At 27, Director Steven Spielberg took a routine fish-bites-man story and transformed it into a show business phenomenon. Jaws, a merciless attack on the audience's nerves, quickly established its creator as the reigning boy genius of American cinema and went on to pile up the largest box office take in the history of movies. Now 29, Spielberg is ready with his encore, an $18 million extravaganza about UFOs and aliens who come to earth in them called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If the director is nervous, it is hard to blame him: when the new film premieres in New York and Los Angeles, Spielberg will be judged by the standards he himself set with Jaws.
Spielberg must, in addition, contend with the comet trail of Star Wars, the summer sleeper directed by George Lucas that now threatens to surpass Jaws' $400 million worldwide gross. Close Encounters is also a science fiction film, and thus it will inevitably be compared to Star Wars. Since Spielberg's movie cost almost twice as much, Columbia Pictures, which financed Close Encounters, has gone to unusual lengths to protect its investment. From the outset, the film has been shrouded in secrecy to ensure that its suspense not be blown prior to release. Cast and crew have been forbidden to discuss the movie's contents in interviews. Security guards have watched over its sets round the clock, at one point assiduously ejecting even Spielberg when he showed up without his ID badge.
The secret turns out to have been worth keeping. Although the movie is not a sure blockbuster—it lacks the simplicity of effect that characterizes most alltime box office champs—it will certainly be a big enough hit to keep Columbia's stockholders happy. More important, Close Encounters offers proof, if any were needed, that Spielberg's reputation is no accident. His new movie is richer and more ambitious than Jaws, and it reaches the viewer at a far more profound level than Star Wars. The film is not perfect, but, like Stanley Kubrick's similar (if far chillier) 2001: A Space Odyssey, it uses science fiction thrills to seduce the audience into looking at the cosmos metaphysically. Close Encounters is, moreover, its creator's highly personal statement about mankind's next leap forward.
For Spielberg the film is a culmination of fantasies he has been nurturing since childhood. Always fascinated by UFOs, he still regrets missing a scout troop outing at which his friends claimed to have seen a blood-red orb looming in space. Firelight, a 2½-hr. amateur effort he made at 16, dealt with an invasion of monsters from another planet.