event · August 16

Cinema Classics Seminar: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

By 1977, science fiction had arrived as a major creative force in American cinema, fueled by cutting-edge special effects and a seriousness of storytelling that celebrated the genre’s potential. That evolution in genre standing arguably began with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, but it was in 1977 that some of the best examples of the genre emerged as box-office smashes, critical darlings, Awards contenders, and zeitgeist changers.

Looming large in ’77, of course, was George Lucas’s Star Wars, but just as significant is Steven Spielberg’s more grounded effort, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Capitalizing on the UFO phenomenon of the early ’70s, Spielberg’s film embraces the off-screen mystery of its subject in a way that Hitchcock might have appreciated. At the same time, the film retains a humanizing focus on relatable characterization, best exemplified by the existential wanderlust of its protagonist, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), whose obsession after his own close encounter fuels a quest to confirm the existence of intelligent life beyond earth.

Yet, Close Encounters is decidedly earthbound and interested in the most ordinary among us, asking what we might really be willing to sacrifice to confirm that “we are not alone,” as the film’s tagline put it. With Dreyfuss backed by Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, François Truffaut, and the Oscar-nominated Melinda Dillon, the emphasis of Close Encounters is never really on the dazzling effects of its UFOs; rather, it focuses on a nuanced depiction of how firsthand confirmation that UFOs exist might impact the human psyche, beset on all sides as it is by a host of mundane worries very much of this earth. By presenting a scenario wherein ordinary people contend with both a secretive government and the skepticism of their peers, Close Encounters is that rare piece of thoughtful sci-fi speculation about alien life that proudly wears its workaday humanity on its sleeve.

We will be screening Spielberg’s 1998 “Director’s Cut” of the film, which made some interesting course corrections from his 1980 “Special Edition,” a topic we will explore in relation to the film. Join us to examine the achievement and legacy of a cinematic milestone.


Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010 US