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Laramie Movie Scope:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A look back at a classic, 40 years on

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 5, 2017 -- Yesterday, I saw the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th Anniversary Restoration” at a local theater with a 62-foot-wide screen and premium sound system (modern theater sound systems are far superior to the systems of 40 years ago). From what I've read about this restoration release it is aimed at promoting the 4K video release of the film, which also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the release of this film.

When I first saw this film 40 years ago, it struck me differently than it does now. For one thing, the original theatrical release was not preceded, as this one is, by a “making of” mini-documentary in which Steven Spielberg, the director, explains that this was not intended to be a science fiction film at all.

That's strange. It seems to me the only way this film can be seen as not science fiction is if you really, truly believe that governments are engaged in a massive cover-up to hide the facts about real, secret, alien contacts. You know. The Roswell thing. The Area 51 thing. Sure, most people who believe in science think there is life out there somewhere, but believing that aliens are visiting our planet in secret, and somehow that has been kept secret by thousands, maybe millions of people for years? That is out there beyond the lunatic fringe.

But putting that aside, this is a powerful movie with wonderful imagery. It still holds its own with modern science fiction epic movies after all these years. This is visual poetry combined with deeply emotional filmmaking of the highest order. There are many people who argue that Steven Spielberg helped to ruin the movies by shifting the emphasis from artistic value towards the “blockbuster mentality.” I don't buy it, and this movie proves that isn't true.

Seeing this again in the theater, I recalled my reaction to Teri Garr's character, Ronnie Neary (wife of obsessed contactee Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss) was quite different 40 years ago, in times that were, incredible as it may seem, even more misogynistic than today. I now have a lot more sympathy for Ronnie Neary, and what she went through.

When I saw this again, on a bigger screen, and with a much better sound system, I was struck by how this film is so centered on Roy Neary and his personal struggle, along with Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon) another contactee who is drawn to Devil's Tower in Wyoming at the same time Neary is drawn there. She has the additional incentive of finding her son, who has been abducted by aliens.

I was also struck by the casting of this film by Shari Rhodes and Juliet Taylor. Some of the minor characters really stand out, like the tall, distinguished-looking Team Leader at Devil's Tower, played by Merrill Connally, who embodies leadership in this role, and by actor Roberts Blossom (who says at a press conference, “I saw Bigfoot once”) who is so good at playing oddball characters.

More than anything else in this film, though, what strikes me every time I see it is the Spielberg's wonderful use of light. He uses intense light in different colors in ways nobody else does. It just jumps off the screen. The intense white light from the alien spacecraft is used to signify both wonder and fear. Then there is the bright blood red and orange lights from the aliens trying to grab Jillian Guiler's son, Barry (played by Cary Guffey) from the family home. Who can forget the bright reddish light stabbing through the keyhole of Guiler's house, illuminating the dust in the air soo eerily?

Seeing this film again, along with the documentary, reminded me that Steven Spielberg, who got his start in television, and almost quit before he made the TV movie “Duel” (1971) was a very young director back then, and that he had a lot of fun making this movie. This movie was made right after “Jaws” (1975) one of his earliest films. We're lucky he knew what he was doing back then, and we are are lucky we can still enjoy his mastery of the film medium all these years later.

Catch this while you can. From what I've read, this film won't be in theaters much longer. It is just here to promote a video disk release. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)