In the Sonoran Desert, French scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), his American interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), and others investigate a group of Grumman TBM Avengers in the desert. They had disappeared on a training flight shortly after World War II in the Bermuda Triangle. The S.S. Cotopaxi, a ship that also disappeared there, suddenly appears in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Air traffic controllers in Indiana watch two airline flights narrowly avoid a mid-air collision with a UFO.
In Muncie, Indiana, three-year-old Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) wakes to find his toys operating noisily on their own. He is drawn outside and his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) chases after him, but he is drawn up to the sky. As power outages roll through the Midwest, electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent out to deal with them. A UFO flies low over his truck, tanning his face with its bright lights. Three of the vessels take off and police cars chase screaming after them.
Roy becomes obsessed with UFOs, scaring his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) by building detailed models of a mountain in his living room.Barry’s mother Jillian makes sketches of the same scene. Mass chanting in Northern India is discovered to be a set of geographical coordinates of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. People are drawn to the place in droves and the U.S. Army evacuates the area, planting false reports of a toxic spill, complete with dead cattle and sheep. Meanwhile, they are constructing a landing pad for UFOs at the base of the mountain.
Roy and Jillian see the mountain on TV, drop everything, and rush to Devil’s Tower. Most other people are apprehended by the Army, but they make their way through to the site just as the UFOs land. The government communicates with the aliens using musical tones. An enormous Mothership lands and disgorges abductees from all different times and places. Little Barry is re-united with his mother. The government decides to send Roy with a group of people invited to leave on the ship. Accompanied by tiny aliens, he steps aboard the vessel, which rises into the sky.
Richard Dreyfuss campaigned relentlessly for the role, making himself a pain in the ass to director Steven Spielberg until he got it. Truffaut played Claude Lacombe, modelled on real-life French UFO expert Jacques Vallée. Sometimes, it appears he’s not in the same movie as everybody else. It all began with a meteor shower that Spielberg watched with his father in New Jersey, as a child. After the success of Jaws, he got to make the movie any way he wanted. J. Allen Hynek, of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, was hired as a UFO consultant and he appears in the movie. The government wrote a 20-page letter to Spielberg, warning him that the movie was dangerous. That was all he needed.
Douglas Trumbull was head of Special Effects. The Mothership is now in the Smithsonian. The tiny extraterrestrials from the ship were played by six-year-old girls from Mobile, Alabama. There were only two puppets to deal with, including the tall, leggy one that Truffaut said good morning to every day. The music, of course, was by John Williams, who wrote the iconic five-note motif 300 different ways until it was approved. The song “When You Wish Upon a Star” is used to good advantage. There are, of course, various references to the Bible. It was Columbia Picture’s most successful film, and it saved the studio from bankruptcy. Of many editions, Spielberg calls the DVD Collector’s Edition the definitive edit. It was released in theatres again on Columbia’s 75th Anniversary and made another fortune. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and nine awards of the British Academy. It lost the Hugo to Star Wars.
Child actor Cary Guffey was given a T-shirt that said “One-Take Cary”. Spielberg edited the film to match John Williams’s score instead of the other way around. The scene near the beginning used real air-traffic controllers. The voice of the Mothership was tuba-player Jim Self. The man smoking a pipe at the landing site was J. Allen Hynek, Ufologist. Unable to decide what the Mothership should look like, Spielberg saw a gigantic refinery in India covered with lights and turned that upside down. Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia appears in the chanting scene in India. Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffmann, Gene Hackman, and Jack Nicholson were considered for Roy Neary. The basic plot came out of “Firelight”, a film that Spielberg made as an adolescent.
The locals at Devil’s Tower were unhappy the film was made there, but the next year they were happy to sell souvenirs of the movie, including models of the ships, and now the movie is shown every night at Devil’s Tower Campground. Thanks to a bet between them, George Lucas receives two and a half per cent of the profits on Close Encounters, and Spielberg receives two and a half per cent of the profit from Star Wars. These are pretty good aliens who have much to teach us, particularly about music it seems, though they did kidnap a lot of Earthlings and one wonders if they were experimented on.