If, as critics have pointed out, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial represents the acceptance stage of Steven Spielberg’s—and the nation’s—sublimated, cathartic grief, then his earlier, disco-era alien epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the comforting vibrancy of denial. Spielberg followed up the first modern-day blockbuster, Jaws, an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s truly impersonal 1974 potboiler, by turning inward in flamboyant fashion, writing his own screenplay as an excuse to stage the spectacle of his childhood dreams.
Maybe Spielberg’s subsequent achievements are responsible for Close Encounters’s status as a stepping stone in a flowering career, a template that the filmmaker would revise time and again to greater effect. Or maybe it’s that the film’s out-of-step optimism is a tough sell in an even tougher historical context, where obedience to the myth of the great American renaissance of the ’70s is still taken as an unquestioned given.
In normalizing the scientifically possible but sociologically irrelevant notion that there’s more to life than Martin Scorsese’s mean streets or Irwin Allen’s man-made destruction impulse, Close Encounters is both the last great gasp of ’60s hippie ethos and the first masterpiece of what would become an increasingly technocratic ’80s movie-house takeover. In other words, for a film in which a man spends so much time not knowing what he’s doing or why, it’s got a lot to answer for. And though Spielberg is often thought of as the most American of directors, since when has America endorsed such strident naïveté? Or been inclined to tender trust in the unknown?
The film’s journey toward its inevitable, transcendent climax only truly begins once family man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfusss) and single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) are released of their parental duties, the latter when the UFOs suddenly darting through impossibly idyllic night skies kidnap her son, Barry (Cary Guffey), and when the former, perhaps even more distressingly, lets the basic responsibilities of fatherhood peel away from his workaday existence. This split in the nuclear family also invites a duality of emotional interpretation. Audiences in 2001 mistook the delivery of A.I. Artificial Intelligence’s on-the-surface serene coda as a betrayal of the nihilism many who revere Stanley Kubrick hold in the highest regard, never allowing that a director like Spielberg could actually be summoning multiple tonal levels.
Same here, only in 1977 it might be argued that Spielberg hadn’t quite willed himself into confronting the broken promises of absent parents that would primarily drive E.T.’s overwhelming pathos. In Close Encounters, the filmmaker allows his hero, abandoned by his humiliated and close-minded wife, Veronica (Teri Garr), and their two dependents, the benefit of the doubt that everyone has their reasons. Even among those as mystified, if not fully zonked-out, as Dreyfuss’s dogged ex-patriarch.
In the final rapturous stretch, the spectacle doesn’t come from the scope of the mothership or the sonic density of the tonal language that the aliens share with the gathered humans, but from the sweet and unexpected reward of total trust: the scientists’ trust in the pursuit of knowledge, the common man’s trust in a greater purpose and heavenly reunion, and our trust in a filmmaker flexing his utter command of the medium. On many levels the least fashionable American touchstone of the 1970s, Close Encounters is also arguably among the few that truly offered any hope of transcending its era.