Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut
Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond), Special Achievement Award (Frank E. Warner, for sound effects editing)
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon), Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Joe Alves, Daniel A. Lomino, Phil Abramson), Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Don MacDougall, Gene S. Cantamessa), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn), Best Effects, Visual Effects (Roy Arbogast, Douglas Trumbull, Matthew Yuricich, Gregory Jein, Richard Yuricich), Best Music, Original Score (John Williams)
SUMMARY: In the Sonoran Desert, a group of scientists find a group of WWII-era planes from a squadron that went missing during the war. The planes are in pristine condition, but there is no sign of the pilots or other crew members. In a nearby village, the scientists find a man that claims that he saw a bright flash of light, followed by the appearance of the planes. In the Gobi Desert, a missing cargo ship is found, and near Indianapolis, two commercial planes nearly hit some unidentifiable object. Meanwhile, in Muncie, Indiana, a three-year-old boy named Barry Guiler wakes up when his toys start spontaneously moving. He gets out of bed to investigate: the toys also go into his mother, Jillian’s (Melinda Dillon) room and wake her up. She also gets up, and finds that Barry has gone outside the house and headed down the road. In town, residents experience a massive power outage; the electric company sends out a lineman named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to investigate. While stopped at an intersection, a UFO flies over his car, burning one side of his face with its extremely bright lights. Neary is fascinated, and follows the UFO (as do several policemen). Ultimately, the UFO flies away, and Roy returns home. He retrieves his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and three sons and returns to the spot, but the UFO does not return. Roy is convinced that what he saw was real, but Ronnie is more suspicious. These suspicions turn to fear and then anger over the next few days, as Roy becomes obsessed with UFOs. He also finds himself constantly drawing or modeling the shape of a rough upside-down cone. Unbeknownst to him, Jillian has also become preoccupied with this shape: she makes dozens of drawings of it. One evening while she is at home with Barry, the UFO returns and attacks the house. Jillian is terrified, but Barry is thrilled. He goes outside, and when Jillian follows, she finds that he has apparently been taken by the UFO.
In the meantime, scientists from the group in the Sonoran Desert, particularly Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) continue to investigate strange occurrences, including one in India. Witnesses to this event report hearing a five-tone melody: the scientists then begin sending the phrase back into space. They get a reply, but it is only a series of indecipherable numbers repeated over and over. Eventually, one of the men realizes that they indicate a latitude and longitude. When they trace the coordinates on a map, they correspond to Devils Tower, in Wyoming. The scientists believe that another UFO encounter will occur at this point in the near future, and in order to make sure that all civilians are evacuated, they spread a rumor that a train has spilled toxic nerve gas in the area. Back in Indiana, Ronnie has had enough of Roy’s antics, and packs up the children and leaves. Roy continues to work on a huge sculpture in his living room, until he sees a TV report on the Wyoming evacuation. During this report, Devils Tower is shown, and Roy realizes that it is the figure he has been constantly sculpting since the UFO encounter. Jillian also sees this broadcast, and independently of each other, both head for Wyoming. When they arrive, they find that many other people have done the same thing, and that all of them have been creating some kind of image of the tower since their UFO encounter. The Army tries to round the people up and send them home, but Roy, Jillian and another man manage to escape, and head towards the landmark. Roy and Jillian manage to avoid the (real, non-toxic) nerve gas attacks from the Army, who is trying to flush them out, and eventually make it to the secret base where Lacombe and the other scientists are. They watch as the UFOs reappear and seem to communicate with the scientists using the five-tone phrase and lights. Eventually, the UFOs leave, and a huge mothership appears out of the sky. It lands at the base and opens its doors. Dozens of people begin walking out, and when questioned, the scientists realize that these are the people who have disappeared in mysterious events over the years. They include the pilots from the WWII planes and the sailors from the ship found in the Gobi Desert — and Barry, who happily reunites with his mother. When Lacombe spots Roy and realizes who he is, he puts him in contact with another man, who outfits Roy to join a special group of civilian envoys (they have been selected to go onto the mothership). As this group of people walks toward the mothership, aliens finally emerge from the ship. They approach the envoys, and pull Roy from the others: they then lead him back into the ship, leaving the other envoys behind. Before leaving, one of the aliens turns back. Lacombe uses hand gestures to represent the five-tone melody: the alien repeats the gestures, smiles slightly, then returns to the ship, which takes off.
MY TAKE: I was not holding out a lot of hope for this movie, but that was before I realized it was directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s a pretty established fact that the man is a genius, and he has a good touch with an alien movie (he’s also responsible for E.T. ,which came out several years after this movie). Thus, I knew that the movie would not be either as ridiculous or as cheesy as I had anticipated. I turned out to be right: while it is a story about UFOs and aliens, it’s presented in a fairly realistic way. The actual appearance of the aliens is minimized, perhaps using a Jaws-era Spielberg trick: hiding the robots to disguise their obvious falseness, which also adds to the mystery of the movie. Up until the time they actually came out of the ship, I thought an attack was extremely possible, partly because of the musical score. Though this didn’t end up happening, I liked that I was unsure of things even as the big moment was playing out. I did have some questions about the plot, mostly about what prompted the aliens to land and release all their abducted humans, but the plot was thorough enough to keep me entertained. Perhaps because it has the same director, star and composer, the movie reminded me quite a bit of Jaws, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Yes, it’s an alien movie, but as far as they go, this is one of the better ones. It’s also held up very well over time, especially considering that it’s a science-fiction movie.
RATING: Not great, but interesting.