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Preview: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind” had its official premiere here last Sunday before one of those typical media crowds: Hard to please, veterans of a thousand opening nights, showing its sophistication as the credits went past by applauding the names of the cinematographers. The final credit faded silently to darkness on the screen, and there was a certain hush: Here was director Steven Spielberg's $24-million gamble, and we were about to see if he'd pulled it off.

Suddenly, blindingly, the theater was filled with sound and light: With, a dazzling white flash from the screen, and a powerful musical chord so loud on the Dolby stereo system that we felt a wall of air against our faces. In that masterstroke in his first few frames of film, Spielberg laid bold claim to his audience (he must have felt satisfaction in seeing the sophisticates jump in their seats).

“Close Encounters” ended more than two hours later, not with a bang, but with a gentle whisper. And by going that distance from raw sensation to a genuine feeling for humankind -- Spielberg achieved not only a success, but a triumph.

Remember that this was his first movie since “Jaws”, which delivered its emotional jolts so dependably every 10 minutes, that it made more money than any film before it. But remember, too, that “Close Encounters” comes in the same year as “Star Wars”, which out-grossed “Jaws” and has, some say, this year's market for science fiction already wrapped up. And even recall, if you like, that Spielberg's director of special effects is the same Douglas Trumbull who created a universe for Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Whether we saw a success or a failure, we would see a big one.

And the audience came frankly expecting to be disappointed; those were the vibrations in the air. New York magazine had dispatched a would-be film critic to Arizona to gatecrash a secret preview and his prediction was that the movie would bomb. Never mind that the preview was secret because Spielberg was still working on the film (had changes still to make, indeed, in 13 of the 15 reels), the New York article confirmed widespread private pessimism.

So Spielberg was going to show us Unidentified Flying Objects? Even with $24 million, how was he gonna make them better than B-grade flying saucers? He was going to show us creatures from outer space? Even the sainted Kubrick, in ‘2001,’ had decided against actually showing aliens, fearing that they would remind us of pulp generations of bug-eyed monsters. Even if Spielberg pulled off the rest of the movie, the speculation went, his aliens would surely inspire, bad laughs. On the strength of New York's doom-saying, Columbia’s stock went down 4 points.

But the slate was wiped clean by Spielberg's unearthly opening blast of sound and light. (“That was a C-major chord,” he said afterward, smiling perhaps a shade fiendishly. “'Nothing else would have had that impact, that rush of air.”) The film had reached out and touched us with violence and ecstasy, and then we were in the midst of the mundane again -- but in an everyday world touched with mystery. With air-traffic controllers handling a UFO report, and with a little kid outside Muncie, Indiana, being awakened by the strangest thing: All of the battery-powered toys in his bedroom had suddenly decided to turn themselves on…

Spielberg learned in “Jaws” how to set up his audience with early shocks and surprises, and then string them along. His giant shark appeared right at the film's beginning, off-screen underwater, snap­ping that solitary girl swimmer in two. And then we didn't quite see it again for an hour, but we always thought it was right out there, somewhere.

In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, he uses a similar emotional strategy. There are confrontations with UFOs early in the film (Richard Dreyfuss, as a power company lineman, has a particularly unnerving experience while investigating a black­out). But then there's a central stretch of film devoted to the human characters and their everyday emotions: Awe, fear and the reluctance to be laughed at. Having established his UFOs early in the film, in scenes employing beauty and humor as well as unmistakable terror Spielberg leaves them alone. He's setting us up for his last half-hour, we know. But how can we guess what he's saving up for us?

In interviews after the press preview of “Close Encounters”, Spielberg talked about the calculations behind his use of special effects, “I was more confident this time than I was with “Jaws”,” he said. “I didn't feel the need to use special effects every 15 minutes. I wanted to really get involved with the characters, to follow them and their emotions. And there was so much I could suggest about what was out there… The sky is so much more vast than the sea, and by using a lot of low angles, I was always exposing my characters, shooting them against the sky and making them vulnerable to it.”

And so, we get Richard Dreyfuss quietly going bananas after his close encounter, which is definitely of the third kind. And his wife (Teri Garr) trying to figure him out. And another woman (Melinda Dillon) powerless to prevent… them?... it?… from taking away her little boy. And the scientists, the “ufologists,” following the trail to a rendezvous in Wyoming.

It was in the film's last half-hour that Spielberg and Trumbull had to come through, to deliver the goods, and they surely do. I won't spoil their surprises by describing what they portray, except to say that we do see the Mother Ship of all those UFOs, and we do see an extraterrestrial being. We also see special effects of the highest genius; is there anything Douglas Trumbull can't convince us we are witnessing?

