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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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How can we not believe our eyes? Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is just an ordinary guy out of Muncie, Indiana, who happens to witness a light show in the sky which makes a mockery of the technology he understands. Likewise Gillian (Melinda Dillon) and her kid, Barry (Cary Guffey). They saw something… transcendent… and they are compelled to follow this new calling wherever it may lead them.

Put this way, the film sounds like a religious parable, or a movie about a cult. And the first screenwriter Steven Spielberg put on it was Paul Schrader, funnily enough (though Spielberg ultimately took sole credit). If we don’t experience it quite that way, it’s only because the movie converts us: we see too, and share the awe and wonder.

A decade younger than his peers Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Brian De Palma, Spielberg was clearly a prodigious talent. But he wasn’t encumbered with their pretensions or politics. Early breakthroughs Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975) are mechanical exercises in suspense and fear. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind he revealed a more optimistic sensibility, one that thrilled in imagining benevolent alien life-forms and a better world somewhere beyond our own.

Spectacular but also grounded, of all Spielberg’s blockbusters Close Encounters may be the one that holds up best. John Williams has said this is his favourite score (you won’t forget it), and the work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and fx guru Douglas Trumbell is rich and expansive.

The story’s thrilling and the set-piece special effects are still unrivalled – the mothership cresting Devil’s Tower stands as one of the few literally jawdropping moments in cinema. But all these years later, it’s the tricky personal stuff that makes the film remarkable: the depiction of a man crumbling under the pressure of forces he can’t understand; the riotous, relatable scenes of madcap family life; the sense that it’s a film as much about the pressures of creative inspiration as alien contact. Those pressures may be why Close Encounters remains the only film credited to Spielberg as sole writer and director. Given that it’s his greatest work, we can only imagine what could’ve resulted if he’d sharpened his pencils more often.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out

Aug 15 only: Introduction from film programmer Sonja Baksa


Steven Spielberg


Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey

Country of Origin







Best Cinematography, Academy Awards 1978

138 min

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Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips


Steven Spielberg


Vilmos Zsigmond


Michael Kahn

Original Music

John Williams

Production Design

Joe Alves

Art Director

Dan Lomino

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