Steven Spielberg Brought Intelligent Life to the UFO Genre

On November 15, 1977, Steven Spielberg (notice I don’t even need to say director beforehand) had the Los Angeles film debut of what would become his second blockbuster project following the success of “Jaws” two years earlier.

This next ambitious project would be more of a special effects showcase–yet turn the increasing interest of UFO’s possibly interacting on our planet into a more profound puzzle…while also showing us we may have nothing to fear in the event of personal contact.

Originally, the film was to be called “Watch the Skies”, which was a quote uttered at the end of the classic 1950’s Sci-Fi film “The Thing.”

Aren’t we glad Spielberg decided to use a more intelligent title based on the definitions of close encounters with a UFO. These definitions were created by the famous late UFO researcher and respected astrophysicist, J. Allen Hynek, who also was a consultant on the film and had a cameo during the final sequence.

The first kind of encounter represents a sighting of a craft, the second kind defines collecting physical evidence–and the third kind was direct contact with the intelligent beings aboard the craft.

Back in 1977, having a title of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” probably intrigued a lot of people who really hadn’t seen a film about UFOs presented within a framework that made more sense in reality.

Spielberg had already set a high bar in making fantastic stories seem more real too. The only previous Sci-Fi film that took the alien visitation genre to that profound level from the vantage point of the world around us was “The Day the Earth Stood Still” 28 years earlier.

And the lack of special effects at the time prevented it from being taken to a visceral level–despite the overall message still giving one goosebumps.

In November, 2007–“Close Encounters” will celebrate its 30th anniversary from its initial release. 1977 really was an amazing movie year in the way of at least a few timeless films.

Outside of today when a dozen high-profile films play at once during the summer season, only one or two films would be released during each month or season then. Who knows if “Close Encounters” could have found its sizeable audience during the summer season of 1977?

It was risky enough people weren’t used to digesting big special effect extravaganzas all at once back then. Obviously, what I’m referring to here is the other pop culture phenomenon overriding every other film playing in theaters that summer: “Star Wars.”

By November, the brunt of the “Star Wars” tidal wave was dying down (or at least a little if you consider its fans were onto their 100th or maybe 1,000th viewing of it)–so bringing out another high-profile film at that later date would make it better timing. Certainly Spielberg’s next movie project was highly anticipated by millions.

Despite this better timing (and the re-interest in big-budget Sci-Fi movies)–Spielberg still needed more time to finish “Close Encounters” due to the complex and innovative special effects being done on the film throughout mid-’77.

Initially, he wanted to release the film in the summer of 1978. Columbia Pictures, however, forced him to get it done early so they could get themselves out of a financial hole they were in at the time. The original cut went on to break well beyond the 100 million dollar mark domestically at the box office as “Jaws” had done in 1975.

Spielberg would be able to amend his dissatisfaction of his original cut by filming additional scenes and fleshing out the special effects in 1979, which was then re-released in theatres on August 1, 1980 as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition.”

This was the first time a major American director basically re-edited a popular film and gave it a high-profile re-release a few years later. Every other director followed suit after Spielberg did it–especially when the DVD era started. The term “special edition” has also been abused ever since.

To watch the original version or the special edition? Possibly neither–and watch the later “Collector’s Edition” edit as a compromise…

Many of you probably remember the plot of “Close Encounters.” Three separate stories run throughout consisting of a team of UFO researchers (played/headed by Bob Balaban and Francois Truffaut) investigating UFO phenomena/sightings worldwide;

Family man Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) has a profound UFO sighting experience in his home town of Muncie, Indiana–and later becomes obsessed with the image of a mountain (Devil’s Tower in Wyoming) while driving his family crazy as he figures out why he has this image embedded in his mind;

Single mother Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon) experiences a UFO landing near her home as her son, Barry (played by Cary Guffey), disappears as a victim of a possible abduction by the beings in the craft. Jillian then becomes obsessed with the image of Devil’s Tower as Roy Neary does.

They eventually meet one another (along with others experiencing the same mind imprint)–and they all make an exhilarating trek to the real Devil’s Tower in Wyoming where a huge landing base has been built presumably by our government and military in anticipation of a mass UFO landing.

The earlier UFO researchers had received a signal from space giving the coordinates of that location. All of the characters experience a profound third kind UFO encounter at that location in the final quarter of the film.

The original 1977 print of the film is still a wonderful film in every aspect. Only those who analyze film to the core would notice that the mid-section probably needed to be tightened up just a tad.

Spielberg did just that in the 1980 special edition–along with adding more effects to the flying UFO sequences. But even there, you’d have to still marvel at the effects (created by Douglas Trumbull, who won an Oscar for it) in the original cut considering the time period.

The mother ship sequence in the final quarter of the film is still a wow all these years later. Along with some added live-action scenes and enhanced special effects to the flying ships, the biggest error to the special edition was Spielberg being forced to show what Roy Neary sees inside the mother ship when he goes inside at the end.

Some blamed Spielberg for ruining the mystery of what’s inside the mother ship. Yet critics such as Roger Ebert wrote in his 1980 re-review that he loved the sequence using new cutting-edge effects credited to someone named “R. Cobb” as replacement for the unavailable original special effects team.

Columbia told Spielberg he had to do the mother ship interior sequence in order to get permission to prepare his special edition. Of course, it was to get people back into the theatres to see it again. Another example of creative sacrifice to get what you want before being powerful enough to get everything you want.