“This picture was a lot harder to do than ‘2001’,” Trumbull said after the preview, “'because the special effects had to be presented in a context of reality. In ‘2001,’ the space ships were in outer space -- we were working against a black background reaching back to infinity. In “Close Encounters”, the UFOs had to be right there in the same shot with the people, the buildings, all the rest of it.”

And so Trumbull and Spielberg worked with the magic of special effects, and sometimes with a little magic, of their own. “I did a sneaky thing,” Spielberg confessed. “I thought I was doing it just for the film buffs, but maybe in a subconscious way it will affect general audiences, too.

“In special effects, you have a thing called a matte shot, in which you combine realistic live action with the special effects, which have been photographed separately. Naturally, the camera recording the live action cannot be permitted to move at all if you're going to get all the pieces to match up. There are several moments in the film where I obviously lock down the camera, expecting the film buffs to notice that and say, aha! Matte shot coming up! And then… (with that fiendish grin again), “…I don't do anything! I want that constant feeling that something is going to happen. Maybe all audiences have seen enough special effects by now that they'll sense I'm locking down the camera, and subconsciously brace themselves for whatever's, com­ing…”

When the Mother Ship finally does arrive, though, we are not exactly thinking about whether the camera's locked down. Spielberg and Trumbull have come up with a beautiful and, yes, a really awe-inspiring conception.

“We couldn't let people sit there all that time,” Spielberg said, “and then give them some sort of spinning top made out of sheet-metal with rivets all over it. Besides, that doesn't fit the reports of the actual sightings. Time and again, people who've had close encounters talk about blinding, violent flashes of light.”

The film ends, I suggested, with a whisper, a note of gentleness. I'll be no more specific. But let Spielberg explain: “'I wanted to make the meeting between humans and extraterrestrials something benign. No guns and missiles and nuclear bombs to greet them, but a meeting of minds. And I guess maybe we're supposed to feel good that we could construct a scientific camp with the kinds of instruments to receive from them the sorts of information they want from us…”

Douglas Trumbull adds: “In '2001,' it was all hardware. All hard-edged reality. This time we went for a cosmic softness, a luminosity. A vision.

How do you design a spaceman that's not too out of this world?

Yes, we see an extraterrestrial being in the closing scenes of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. And, yes, the scenes do work, and are believable and kind of awe-inspiring.

But, no, it wasn't easy to create an ET for the movie. And although bug-eyed monsters abound in countless B-grade space operas, serious filmmakers have usually avoided the risks of trying to show us creatures from outer space.

Legend has it that when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were working on the early stages of their landmark classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), they went through dozens of possible alien beings. In his book, The Making of 2001, Clarke remembers one of them with special affection: Vaguely triangular, it possessed but one (all-important) orifice for the functions of speaking, breathing, eating, eliminating and (presumably) whistling for a cab.

Kubrick and Clarke finally decided not to show actual ETs in "2001," because every design they came up with seemed improbable, ridiculous or anticlimactic.

“Kubrick would have cracked the ET if he'd had another year,” Steven Spielberg said in an interview after the premiere of his “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, with its alien being that was not improbable, ridiculous or anticlimactic.

“His whole fear was time. M-G-M was breathing down his back and he was right down to the wire with this big picture with all this money invested in it, and so he settled on suggesting the aliens as pure energy or intelligence.”

I asked Spielberg why he had decided to risk so much by showing an actual ET in “Close Encounters”.

“After a story of this kind, with the characters taking such a long journey to meet the UFOs,” he said, “I felt an obligation to provide a real payoff, to show what an alien entity might look like. It was the audience in me, saying, please, show me something.

“And the ET wasn't just a figment of our imaginations. The design went through many generations. There've been some­thing like 2,000 reported sightings of ETs around the world, and in an amazing majority of the cases the alien beings have been described in very similar terms. Our alien is based on those reports, compiled by Dr. J. Allen Hynek and the Center for UFO Studies in Evanston.”

Actual contact between humans and the ET is limited in the film, though, to more of a brief encounter than a close one. Spielberg says that's deliberate: “At first I wanted to indicate more than a physical exchange, but there's such a thing as crossing the boundary of reality. What we show can be accepted as real. If we'd gone much further, there was a danger of slipping into surrealism or just plain nonsense. I got what I wanted: Man's first contact with an extraterrestrial is formal, gentle, and a little strange.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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