The year 1977 has gone down in sci-fi history as the moment “Star Wars” conquered the world, but there was another landmark release that year: Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The two movies are in some ways polar opposites: one a swashbuckling space opera, the other a drama about humans who make contact with alien beings. “Star Wars” has virtually never left our minds, thanks to decades of prequels, sequels and spinoffs, but “Close Encounters” has become the proverbial modern classic, dusted off only for major anniversaries. This year marks the movie’s 40th, and so it’s getting a 4K digital restoration and a rerelease in theaters nationwide.
It’s hard to overstate how good Spielberg’s movie is (this is the 135-minute Director’s Cut) and how contemporary it feels even today. It’s a convincing, utterly riveting story about a blue-collar family man, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), whose truck is almost sucked up by a spaceship on a desolate road one night. The coming days find Roy behaving erratically and haunted by visions, even as his wife (Teri Garr) and children pull away from him. What Roy doesn’t know — yet — is that a well-respected UFO researcher, Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), is helping the U.S. government prepare for a momentous rendezvous with extraterrestrials.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is in some ways three movies in one. It’s partly a space-alien procedural, a how-would-things-go scenario that gauges the impact of alien contact around the world, from Mexico to India to Wyoming. It’s also a crackling great horror movie, if only for the four-minute sequence in which the aliens take a child (Cary Guffey) from his mother (Melinda Dillon) in the dead of night — a phenomenal piece of filmmaking that ranks among Spielberg’s best work. Finally, “Close Encounters” is a modern-day parable about an Everyman who becomes a much-mocked prophet.
The movie’s focus on communication — which surfaced again in last year’s Oscar-winning “Arrival” — is summed up beautifully in John Williams’ famous, five-note musical theme. Though it’s been spoofed by everyone from Roger Moore’s James Bond to the “South Park” kids, that little riff remains as shivery and evocative as ever. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Spielberg’s wondrous, awe-inspiring movie.
FOUR MORE TURNING 40
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is back in theaters for its 40th anniversary, even though that event isn’t technically until Nov. 16, the movie’s actual release date. These four other films also came out that month, but it’s unlikely you’ll have a close encounter with any of them on the big screen when they turn the big 4-0.
HEROES Ayyy! Henry “the Fonz” Winkler was hoping that this drama in which he played a Vietnam vet coping with post-traumatic stress disorder — with help from Sally Field — would be his ticket to movie stardom. It was not.
PETE’S DRAGON In this Disney toon, a 9-year-old boy runs away from his abusive parents with his best friend, an animated dragon. It featured the voices of Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and that “I Am Woman” roaring success Helen Reddy.
SEMI-TOUGH Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh made up the triangle in this rom-com about two football-playing buddies who each score a touchdown with the team owner’s daughter.
THE TURNING POINT Oscar nominees Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine were on pointe as two friends whose lives took different turns: One became a leading ballerina, while the other gave up dance to raise a family.
— Daniel Bubbeo