Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Given the cynicism and ugliness of the recent box-office hits The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Annabelle: Creation, and Wind River, the current rerelease of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) feels like a welcome breath of fresh air. Justly celebrated for its warmth and sincerity, Close Encounters shames most contemporary blockbusters for their lack of heart and imagination. The film envisions human contact with extraterrestrial life as a celebratory event; the characters’ efforts to understand the strange life-forms—through scientific inquiry, culture, and curiosity—represent the best of humankind. Close Encounters also reflects a globalist optimism, showing people from different countries working together to figure out how they might communicate with the alien visitors.

That’s not to say that Close Encounters is without a dark side. At the heart of the film is the disintegration of a middle-American family, which gets ripped apart by the patriarch’s consuming fascination with the extraterrestrials. Paul Schrader wrote the first draft of the screenplay, and while Spielberg changed so much of the script that Schrader took his name off the finished product, one can sense feelings of obsession and madness that are closer in spirit to Schrader’s work than Spielberg’s.

These feelings are most pronounced in the movie’s scariest extended sequence, where Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary runs around his property like a madman, destroying his neighbor’s chicken coop and emptying the contents (along with his own garbage) into his kitchen in order to construct the strange object that’s taken hold of his imagination. Spielberg works in long takes here, allowing Dreyfuss’s strange behavior to interrupt the narrative flow of the film—the character’s mental breakdown is palpable. Though Spielberg lays enough clues to suggest that Neary’s behavior will be rewarded with some revelation into the aliens’ mission, the scene is still frightening, since the character isn’t fully aware of why he’s acting as he does.

Spielberg has been sympathetic to horror movies throughout his career, not only with his own Duel and Jaws, but in his patronage of Tobe Hooper (whom he recruited to direct Poltergeist) and Joe Dante (whose Gremlins he helped to produce). Close Encounters plays a bit like an inverted horror film, drawing in viewers with evocations of the unknown but fulfilling their curiosity with wonderment rather than scares. This pattern is exemplified in some of the early scenes depicting the characters’ discovery of the alien presence on earth. Consider the passage that shows the little boy finding his toys have come to life by some unexplained energy force. Spielberg presents close-ups of the various toys moving on their own (a simple but effective way of intimating a supernatural presence), then brings the scene to a climax with an impressive light show in the sky.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Yet Neary’s breakdown gives the film its uncanny power. Spielberg introduces the character as a model husband and father who provides his kids room to play and shows enthusiasm over the prospect of taking them to see Pinocchio. His obsession with the lights in the sky and with constructing strange objects (based on a vision communicated to him by the extraterrestrials) seems to revert him to childhood, ignoring his wife and kids’ protestations and engaging in his pursuits with single-minded intensity. His family walks out on him because of his behavior, leaving him free to drive to Wyoming, where he believes he’ll find the structure he’s worked so hard to re-create. Neary’s westward journey and his ultimate discovery of the aliens accounts for the thrilling third act, but the memory of the family’s disintegration hangs over these passages. Neary might undergo a fantastic adventure, but one can never forget that he’s doing it alone.

Many, including Spielberg himself, have suggested that the director’s career-long fascination with broken families stems from his memories of his own parents’ divorce. His best films convey, with overwhelming feeling, a need for belonging and for the restoration of a family unit. This would explain why the scenes of Close Encounters depicting the break-up of Neary’s family are among the most intense in Spielberg’s filmography—they reflect a sense of personal trauma that runs deep in his psyche. Close Encounters attempts to resolve that trauma through the presence of Francois Truffaut’s paternal scientist (who allows Neary to bear witness to the international scientific community’s communication with the extraterrestrials) and in its feel-good finale, which finds Neary being accepted by the alien beings, whose childlike appearance evoke the missing children in his life. That Close Encounters succeeds in its uplift speaks to Spielberg’s considerable talent in reassuring viewers, not to any genuine resolution of Neary’s familial breakdown.

Spielberg would go on to deal with darker subject matter than what he explored in Close Encounters, including war (Saving Private Ryan), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), and terrorism (Munich). Yet few of his later films convey the personal investment of Close Encounters, whose optimism speaks to a desire to overcome the private horror at its core.