When I look back on my childhood, several movies stand out: the Indiana Jones trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy, E.T., The Princess Bride, and several others. But among them is also Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It hovered there in the peripheral, just out of sight and like a little itch I couldn’t quite reach.
I had this vision of someone using potatoes to make a mountain, maybe a hazy remembrance of a mountain made out of mud. But that was about it. That was all I had.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager and trying to describe this movie that I found out what it was. “I only have a few details,” I said, “so you probably won’t be able to figure it out.” As soon as I mentioned the mountain being made from potatoes and then one made out of mud or clay, he knew. And of course anyone who’s seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind would know the movie as soon as I gave those details. It’s a pretty significant plot point.
I re-watched it a few years ago and got blown away. I’d loved the music for years thanks to a CD my brother had given me, but the actual movie instantly rocketed to one of my favorites. It’s one of Steven Spielberg’s earlier movies, but it showcases many of his strengths: amazing soundtrack (thanks to John Williams), a well-told story, vivid characterizations, solid casting, and a veritable visual feast for the eyes.
Who hasn’t wondered what’s out in space or if we live alone on this earth? And if we’re not alone, what are the other inhabitants of this vast universe like? Are they like us? Do they have the same curiosity so many of us do? Have they tried to explore the unknown?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind touches on those questions, but from the point of view of a handful of people who had experiences with flying saucers, as well as telling a parallel story of the government trying to reach out, yet keep its encounter a secret from ordinary citizens.
A father, a single mom, and a little boy are the primary characters visited by the aliens, though the movie hints that there were dozens, if not hundreds more who had a brush with extraterrestrial life. The father, Roy, and the mom, Ronnie, come together in search of answers. He sculpts, she paints, and they keep hearing the same song repeatedly. Five notes repeated endlessly.
Ronnie’s little boy wanders off and gets taken by these creatures, so she and Roy set off to find both him and these others from another world. Roy’s wife thinks he’s gone crazy and his kids don’t know how to react (this is one of my favorite parts as Roy is sculpting this mountain and his son sits at the table, tears running down his cheeks, scared and confused; it’s a tiny moment, but in the hands of Spielberg, it’s incredibly powerful in showing how deep Roy’s obsession runs) and Ronnie’s walls are littered with multiple pictures of this mountain.
They embark on a journey to find this mountain and to find the answers to their questions, and above all (for Ronnie) to find her son Barry.
It’s best to know very little going into the mountaintop scene, but Spielberg delivers. Though the ending may not be surprising, it will dazzle and delight the viewer. The movie itself is a bit of a slow burn, but that makes the ending even more beautiful.
And as I sit here typing this, the song runs through my head. The climax of the movie takes that music and turns it on its head, making it more magnificent that any of the human characters could have dreamed. This movie gives the promise of extraterrestrial life and answering a few questions. What do they want? Are they like us? Is there any way we can know more about them?
I’m so glad this movie got made almost 40 years ago. The visual hold up (mostly) and the storyline is perfection. I believed in all the characters and rooted for them. It’s no wonder that Close Encounters of the Third Kind still holds the distinction of one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. Have you seen it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carol Starkley lives with her husband, three daughters, and numerous pets. She likes to read, write, bake, and dabble with the clarinet. She also infrequently blogs.