The best compliment ever bestowed upon Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I believe, came from its star Richard Dreyfuss. “This is the only film that I’ve ever done that I know will be studied in 300 years,” he said. Standing back and looking at the full spectrum of Spielberg’s work, I can only think of three films that will be that important: Jaws, for what it did for popular American culture, Schindler’s List because of its great vision of human tragedy and triumph, and Close Encounters because of its overwhelmingly positive vision of inter-species communication across space and time.
Yet, of all of the films that Steven Spielberg has ever made, this is the one that is the most far-reaching. Others get mired in the moment but this one looks at the broader picture, not of an individual but of the entire universe. What would happen if an alien civilization wanted to communicate with the human race? How would they do it? What signals would they send us? How would we set up a meeting?
Sadly, that’s a radical idea. Every other movie about aliens from Alien to Predator to Independence Day to Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the easy road of having brain-suckers who want to turn us into food or slaves. Even Spielberg fell into that trap three decades later with his wobbly remake of War of the Worlds. But why? Why imagine that aliens would fly trillions or centillions of miles across infinite space to our tiny blue marble just to turn us into a midnight snack? Based on the larger view of the universe, that seems painfully narrow-minded.
What is so admirable about Close Encounters is that it isn’t in a mad rush to get to the big picture. It wants to wonder, to ponder, to build a mystery, to allow us to get excited by the notion that something is calling us out to a distant location because it simply wants to bridge the universal gap, and it does that by bridging the communication gap by talking to us telepathically. That’s a big, bold idea if you think about it, it is one that hasn’t really been explored since.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released just six months after George Lucas gave us Star Wars. The great achievement of both is that they, along with Kubrick’s 2001, elevated the science fiction to an epic scale. The took sci-fi out of the doldrums of 50s $10 quickies and make it respectable. They made it fun, they made it work by taking it seriously.
Both Close Encounters and Star Wars present radical leaps in the genre, but Spielberg’s film does it in a more elegant way. If Lucas’ film was a great roller coaster, then Spielberg’s film was more like a symphony. It’s got light and color and music and magic. You can imagine the last half hour of this movie as a great symphonic experience. It’s like nothing he, or anyone else, ever had the nerve or the vision to explore again.