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Encounters at the end of our world

40 years later, ‘Close Encounters’ still amazes

Steven Spielberg filming “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi counterpart to “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is back in theaters, enjoying a stellar 4K restoration in celebration of its 40th anniversary.

Brought to life by the groundbreaking FX gurus at his buddy George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, “Close Encounters” was—and still is— defined in part by its awe-inspiring, iconic visual set pieces, though it’s the human drama at its heart that fuels its ominous sincerity.       

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a family man from Indiana, an electrician who is shocked into a new reality when he has an encounter with a UFO. Becoming obsessed with conical shapes in his mashed potatoes, he winds up befriending Jillian (Melinda Dillion) a hippy-dippy single mom whose son has been kidnapped by the same inscrutable extraterrestrials.

Together they go on a quasi-spiritual journey, driven by their nagging faith in something bigger than themselves. That, and Jillian wants her kid back.

It was Spielberg’s first feature as writer and director, something he wouldn’t do again until his other friend, Stanley Kubrick died, inspiring him to write and direct “A.I.” Unless you count him as the uncredited director of “Poltergeist.” Which you should.

Though he was barely 30 years old, the film exhibits a fully formed, almost preternatural confidence. He’d moved past the adventure of “Jaws” and into his own distinct style, married with Euro influence—long takes and often noir lighting lending depth to many of the film’s most captivating, quietest scenes (courtesy of master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond).

His dialogue, often with characters overlapping each other in tense situations, recalls the naturalism of Robert Altman. The casting of François Truffaut, legend of the French New Wave, an obvious fanboy dream. The great performances given by Dreyfuss, Garr, and Dillion (in addition to the adorable Truffaut and Bob Balaban) are just as attractive as the gloriously handcrafted visuals—Roy and Ronnie’s marriage dissolves with the literary frankness of a Neil Simon play; his journey with Jillian becomes a tender elegy.

That Spielberg and Lucas helped seal the fate of the American New Wave which birthed them—with combo punches of pure spectacle and Hollywood optimism—remains a supreme irony.

Brimming with a sense of wonder, epically rendered on the big screen with its textural, Kodak 70mm film grain intact, “Close Encounters” still inspires awe. And some sadness. Because now, 40 years later—when Nazis still inexplicably exist—Spielberg’s aspirations for the benevolence of humanity remain an unfulfilled dream.

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