Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
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Kirk Baird

CULTURE SHOCK

The legacy of 'Close Encounters' strong 40 years later

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1977 gave us two movies about speeding truckers and police (Smokey and the Bandit, The Great Smokey Roadblock); the Bad News Bears sequel no one wanted, and another Peter Benchley ocean drama minus the great white shark (The Deep).

More notably, 1977 gave us two of the most important and best science fiction films in cinema history: Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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For the sake of this column, I’m referring to both films as science fiction, even though Star Wars is clearly an operatic space fantasy.

Admittedly, the comparison is not entirely fair or accurate. In 1977, however, there wasn’t such a clear distinction; if a movie had aliens and spaceships it was science fiction.

Though there are certainly similarities.

Both films feature everyman heroes experiencing revelations and awakenings that usher them into personal journeys of discovery, along with lavish special effects, genuine drama and emotion, lots of heart, and iconic musical themes by John Williams (which were even remade as disco singles).

Star Wars and Close Encounters were also passion projects of their respective directors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who wrote the screenplays with uncredited help from friends and others in Hollywood, and novel adaptations with ghostwriters (Alan Dean Foster, Star Wars; Leslie Waller, Close Encounters).

Each young director was coming off of a blockbuster (Lucas, American Graffiti; Spielberg, Jaws) with something to prove. Expectations for Star Wars was that it would flop. But Columbia Pictures, in desperate need of a hit, pushed Spielberg to release his film in time for the holiday season. (Because of the rush to meet the deadline, the filmmaker wasn’t entirely happy with the version audiences saw in theaters that year, hence the director’s cut released in 1980 as Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition.)

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Close Encounters would become a huge hit — but not the box-office beast that was Star Wars, which generated lines and ticket sales unlike any film before it.

And that was and is to the detriment of Close Encounters, the brainier and arguably riskier film of the pair, as it defied genre conventions concerning the Earthly arrival of extra-terrestrials: perhaps aliens were not really monsters wanting to eat humans, subdue and enslave us, or eradicate us entirely. 

Star Wars would change Hollywood and popular culture. And so would Close Encounters, albeit in a more subtle way. Does it matter that Close Encounters wasn’t the box-office champion of 1977?

Apparently so.

Even four decades later, the disparity in ticket sales is evident through the recognition of each film’s 40th birthday:

Star Wars received a huge marketing and merchandising push, while a remastered 4K director’s cut of Close Encounters was quietly released today for a special one-week, nationwide engagement, including showings in the XD auditoriums at Rave’s Franklin Park 16 and Fallen Timbers 14 theaters.

I vividly remember watching both of these movies for the first time in the theater as a young boy. Each film had a profound impact on me: Star Wars expanded my imagination and Close Encounters opened my mind. They changed me in ways I didn’t fully perceive and appreciate until decades later. That’s what great cinema does, what great art does. It makes you laugh, cry, jeer, cheer, and think.

After watching Close Encounters recently at home, I can also say that 40 years after the film’s release, the only thing that’s aged is me.

So watch the skies. And watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the big screen while you have the chance.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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