Steven Spielberg was six when his father made him watch the skies. Arnold Spielberg dragged his son out of bed without explanation in the middle of the night, and drove to a field where they joined New Jersey neighbours in staring at a meteor shower blazing through the dark. That 1951 experience was grandly reimagined in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
After an early career defined by the shuddering menace of Duel andJaws, Spielberg’s 1977 hit focused on crazed suburban dreamers, cultists and the simply curious in the forgotten Midwest, people like “me, and my parents, and the friends that I knew”, he explained, as aliens make unambiguous, majestic contact.
“This particular project had a noble agenda,” its star Richard Dreyfuss reflected on its 20th anniversary in 1997.
“That we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear…Close Encounters was truly the first cultural, iconic moment that said, ‘Calm down, we’re okay. They can be our friends.’”
Now back in cinemas in a 4K digital print on its fortieth anniversary, Close Encounters taught audiences to love the alien. It’s a lesson which has been regularly attacked or forgotten. But this strand of wistful, visionary science-fiction cinema has also endured, from Contactto last year’s Arrival. Though the conservative, apolitical Spielberg of 1977 was no hippie, Stephen King noted how Close Encounters tallied with its times.
The director had “come to his majority while students were putting daisies in the muzzles of M-1s” and the US military failed in Vietnam, King wrote. When Spielberg signed up for a science-fiction film in 1973, it was to be called Project Blue Book and, like Jaws venal mayor, be steeped in the justified paranoia of the then swirling Watergate conspiracy, as it explored government cover-ups of UFO sightings.
The military remain untrustworthy in Close Encounters. Army helicopters, so familiar from Vietnam news footage, storm over the night-time horizon, and are evaded by Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon’s suburban visionaries as they trail UFOs which hide in the clouds, in pursuit of the wondrous truth. “We don’t identify with people in uniform,” Spielberg explained in 1997 (on the set, ironically, of Saving Private Ryan). First contact would not be made by“ the face of the government”.
Instead, he cast the great French director Francois Truffaut as the “kind and optimistic” scientist who takes charge of our first interstellar conversation. “The film seems less concerned with science fiction than with recapturing the wonder of a child’s first experience of cinema,” critic David Pirie wrote at the time, calling Close Encounters “the first film in years to give its audience a tingle of shocked emotion that is not entirely based either on fear or suspense”. This sense of wonder became a Spielberg cliché, and the prevalent intention of successful Eighties fantasy directors. Pirie’s review shows how new it seemed in 1977.
The shark-like shadow and cinema-shaking Dolby rumble of the Star Destroyer in Star Wars’ opening scene just months before was replaced by benign awe at Close Encountersmountain-sized Mothership. Spielberg had written the screenplay with his own childhood wonder at Disney’s Pinocchio running through his head, and the smaller UFOs seen early in his film seem made of light, as they dazzle and dance like Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell.
Spielberg had grown up enjoying a very different science-fiction tradition, formed during its only previous period of cinema popularity in the Fifties. Then, the Cold War threats of Russia and the bomb were reflected in countless lowbudget tales of radioactive monsters and alien invasion. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had introduced the cosmic awe which one of its special effects maestros, Douglas Trumbull, would develop in Close Encounters, and Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) explored Earth’s enervating effect on David Bowie’s harmless, listless alien. Enduring mainstream audience expectations, though, of both science-fiction and Spielberg, were still played up to in Close Encounters.
The toys of Melinda Dillon’s three-year-old come eerily alive at night, before he runs happily into the fields to be snatched from her by a UFO. Even the Mothership’s fivenote musical communication ominously hints at John Williams’ previous theme for Jaws. When we finally glimpse the aliens, though, they are mostly child-like. Dreyfuss’s character Roy Neary doesn’t fight these happy, heavenly creatures. He joins them. Alien had vicious fun with a Fifties-style monster in 1979. But this new philosophy was confirmed withET The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Intended as a small, personal film partly inspired by an imaginary friend who comforted Spielberg during his parents’ divorce, its first contact was flooded with wonder, and overwhelmingly emotional. Expanding on the final alien he’d built for Close Encounters, Carlo Rambaldi designed ET as a stumpy, clumsy, eventually miraculous companion for 10-year-old Elliott.
Armed government agents who capture and scientifically torture him are again objects of fear and suspicion. ET is essentially a child himself, naïvely wise, sacred, and finally transfigured back into space.ET dwarfed every previous film’s boxoffice. In its wake, John Carpenter’s bleak remake of 1951’s The Thing, in which the alien is a bloodily body-morphing, visceral infection, and Ridley Scott’s dystopian Blade Runner, both released two weeks later, bombed. Carpenter fared better with Jeff Bridges’ innocent, romantic visitor in Starman (1984), just as Ron Howard did with the elderly-rejuvenating aliens of Cocoon(1985). But Spielberg’s loveable aliens had conquered a generation’s imagination.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1997) was the first major hit to trash this new orthodoxy, as it took simple joy in aliens smashing up the White House and everything else, before Will Smith blows the hell out of them. Tim Burton’s satirical Mars Attacks! (1996) had shown the way, as the Martians gleefully obliterate pacifists who’ve watched too much Spielberg. And yet, 1997 also saw a major continuation of Close Encounters ideas, when Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis directed Contact from a Carl Sagan script.
Jodie Foster is the maverick scientist who picks up alien communications, and their apparent blueprint for a ship to visit them. She returns as a prophet-messenger preaching of the “awe, and the humility, and the hope” she experienced as time and physics bent around her, preparing humanity for further contact. Spielberg meanwhile answered Independence Day in 2005 by regressing to violent Fifties childhood pleasures, remaking George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953) for a post-9/11 age.
Where ET inverted the famous moment in Pal’s film when a malevolent alien hand reaches towards a human, Spielberg revels in ratcheting up that exact moment’s threat. “This isn’t one of my movies where suburbia is invaded by benign extra-terrestrials,” he explained, sounding almost relieved. He was so shaken by 9/11 that he even tampered with ET, digitally removing its hostile government agents’ guns. As with Christopher Nolan’s alien-free, time-warping Interstellar and Contact, space offers nearreligious hope of dealing with death.
The promise Roy Neary believed as he stepped into the Mothership 40 years ago still holds.