Touchdown! The Flagship Arrives for 'Close Encounters'

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 1977

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the extraordinary new science-fiction fantasy created by Steven Spielberg, begins as a kind of "Jaws" from the heavens, provoking a considerable amount of thrilling anxiety about the appearance of Unidentified Flying Objects. It must weather some bummy mid-passage exposition, but the movie survive its flaws triumphantly, evolving into a uniquely transporting filmgoing spectacle.

Spielberg, prodigiously gifted and resourceful, has contrived to bestow a dazzling benediction on fellow star-gazers. He transforms the ongoing, somewhat forlorn mystery of UFOs into a transcendent fairy tale vision of intergalactic communion and fraternity.

An exciting and beguiling act of creative wish fulfillment. "Close Encounters" depicts a sequence of events culminating in authenticated, face-to-face contact between human beings and humanoid extraterrestrials. During the brilliantly sustained finale which documents this contact. Speilberg puts on an enchanting magic show, springing one sensuous and sentimental highlight after another.

There are poignant homecomings and departures, a stunning display of flying ability and aerodynamic technology from a versatile fleet of spaceships, and a giddy jam session between a color-coded moog synthesizer operated by the hosts and a blaring, glittering space leviathan, the majestic flagship of the visitors. It's as if Spielberg had synthesized his favorite things about planetarium shows, air shows, half-time ceremonies. Helloween, Christmas and classical, jazz and pop concerts into a single gala entertainment.

"Close Encounter" ends up on a crescendo of pictorially awesome, sentimentally reassuring affirmation. When that incredible flagship sails away, audiences are meant to savor the illusion that they must be going to heaven on the wings of the snazzies advanced technology in the universe.

Some movies generate a keener sense of anticipation than others. Being keenly anticipated also creates the hazard of proving an acute disappointment. Exposed to an excess of hearsay from people who claimed to have seen the film in whole or part. I began getting rumor shakes. The climax came one night when I dreamed that I attended two previews of "Close Encounters," one a triumph and the other a disaster.

Later I discovered that several equally anxious, movie-demened friends had conjured up the same dream. After seeing the picture itself, peace of mind returned. "Close Encounters" wasn't the perfect, ultimate spectacle we may have secretly longed for, but that was more our problem than Spielberg's failing. It was still a fascinating, stirring flight of fancy, destined to linger in the memory and occupy a special and perhaps influential place in the history of the S.F. genre.

Spielberg's visual flair and youthful gusto have appealed to me from the opening shot of "The Sugarland Express." There's no point in pretending to feel impartial about his work. I look forward to it, and I would hate to see him blow a big one. From the outset Spielberg has seemed the most energetic, convivial and visually inventive of our young filmmakers. On the eve of his 30th birthday he has now completed four features, counting the television thriller "Duel," that must make him the envy and inspiration of every movie-loving, movie savvy kid in the country.

Hovering Humor

Spielberg has constructed the story as a suspense thriller in which parallel sets of UFO seekers race toward a climatic confrontation. An expedition led by a French scientist named Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut, arrives at a desert location in Mexico. While shouting through a raging sandstorm, Lacombe and his colleagues discover and test a squadron of torpedo bombers that vanished 30 years earlier.

The planes are in perfect condition. A stunned old man who may have witnessed the mysterious return claims that "the sun came out and sang to me," Like the remark "You're gonna need a bigger boat" in "Jaws," the old man's apparently crazed statement proves to be sensible.

The scene shifts to Indianapolis, where air traffic controllers monitor a near collision between a passenger plane and a UFO on their radar screens. At a country house outside Muncie a little boy named Barry Guiler (played by a winsome 4-year-old, Cary Guffey) is awakened by a warm breeze and a flurry of activity among his mechanical toys. His mother Jilliam (Melinda Dillon) gets up to find toys running amuck and her child gleefully running away.

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© 1977 The Washington Post Company