Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Okay, okay, now we believe.

Close encounters of the first kind:
Sighting of an unidentified flying object
Close encounters of the second kind:
Physical evidence of a UFO
Close encounters of the third kind:
Actual contact.

1977 theatrical trailer (taken from the work of J. Allen Hynek)

Bah bi bah bom baaaaaaa.

After a series of bizarre incidents where long-lost ships and aircraft begin reappearing in very unusual places around the world, a wide swath of the state of Indiana is buzzed by a very flashy troop of UFOs. One of the many witnesses to this flyby is power-company employee Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Following the event, Neary is inflicted with visions of a distinctive-looking mountain. His family life quickly falls apart, and he eventually learns that what he is seeing and obsessively sculpting is the rock formation Devil's Tower, Wyoming. He meets fellow witness Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) who is desperately seeking her young son Barry, who has been carried away by the UFOs. They attempt to reach the Tower, even as the US government, well aware of what is happening, concocts a biohazard scare and places a military cordon around the site...

This is a film directed by Steven Spielberg. The original version was released in 1977; a special director's cut was released in the nineties after Spielberg had proven he was a serious director (there had been Executive Meddling with the cut of the original). Finally, a definitive Director's Cut was released for the Thirtieth Anniversary in 2007, along with a new interview with Spielberg explaining the editing.

The title comes from the works of astronomer and ufologist J. Allen Hynek; a "close encounter of the third kind" being one in which the observer sees the aliens themselves as well as their craft. The promotional materials for the film recited his entire "Close Encounter" scale (see the page quote) without crediting him.

The original 1977 version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was added to the National Film Registry in 2007.

Tropes used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind include:
  • Alabama Doubling: Mobile, Alabama stands in for Muncie, Indiana. Additionally, nearby Bay Minette, Alabama stands in for Moorcroft, Wyoming. Some scenes were filmed at the real Devil's Tower, though the climax was, of course, filmed on a sound stage... an aircraft hangar in Mobile, Alabama.
  • Alien Abduction: The Movie.
  • Aliens in Cardiff Wyoming
  • Anti-Villain: Ronnie Neary is pretty bitchy and close-minded, but her only real goal is to do what's best for her family.
  • Artistic License Geography: Muncie, Indiana is over thirty minutes from the Ohio border. The longitude and latitude provided by the aliens actually refer to a spot which is a good 300 miles away from Devil's Tower. We could go on...
    • The coordinates in the movie are a good 200 miles or so away from Devil's Tower.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Mused about, probably jokingly.

Scientist 1: They haven't aged a day. Einstein was right.
Scientist 2: Einstein was probably one of them.

