1977: We Are Not Alone

 

In Vince Guerra’s Ricochet Movie Fight Club, Question 107, the topic of “What is the best sci-fi film of all time?” brought on a lively discussion. Kedavis said “I’m disappointed. (Close Encounters) may not be the top-best sci-fi movie, but I’d easily put it above either Back to the Future or Jurassic Park”. Occupant CDN replied: “Is it just me?…Close Encounters is kinda like ET, in that it’s dropped completely out – It’s like these movies are completely invisible”. Matt Bartle agreed.

Entirely reasonable reactions. In its day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was briefly considered Star Wars’ equal in popularity, yet its superior in ambition and artistry, as important and lasting as any movie ever made. As fondly regarded as it was, fewer people see it that way now. The film isn’t forgotten—I bet you know roughly what it’s about even if you haven’t seen it—but unlike Star Wars, the impact of Close Encounters on popular culture has faded over 44 years.

 

The whole movie is one long buildup. It has two interwoven plots that converge: first, a solemn, visually stagy worldwide pursuit of eyewitnesses to UFO sightings, up-close-and-direct, and then, the more specific and personal tale of Roy Neery (Richard Dreyfuss), an Indiana electrical worker whose UFO experience completely wrecks—well, alters–his life. He’s strangely impelled to travel to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, a stunning natural monument where the government is conducting some kind of mystery-shrouded scientific experiment. Here, the two plot lines finally meet: it’s the secret location of an imminent, first-time, face-to-face encounter between humans and aliens.

This climactic scene, in its visual majesty, is intended to come off with the impact of a combination of the first atomic bomb test at Trinity Site and the Crucifixion. For many people, it succeeded. The ending, about 20% of the running time of the film, took up what Steven Spielberg later estimated to be about 50% of its energy, budget, and shooting time.

Lucas and Spielberg started their respective projects, Star Wars and Close Encounters, at about the same time, with script notes in 1973 leading to signed contracts in 1975. Both young directors made their production plans with the recent example of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in mind. They made a point of filming far from Hollywood, with an unusual degree of independence. George did it Stanley’s way, filming the live action on an English sound stage, and using his own handpicked in-house visual effects crew, which he would come to call Industrial Light and Magic.

2001 and Star Wars had few unexpected problems while filming, which straightforwardly went pretty much as planned. Their studios backed them patiently, at least until near the end of the lengthy effects and editing.

By contrast, CE3K had few problems with its special effects, farmed out to 2001 veteran Doug Trumbull, but it had a troubled, high friction production. Filming went months over schedule. Spielberg, coming off of what was then the most successful film in history, Jaws, was striving to outdo himself. As 1976 progressed, he kept changing and adding things as he went along, running the budget up gradually from $5 million to an eventual $20 million. At that time, it was an enormous sum to spend on a movie, roughly equivalent to $200 million now. The studio was on Spielberg’s tail almost from day one, begging him to speed it up.

Close Encounters was largely filmed in Alabama, which gave big tax breaks to Columbia Pictures. Months of shooting with hot lights in a WWII-vintage blimp hangar, through the sweltering heat of an Alabama summer, was not fun. The co-producer, Julia Phillips, not a Spielberg choice, was a widely loathed cokehead who ended up being barred from the location. (Her malicious autobiography would be titled You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.) Creating the visual effects in distant California meant that actors on the set couldn’t see what they were supposedly reacting to. Most did their jobs well, but it’s tough for an actor to be told to just gaze reverently at an offstage lightbulb and act awed beyond belief.

Preview audiences gave mixed but mostly positive responses. Press reviews were also positive, many calling it a great film. Some of those good reviews made Columbia nervous when they qualified their praise with “Should do well, but it’s no Star Wars”. George and Steven were pals, but the historic success of Lucas’s film put strains in the relationship. For back in the first weeks of Star Wars’ dazzling run, Columbia Pictures did something rash: they publicly predicted that Close Encounters would equal or best it at the box office. This was very bad management of the expectations game and it would haunt them later. But in the summer of 1977, Star Wars didn’t yet look like the foundation of an entertainment empire; it merely looked like that summer’s Jaws. And after all, Columbia Pictures had the director of Jaws finishing up his flying saucer movie.

