It’s Thursday so that means it’s time for Throwback Thursday at Flicksided. Today I look back at the 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I think Close Encounters may be the only movie that inspired a road trip in my life. I never saw it in the theater but I did see it on VHS about a hundred times as a child and young adult. I was completely fascinated with the story of a man (Richard Dreyfuss) who after an alien encounter starts seeing visions and is drawn to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, along with a variety of different people from around the world, searching for answers.
From the very first time I saw the film I completely identified with Dreyfuss’ character and was rooting for him to do anything it took to get to that tower and find out what was going on. It didn’t bother me at all that he essentially went crazy, destroyed his home, and abandoned his family (or in this case forced them to abandon him) to do so. As a teenager it was an obvious choice that if there was an alien to be found you should go and find that alien no matter what. Would you get on that ship at the end – of course you would! It’s an alien spaceship. You don’t not get on an alien spaceship. That’s crazy talk!
Spielberg has said in interviews that if he would have had kids when he made Encounters he would not have had Richard Dreyfuss get on that spaceship and leave his family. Seeing the film now I love the questions Encounters raises about families and the choices we make. If you were in that same situation would you get on the ship? Would you ignore the calling to find the tower and find some answers so you could continue your normal life and keep up your day to day responsibilities?
I remember when I first saw Encounters feeling like Dreyfuss’ wife in the film, played by Teri Garr, was essentially a jerk for not dropping everything to help her husband find those aliens. Now that I am both a wife and mother I have much more sympathy for her character. Although I’d like to think I would have been a bit more open minded, if I came home and saw that my husband decided to build a giant tower in our living room instead of going to work that day I’m not so sure I would be.
In the opposite storyline in the film Melinda Dillon plays a mother obsessed with finding the aliens after her young son is abducted. She, along with Richard Dreyfuss and a handful of other individuals, make the pilgrimage to Devil’s Tower despite warnings from the government that they are risking their lives doing so. But who can blame a mother risking everything to find her child?
The idea of being chosen for a special mission or journey has always been an appealing story line. Spielberg felt very strongly about this story and was credited with writing the screenplay although several writers apparently assisted with rewrites.
But there is no question that Spielberg felt strongly about making this particular film. He reportedly jumped at the chance to film it as soon as he had enough clout with the studio to make it after the huge success of Jaws. Over the years he has tinkered with the film – adding new scenes, shortening old scenes. He wouldn’t tinker if he didn’t still care about the film. All three versions are currently available on the latest Blu-ray release. While the editing and release of multiple versions of a film can be maddening to fans, at least all three versions are now available in the same set.
There are many things that help Encounters be a timeless film: the passion of the impressive ensemble of actors (Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban are wonderful in the film), the memorable score from John Williams, and the fact that the special effects (while dated) are simple enough to not be a distraction to a current viewer. The use of light and shadows in Encounters is impressive to this day. Not surprisingly Vilmos Zsigmond won an Academy Award for his cinematography in the film. The idea that an alien race might be peaceful was and still is rare.
My parents saw Encounters in the balcony of an old movie theater in our home town. I remember them talking about how unique and memorable it was to see it on the big screen, especially the dramatic ending. One summer while I was home from college my father and I made a somewhat last minute road trip to Devil’s Tower. We both loved the movie and had talked about going for years. I recommend both seeing the film and going to Devil’s Tower as they are both inspiring experiences. As my father has now passed away I look back and am so thankful we made that spur of the moment decision to go on our ‘crazy’ trip that we both admitted was purely inspired by the movie.
Nothing life changing happened while we were at Devil’s Tower. I did find myself humming those 5 notes from the film while I was there – no one hummed back. But the time I shared with my father at Devil’s Tower and the time chatting about Close Encounters of the Third Kind and all of the other films we both loved will always be a special memory to me.