Spielberg personally didn’t like the interior sequence–and he took it out of a final edit he did on the film in 1998 for a re-release on video (later released on DVD in 2001).

This edition is called the “Collector’s Edition.” It retains five scene changes from the special edition with exclusion of the mother ship interior and also removing a blatant commercialization ploy of having one of the flying craft shining a light on a McDonald’s sign. A few crucial scenes from the original edition were also restored.

This edition is really the one to watch and appears to be the edition you see when it airs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies in recent years. But just like the original cut of “Star Wars” (before all the effects spiff-ups and special editions)–the original cut can hold an emotional connection to the person who saw it in theatres originally. If you happen to own a copy of the original edit of “Close Encounters”…it’s still a great experience.

The profundities Spielberg brought to the UFO (and Sci-Fi) genre are deep…

Spielberg has brought a lot of new and interesting subtle plot devices to films. But perhaps his most profound is the examination of a mysterious and restless second story happening inside one’s mind. “Close Encounters” takes a deep psychological approach to that in the film and exploring the notion that (and seemingly accepted now) the beings manning the mysterious spacecraft only communicate with people telepathically.

“Close Encounters” advanced the notion that they may be sending other messages to us at times when we don’t even know it. This was quite revolutionary at the time, especially in a mainstream Sci-Fi film…or any American film for that matter.

Spielberg used this device again in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” where it’s suggested Elliott and E.T. communicate telepathically on a subtle level…and would continue to after E.T. goes back home.

These concepts undoubtedly hit people between the eyes (no pun intended) during that time frame on something challenging to interpret in a film so accessible to the public.

“Close Encounters” also gives suggestions of bridging the gap between the old-fashioned pop culture concept of aliens and the aliens being something much more meaningful to us on a spiritual level.

Never once in the film are they referred to as “aliens”…or anything else for that matter. We just see them as peaceful beings at the end of the film (yet in the physical sense that we all see them as today)–which either lets us, the viewer, interpret it in any form you want (going the Stanley Kubrick “2001” route) or maybe get the hint that there could be something more spiritual to the events happening.

It’s also suggested that they may have always been here on the Earth interacting with us, we’re important to them, and they act almost as spiritual guardians at times.

This seems to increase the notion in some circles today that the “aliens” in these flying craft are angels or spiritual beings (from either the good side or the evil side) who know we’re the center of importance and continue to in the present day.

I’m sure more than one person has watched the final scene of the mother ship landing/contact and wondered if we’ll truly see something similar someday within our lifetimes.

These are the true elements that keep “Close Encounters” above the pack of any film about UFO’s made outside of the outstanding performances and music by John Williams. In fact, no other film about the subject has handled it so realistically, logically and profoundly other than maybe “Contact” with Jodie Foster in 1997.

“Contact” basically advanced the idea of bridging the spirituality/physicality gap to the alien life concept. M. Night Shymalan’s “Signs” perhaps pushed this forward more than any. “2001” in 1968 hinted at this too…despite being that way only if you wanted it to be.

The soundtrack by John Williams can stand alone without watching the film…

The basic consensus for those who love John Williams’ film scores say that his “Close Encounters” score is one of his best ever. Even Williams cites it as one of his favorites next to “E.T.” Spielberg worked on the script while at the same time consulting with Williams to make the score closer linked with the action.

This was during the time Williams started to develop his Wagnerian-inspired “leitmotif” ideas in movie scoring that he took to an even higher level in “Star Wars”, which he actually recorded after recording the “Close Encounters” score.

The famous five-note motif heard played at the landing site scene (and by the mother ship in response) was carefully crafted and placed at various moments throughout the score.

Reportedly, Williams tried different combinations of that five-note musical phrase until he and Spielberg finally agreed on the right one. It may be one of the best-known musical phrases next to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme–and I’m sure many would agree that (absurd or not) Williams’ musical phrase should be used in real life to communicate if a mass UFO landing or communication occurs.

Because the score was so tightly woven into every detail of action in the script, you can listen to the entire score on CD and visualize each scene perfectly.

I highly recommend playing the soundtrack album by itself as a quasi-classical work on its own. The music for the final sequence with the mother ship will still give you an awe-inspiring feeling outside of the thought that it was recorded just right before the age of digital.

Will Spielberg ever do another film about UFO’s?

I’d say that’s probably unlikely–considering he’s recently molded himself into an important filmmaker preserving certain key historical moments in time (i.e. “Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Munich”).

Spielberg’s recent foray back to Sci-Fi with “War of the Worlds” only took the concept of UFO’s and intelligent beings backwards again, even though he can still make the most pedestrian concepts entertaining.

Richard Dreyfuss once said in an interview that “E.T.” was the likely sequel to “Close Encounters.” If so, then maybe the genre has said everything that can be said based on what we know.

But I’d like to see Spielberg re-visit that arena and do a film about some of the recent advancements in knowledge (or theory) in what could be the truth behind the UFO phenomena.

A truly powerful film that advances these possibilities could be the “Close Encounters” of the future…unless reality supersedes that. Then again, letting the viewer use their imagination is probably better with the films currently existing that take it to profound territory.

On the 30th anniversary of “Close Encounters”–watch it again with your friends and family, put your own spin on what it implies…while also enjoying Spielberg’s human element accompanying it that’s just as fascinating.

Categories: UFO