Columbia was in the middle of one of Hollywood’s biggest-ever management scandals (over money, not sex) and had bet the company on CE3K being a big hit. They poured an unprecedented amount into marketing and advertising. There’s an expression in Hollywood, “You can’t buy box office gross”, but to a certain degree you can. Kubrick never did that; he gave MGM’s publicity office almost nothing. Lucas was so late -recutting his film that he didn’t give Fox much help, which fortunately didn’t matter. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind was given a rocket push. Splashy screenings were held for such un-cinematic personages as the Dalai Lama and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Film reviewers across the country were given cassettes of interviews with Spielberg and the actors, as well as complimentary cassette players.

By 1980, Close Encounters’ box office earnings had finally exceeded those of Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s original goal. He’d done it on his own this time, without a Peter Benchley best seller as a platform. Nor did he need a major star to help sell the movie. Star Wars, it was now understood, couldn’t be compared with anything else, and the press tactfully didn’t remind Columbia Pictures about their on-the-record and off-the-record comparisons of the prospects of the two films, merely three years ago, before CE3K’s release on December 14, 1977.

By then, the movie industry was in a different, hyper-inflationary new world. Video cassettes were already filling studio coffers, and cable was finally catching on. There was a lot more money sloshing around. 1975, the relatively innocent days when the Star Wars and Close Encounters studio deals were made, might as well have been a generation ago.

Some other notes about the aftermath of Close Encounters: Before it came out, Steven Spielberg was already known as a director of blockbuster movies, but not specifically of science fiction or visual magic. CE3K is where that all began.

The Spielberg “God Light” effect, an intense point source associated since then with otherworldly moments, began here. This kind of visual treatment, as well as dozens if not hundreds of stories of everyday Americans suddenly in the presence of transcendence, became something of a cliche. The concept of an overwhelmingly large mothership has become a regular presence in pop science fiction. Over the decades, CGI, computer generated imagery, made some of these moments more routine and hence, less magical.

From that point forward, most major studios now strove to have at least two $20 million films in its roster every year, in hopes that one or both would be a $100 million box office home run. This would remain true throughout the Eighties and Nineties, as the dollars of more and more production outlets chased a limited amount of proven talent. It wasn’t that studios were resisting a sensible risk/rewards ratio as much as the fact that the rewards could be so much more rewarding. It’s the Tentpole Effect, and it affects Hollywood’s judgment to this day.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    They seem to bring out CE3K occasionally for anniversary showings and releasing a new DVD/Blu-ray package, and then it goes “back into the vault” like Disney sometimes says about various things, likely hoping that it pushes people to go out and buy another copy.

    • #1
  2. Mad Gerald Lincoln
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    I’ve never seen it, but have the sense that it has the Spielberg “soppiness”.

    • #2
  3. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it, but have the sense that it has the Spielberg “soppiness”.

    Well there are three versions, so it may be possible to pick the least-soppy.

    • #3
  4. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Interesting.

    I’ve never seen it, but I think I would recognize the music and I know Dreyfuss plays with His potatoes. 

    • #4
  5. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Thanks for all the great context.

    The genre ‘Sci-Fi’ is overly broad, so it’s quite understandable that great films would be overlooked or underrepresented. Personally, I enjoy the Ricochet fight club but become frustrated in participation for various reasons. I’d rather just read the comments.

    I never understood the canonization of Star Wars as such a great film/story. I saw it in the theater when it came out and obviously before all the decades of hoops and glory. This doesn’t mean I think it’s bad or even mediocre. It’s good. 