  • The Bermuda Triangle: There's a brief shot in the Special Edition of a ship is in the middle of the Gobi desert. It's supposed to be one of the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. The film opens with the discovery of the aircraft from Flight 19, a Navy aviation training exercise that disappeared out of Ft. Lauderdale.
  • Big Blackout
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: Invoked in the original theatrical cut, when a press conference is thrown into chaos by a grizzled, backwoodsy-looking guy at the back of the room standing up and saying, "I saw Bigfoot once!"
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Brainwashed: Neary et al. want to leave everyone and everything they've ever known, possibly never to return. See Hypno Ray and Values Dissonance.
    • Not really. Jillian is under the same effect, but is satisfied with just getting her son back and decides not to leave.
    • Roy's life was pretty much a mess even before the encounters.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: We never learn why the aliens abducted people and why they're returning them now. They are depicted as an entirely unknowable force who do things for reasons the human characters cannot begin to fathom.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live
  • Coincidental Broadcast: How Neary finally learns what it is he's been obsessing about.
  • Cymbal-Banging Monkey: Creepy as always.
  • Dawn of an Era: Probably.
  • Disappeared Dad: Bye, Roy.
    • Also, whoever Barry's father was.
  • Dramatic Alien VTOL: In fact Spielberg did a lot of help make this trope. The climax has the ship come in first, just as the bright lights at first with the shadow of the Flying Saucer shape eventually becoming clearer as the five notes we've heard through the movie comes through the score. It lands and then the ramp opens and again a crack of light and then the shadows of the aliens themselves, stamping the image of the Greys, in their first appearance on film, in our heads.
  • Dream Melody
  • Dream Sequence
  • Fake Rabies: Roy's brushing his teeth knowing his kids are behind him with a paddle and a Polaroid camera. When the kids whap him in the ass he whirls around with a mouth full of toothpaste froth and growls "ARRGH", and they get the perfect shot.
  • First Contact: Not the first movie to detail the first meeting between Humans and Aliens, but the one to codify it.
  • Flying Saucer: And beautiful ones at that; they look like ornaments covered in lights. And wait until you see the mother ship. Imagine a ship the size of a town decked out with neon Christmas lights.
    • Originally the mothership was supposed to be hugely impressive but a bit menacing. In fact, Trumbull was about to get all Freudian and have the underside of the ship resemble a giant breast. Then Spielberg, filming in India, drove six nights in a row past a gigantic oil refinery that was all lit up in a million colors, full of interesting antennae, walkways and pipes, and the "city of light" was born. Bless you, Bharat Petroleum. Thank you.
  • Government Conspiracy: You don't want to go to Wyoming. It's anthrax, or nerve gas, or something. Just turn your vehicle around, ma'am.
  • The Greys: The extraterrestrials were physically modeled after real-life accounts of alien abductions.
    • This is actually the first time "greys" were used in a film.
    • Also subverted, as Spielberg deliberately gave the Greys different heights, intending to show that their species had the same kind of diversity as ours. Most abduction accounts and subsequent fiction describe the Grays as all identical.
    • The aliens at the end were played all played by young girls, Spielberg felt that "girls move more gracefully than boys."
      • The initial tall alien was a marionette. It was impossible to completely film it without the strings showing except in the shots visible in the movie, which is why you only see it the once.
  • Hope Spot: After a family blowup over it, Neary decides to give up on his obsession. He takes down the UFO articles, and and in trying to dismantle the mountain statue he has, the dismantling makes it look like the real-world mountain it's supposed to. Next scene, he's chucking dirt into his house to make a bigger mountain.
  • Hypno Ray: How the Grays turn people into Mad Artists and then enthusiastic abductees.
  • Innocent Aliens?: Sure! Except for the Abducting and the Hypno Raying and all that.
  • Karma Houdini: It's never explicitly stated what sort of agreement -- if any -- the government had with the aliens, but the fact remains that they kidnapped people and children from their lives and families and returned them all, unaged, years later. Then these aliens are free to go. Although, realistically, there's really nothing humans could do to hold them back if they wanted to.
  • Mad Artists: Neary and his fellow volunteer/victims, each compelled to fill a Room Full of Crazy with artwork before they figure out Devil's Tower is a real place ... that now they have to go to.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: Neary's behavior is clearly deranged, though to be fair it's not his fault.
  • Mind Screw
  • Monumental View: There's no place like the landing pad within sight of Devil's Tower.
  • The Mothership
  • The Mountains of Illinois: Or Indiana.
  • Not Drawn to Scale
  • Novelization: Penned (apparently) by Spielberg himself. It is written fairly haphazardly.
  • Ominous Floating Spaceship: The alien mothership, at first.
  • Reconstruction: Of sci-fi alien movies. Except that the aliens that originally acted menacingly in the end turn out to be nice grey guys.
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Room Full of Crazy: In this case a mountain of mud in Neary's living room.
  • Rule of Cool: The reason why the mothership rises upward from behind the mountain in the finale, even though that would mean it had previously dug a hole into the Earth. Spielberg said in an interview that it didn't make any sense, but it was the image he wanted to convey.
  • The Runt At the End: The last UFO -- the little red blip -- in the flyby.
  • Saharan Shipwreck
  • Sanity Slippage: What happens after you get zapped by the Hypno Ray.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have a Nuke: The aliens abduct men, women and children in the 1940s then return them, unaged, 30-40 years later. This isn't exactly nice, but with that display of the mothership at the end no one really wants to pick a fight on the issue of earth's rights and jurisdiction in the matter.
  • Sensor Suspense: The air traffic control scene, where the aircraft (and possible UFOs) are represented not by blips as such, but by basic text and graphics on radar-like screens.
  • Shout-Out: The mothership has an R2D2 attached to its underside.
    • Among other things, including a mini graveyard and a VW van. The model, which is about the size of a large wedding cake, now resides in a glass case at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy center, an annex of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, located in Dulles, Virginia. Definitely worth a look if you're in the neighborhood.
  • Starfish Language: Near the end of the movie, the aliens communicate/signal with a series of tones that happens to be the same notes as the main Recurring Riff of the soundtrack.
    • The iconic leitmotif of five tones - 4d3,4e3,4c3,4c2,4g2 or D - E - C - lower octave C - G - sounds a lot like "hello".
  • Stay with the Aliens
  • Taking the Kids
  • The Teaser: The opening sequence at the Mexican junkyard where Lacombe's team discovers the missing planes of Flight 19.

Laughlin: Who flies crates like these anymore?
Project Leader: No one does. These planes were reported missing in 1945.
Laughlin: (stunned) But it looks brand new. Where's the pilot? I don't understand. Where's the crew? Hey! How the hell did it get here?

  • They Would Cut You Up: Averted. This Government Conspiracy just wants everything to stay normal. It knows better than to fuck with these Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.
  • This Loser Is You: Roy Neary's family life.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Neary believes that everything he's doing is reasonable, that the risks he takes and the rules he breaks are for heroic ends, and the film encourages the audience to agree with him.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: When it comes down to it in the end, there are no villains in this film. This is what made the movie such a refreshing take on alien contact in its time.
    • The aliens are strange and mysterious and do some ethically questionable things, but they aren't overtly hostile and give everything and everyone back.
    • The government creates a huge lie to clear Devil's Tower for the aliens to drop by, but you really can't blame them -- meeting a possibly dangerous, obviously superior alien race. They would want the area clear for privacy and to have an army ready in the background just in case the aliens came out shooting.
    • On a smaller scale, Ronnie Neary is a bit of a bitch, but you really can't blame her for being freaked out by Roy's crazy behavior and wanting to protect her kids. She does, however, put a little too much stake in the what-will-the-neighbors-think concern.