very personal impact that contact may have on ordinary people and their families.
The mothership arrives
Don’t try to make sense of how that immense, city-sized spaceship manages to sneak up on some of the best scientific minds on the planet nor how it manages to hide behind the Devil’s Tower so it can make its dramatic entrance. Just marvel in the extraordinary spectacle of it all. And look for R2-D2 from Star Wars (1977) clinging to the underside of the dome at around 8-11 seconds into the accompanying clip.
“What are we saying to each other?”
There’s something rather lovely about the thought that first contact between two races should be through music. In the shadow of the Devil’s Tower the human race has its first conversation with the aliens using an unfeasibly large synthesiser (an ARP 2500 played here by Phil Dodds, the technician who was sent to install the instrument on the set) and a rather nice light show. One suspects that the aliens might be Pink Floyd fans…
Neary has, rather improbably, joined the presumably highly trained astronauts aboard the mothership, the aliens have withdrawn and it looks as though the encounter is at an end. But then Carlo Rambaldi’s alien turns up to mimic Lacombe’s hand signals and Mankind’s first contact with an alien race reassuringly ends with a smile. Then, as John Williams’ score swells to a crescendo, the mothership takes flight and there’s not a dry eye in the house…