    Close Encounters is a very different type of film as you describe. It is much more about us than it is about them for one thing. Particularly enjoyable and interesting is how the Richard Dreyfus character must deal with his experience in society, how his friends and family react, and how it manifests into a kind of obsession. 

    For me science fiction is always about human beings. It’s a backdrop to explore ourselves. Our psychology, our morals and how those things can or will transcend technological developments and alternate systems.

    Reading through the comments of the last fight, I was unable to decide due to vast differences in films that can be broadly categorized as science fiction. 

     

    • #5
  6. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I think the scene cut that shows are main characters actually competent when hes talking with his boss at the plant really helps his character.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Gary McVey: The Spielberg “God Light” effect, an intense point source associated since then with otherworldly moments, began here. This kind of visual treatment, as well as dozens if not hundreds of stories of everyday Americans suddenly in the presence of transcendence, became something of a cliche. The concept of an overwhelmingly large mothership has become a regular presence in pop science fiction. Over the decades, CGI, computer generated imagery, made some of these moments more routine and hence, less magical.

    I loved the movie and really appreciate your background information, Gary. I found the film magical, saw it in the theaters and on TV. Like @franco, I think it talks more about the human condition, which I always enjoy. Thanks!

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    My favorite character in that movie was Roy Neery’s wife played by Terri Garr. It wasn’t what she said. It was her facial expressions as (in her view) her husband was going insane.

    • #8
  9. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Thanks, Gary!

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The studio flogged this movie hard that summer. I remember CE3K ads on TV. I don’t remember any of the Star Wars ads, but I saw Star Wars on opening night and again the next night. I caught CE3K again eventually but not in the theater so it was some time considerably later.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    There were as you said two stories in one. One of them dragged which left you waiting for the other one to pick up again.

    • #11
  12. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Thinking about this film now, and with further education on sound and vibration in subsequent years, the aspect of sound and the famous bum-bum-bum-bum- bum sequence is scientifically valid.

    We are just beginning to explore the power of vibrations, although I think maybe we have in past civilizations, of which I’m convinced existed and were lost and forgotten. The story of the Tower of Babel and possibly the Arc of the Covenant were examples of vibration as a technological tool. The Pyramids of Egypt (and elsewhere) might well have been acoustic generators or something like that.

    In any case, tones and resonances of frequency are universal physical phenomena – certain frequencies resonate and with certain other frequencies – and music could well be a universal language.

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Franco (View Comment):
    I never understood the canonization of Star Wars as such a great film/story.

    Cowboys and Indians in space.

    • #13
  14. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Interesting.

    I’ve never seen it, but I think I would recognize the music and I know Dreyfuss plays with His potatoes.

    That’s about all I know about the movie as well. Saw Star Wars multiple times the summer it came out. Didn’t care at all about CE3k

    I’ve never watched ET either, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

    • #14
  15. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    My favorite character in that movie was Roy Neery’s wife played by Terri Garr. It wasn’t what she said. It was her facial expressions as (in her view) her husband was going insane.

    She did almost the exact same thing in Oh God as John Denver’s wife.

    • #15
  16. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    I’ve never seen it, is there something about Jessica Tandy in a retirement home or am I way off?

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it, is there something about Jessica Tandy in a retirement home or am I way off?

    Are you thinking of Cocoon, perhaps?

    • #17
  18. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Okay, stupid question. What are the first two kinds of close encounters, and are there any kinds beyond three? Is that covered in the movie?

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Okay, stupid question. What are the first two kinds of close encounters, and are there any kinds beyond three? Is that covered in the movie?

    Yes, they are in the movie. Short version: 1. Visual siting, 2. Physical Evidence, 3. Direct, personal encounter

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_encounter#Close_Encounters_of_the_First_Kind

    The fourth kind is covered in Cocoon. That’s the really personal encounter.*

    Edited to add: * This is a joke. Fourth is abduction, maybe. You can read the opinions on the Wikipedia page.

