Movie SF ruled the big screen in ’77, with two lasting hits. Star Wars tooks its inspiration from old pulps, serials, and comics; Spielberg’s big movie drew on UFO contactee lore.1
Director: Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg, et al.
Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary
François Truffaut as Claude Lacombe
Melinda Dillon as Gillian Guiler
Teri Garr as Ronnie Neary
Bob Balaban as David Laughlin
J. Patrick McNamara as Project Leader
Cary Guffey as Barry Guiler
Full cast and crew details may be found at the imdb
After close encounters with a UFO, some ordinary people find themselves drawn to a site in Wyoming. Meanwhile, a mysterious agency tracks clues around the world and keeps watching the skies.
Yes, I suggest later in this review that the abductions create a problem for the conclusion. Yes, the aliens are disappointingly humanoid, because Spielberg makes them look as the alien contactees claim they look. And no, I don’t know why their ships shine with the combined candlepower of Las Vegas, Shinjuku, and that guy a block over who always overdoes his Christmas decorations. I can put these matters aside. The movie comes to a spectacular conclusion, and our uncertain communication with beings from another world resonates as it has in no previous work of mass-media SF.
The already lengthy and, in places, slow-paced film was given the Special Edition treatment a few years later. Spielberg added and removed scenes, ensuring that several versions of the film would become available. Some of the changes aren’t bad—- though the film did not need to be longer. However, he added a scene that occurs inside the ship. It manages simultaneously to show too much and yet be anti-climactic.
Arguably, Spielberg is responsible for starting the whole Special Edition trend, which has had decidedly mixed results.
Originality: 4/6. The film borrows heavily from many sources, and yet it plays like nothing else before it.
Effects: 6/6. They’d do these all with CGI now. Spielberg didn’t have the option in ’77, and the physical effects designed for this film hold up today.
Story 5/6. The story begins slowly, but I find it draws me in, even years later and on a small screen. I wonder, however, why the story needed to include the abducted humans. Never mind that it problematizes the heavenly vision of the aliens at the end, That’s all right; we simply don’t know much about the aliens to really understand what they’re trying to accomplish. But if the extra-terrestrials had access to humans since the 1940s, why don’t they understand us better? Why are they using non-linguistic methods of communicating? Surely, they would have learned some basic words and phrases, such as “hello,” and “y’know, it’s really gonna freak people out if you hover over their houses, cause weird power effects, and steal their children.”
Acting: 6/6. This is in so many ways a film of the 70s. The acting and characterization takes the natural approach popular then. Neary is very much an ordinary man, unspectacular and seriously flawed (consider how he treats his family). The children are obnoxious, not in the manner of cute movie kids, but in the way that many real-life children are obnoxious. Faced with the extraordinary, human beings act still like human beings.
Emotional Response: 5/6. Spielberg has crafted a fine film, though it’s a bit slow-moving at times. The final scene works much better on a big screen.
In total, receives 37/42.
1. I’m cannibalizing much of this from a piece I wrote on the song “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” That article first appeared here and was reprinted in Context.
People have been seeing things in the sky for millennia, but the modern flying saucer movement didn’t really get underway until 1947. On June 24, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported several crescent-shaped objects flying at high speeds, moving “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” The term flying saucers entered the English language. It wasn’t long before someone connected Arnold’s craft with the enigmatic Foo (Feu=French for “fire”) Fighters reported at the end of World War II. Reports of Unidentified Flying Objects swarmed in (that other ’47 incident, Roswell, however, rarely rated mention until years later). The Air Force launched Project Blue Book, confirmation that the government saw something serious in these reports. Were we under observation? Had Hiroshima and Nagasaki drawn the attention of extra-terrestrials? Would our nascent space programs bring us in contact with beings from other worlds?
Hollywood thought so. Cinematic saucers brought strange visitors to drive-ins throughout the 1950s. Most, like The Thing from Another World and The Man from Planet X, were obviously dangerous. The Day the Earth Stood Still took a different perspective. Its visitor brings a message of peace, backed by the threat of annihilation. His name is Klaatu. While in hiding, he takes the name Carpenter. Flying saucers became a fact of life, at least in the media. Entire mythologies grew up around big-eyed Greys, Men in Black, and Little Green Men. Some believed the aliens were dangerous, and warned that they were already here, tampering with human history. Others wanted them to come, and cults sprung up beseeching the visitors to save humanity from ourselves. One such group, the International Flying Saucer Bureau urged their members to send a simultaneous telepathic message on May 15, 1953, which would begin, “calling occupants of interplanetary craft.”
The darker side of the contactee lore came from Betty and Barney Hill, who told an ever-shifting tale of kidnapping and experimentation by aliens in 1961. In the early 70s, Roswell finally took its place among the lore. The story was dusted off when tales of alien bodies started circulating.
The alien phenomena was at its height in the 1970s. A musical prayer to the aliens charted: “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” written and recorded by Canadian band Klaatu, but better known by the Carpenters’ 1977 cover. A tv show of the late ’70s, Project U.F.O. dramatized the Blue Book investigation. Aliens found their way onto series such as Soap and, yes, The Dukes of Hazzard. Close Encounters took the messianic view of the extra-terrestrials. Other stories told of late-night abductions, sadistic experiments, and interspecies sex.