    • #19
  20. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I first saw it on a black-and-white TV, dubbed in Portuguese, and I thought it magnificent. Still do.

    • #20
  21. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Internet's Hank (View Comment):

    Okay, stupid question. What are the first two kinds of close encounters, and are there any kinds beyond three? Is that covered in the movie?

    Yes, there are. Seven actually

    A close encounter of the first kind is a sighting in which one or more unidentified flying objects have been spotted. This would include objects loosely described as flying saucers, objects which can not be attributed to known human technology that appear in the sky, or strange lights for which no rational explanation can be offered. Close encounters of the first kind are the most commonly reported events on the Hynek scale.

    A close encounter of the second kind is one in which a UFO has been spotted, but there is associated phenomena that accompanies it. The phenomena can be a crop circle, terrain damage, scared animals, electronic or mechanical interference, gaps in memory (lost time), heat or radiation, catalepsy (paralysis), or some form of unnatural physical occurrence.

    Close encounters of the third kind would be those in which a UFO has been spotted, but go further to include a visual confirmation of an animate object that is associated to the UFO. For many years, reports of a close encounter of the third kind were the most controversial as there is little to no way to prove their validity.

    At some point the encounters get weird, if you know what I mean…

    • #21
  22. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    … It wasn’t what she said. It was her facial expressions as (in her view) her husband was going insane.

    I thought that happened ( at some point)with every wife.😛

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Franco (View Comment):
    Yes, there are. Seven actually

    Nah, eight when you marry one.

    • #23
  24. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    aardo vozz (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    … It wasn’t what she said. It was her facial expressions as (in her view) her husband was going insane.

    I thought that happened ( at some point)with every wife.😛

    That’swhat made it so memorable. 

    • #24
  25. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):
    I never understood the canonization of Star Wars as such a great film/story.

    Cowboys and Indians in space.

    Let’s fight the NAZIs.  

    • #25
  26. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):
    I never understood the canonization of Star Wars as such a great film/story.

    Cowboys and Indians in space.

    Let’s fight the NAZIs.

    Yep. Close to the same. Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless. Clear-cut good guys and bad guys.

    • #26
  27. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. Was a respectable box office performance, did well at the award shows. Then faded away. It was big for a summer, it was big on pay tv – I think the original HBO logo was strongly influenced by it. But the movie frankly didnt have the long standing cultural impact of Star Wars or 2001.

    For example:

    To start her review – she knows nothing about the film… She also did a Star Wars review – She at least heard of some of the characters:

    She didnt know storm troops were bad guys – as if the name wasnt a hint…

    • #27
  28. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    The blockbuster still drives Hollywood, that’s for sure. With budgets 10 times the $20m of Close Encounters, the studios keep trying.

    Another great post, thanks Gary!

    • #28
  29. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    When I love a movie, even when I only really like it, I will see it over and over again if something about it resonates and lingers after the movie is over.  Even when my only means of seeing it was paying to go to the theater.  But every now and then, there is a movie which I’ve enjoyed watching and like well enough but have absolutely no desire to see again.  Both Close Encounters and ET fell into that category. I saw them in the theater when they were released, enjoyed watching them, but have not seen them since.  They just did not affect me in a way that I wanted to experience them again. 

    • #29
  30. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Well there are three versions, so it may be possible to pick the least-soppy.

    I’ve seen at least four different versions:

    • The original 1977 theatrical release.
    • The 1980 Special Edition. Spielberg made a deal with the studio in which they gave him the budget to complete some scenes he had wanted to include, but they also required him to include a sequence showing the inside of the alien mothership. He did so reluctantly.
    • The broadcast version, which was sort of an extended omnibus edit that included pretty much everything from the Special Edition as well as some additional scenes.
    • The so-called “Collector’s Edition,” released on DVD in 1997. This is Spielberg’s director’s cut, including many of the scenes added in the Special Edition but omitting the mothership sequence. This is really the only version that anyone should care about today.
    • #30
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