Movie Mixtape: 6 Movies With Strange Connections To 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind'

(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what's in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: the re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, so it's being re-released into select theaters this weekend. If you're near one of the theaters, it offers a fantastic opportunity to see a movie worthy of the big screen as it was intended. If you're not, you can still load it up on your own personal medium screen and fill your living room with blinking lights and familial angst.

That's the brilliance of it, right? Like many Spielberg movies, Close Encounters delivers spectacle without relying on it. We get the big-think intrigue of the science fiction, and the thrill of making contact with aliens, but the heart of the story is the obsession that drives a wedge between Richard Dreyfuss's Roy and his family.

Above all else, there's a human cost to reaching for the stars.

So what should we watch with it?

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Probably known best today as the movie John Carpenter remade as The Thing, this classic alien invasion flick involves an extremely close encounter with a highly evolved plant that terrorizes an outpost at the North Pole. It's more straightforward creature feature than Carpenter's version of John Campbell's story "Who Goes There?", but that's not a knock on it at all. It's a thriller with a lot of appeal, typically lulling us into a state of calm with emotional monologues before reminding us there's still a terrible beastie out there trying to drain everyone's blood.

It also gave Spielberg one of the early working titles for his alien contact film, back when he was calling it Watch the Skies.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

It will never stop being cool that François Truffaut played a major role in Close Encounters. Deep into his career as a premiere voice of the French New Wave, here he was learning how to speak to extra-terrestrials for Steven Spielberg – the only time he acted in a film that he didn't direct. Obviously, Spielberg enjoyed working with him.

His Claude Lacombe is a delight, and his signing to the aliens at the end of the film is sheer joy. Utter bliss. You could watch Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women as a nod to Close Encounters because he wrote it during his down time between shots, but Fahrenheit 451 may be a more fitting candidate because it's the one time he really dipped his toe into science fiction. Naturally, he excised almost every sci-fi element from Ray Bradbury's novel while adapting it.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Not only is The Ten Commandments playing on a screen on Roy's house during Close Encounters, the two films share some thematic similarities. Both are about relatively relatable men whose captivation with powerful beings in the sky change their lives in radical ways. Both also reach a climax at a mountainous earthen structure.

The epic about Moses – from childhood to slavehood to leadership to death – is also a stirring mix of spectacle and humanity with a miraculous task at its center, and both films were blockbusters that became classics of their respective genres.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

The big finish of Close Encounters takes place at Devils Tower in Wyoming, which is an ideal spot for filming both sci-fi films and westerns. It's bizarre that more productions haven't used it (maybe they're afraid of being judged against Spielberg) because it's instantly recognizable and gives the scenery a kind of celestial gravitas. It's beautiful that the mothership lands in a wild, open, untamed place. Even in the midst of a galactic event, there's something deeply American about all of it.

Which takes us even further west, to Robert Altman's anti-western about a gambler (Warren Beatty) who opens a brothel with an opium addict (Julie Christie). Both McCabe and Mrs Miller and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (he won the Oscar for the latter, which was the only Oscar for Close Encounters out of 8 nominations). He had a particular gift for finding beauty in the small things – the contents of a glove compartment tipping upside down, the mud blanketing a crappy mining town – and for making wide open shots soar.

Pinocchio (1940)

Like a bolt out of the blue, there is a profound connection between Spielberg's work, the classic tale of a puppet who wants to be a real boy, and its most famous song.

In the movie, Roy is super jazzed that Pinocchio is playing at the theater even though his kids all vote to play Goofy Golf (I get it, kids). His personal journey – again, the human cost of reaching for the stars – involves moving from a state that resembles life to one that's vibrant and filled with men from outer space. He wants to truly come alive, which involves regressing to a mental position of childlike wonder. Instead of wishing upon a star, one swings by his truck and burns his face.

"When You Wish Upon a Star" also influenced Spielberg as he crafted Close Encounters, and he also originally closed the film with the Disney/Ukulele Ike version of the song before changing it to an orchestral version.

Arrival (2016)

Aliens land, and we try to communicate with them, but the person most invested in talking to them sees their family life change drastically as a result? I mean, come on. You can draw a direct line between Close Encounters and Arrival, not only narratively, but also because the Spielberg-aided revival in science fiction in the late 1970s, and his continued popularity as a filmmaker, made it possible for Denis Villeneuve's movie to exist.

Spielberg was part of a movement that proved sci-fi didn't have to be campy. It could be prestigious, sympathetic, and sincere. Arrival continues this.

close encounters of the third kind

The Mix

Spielberg clearly got way more direct with his Pinocchio story for A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which would make a solid double-feature with Close Encounters. You could also see his different treatments of alien invaders by pairing it with E.T. and War of the Worlds (which is underrated and explores the very human cost of tangoing with things from beyond the stars).

It's just too bad barely anything survived of his first featureFirelight, which he shot at age seventeen and ended up being a foundation for Close Encounters. It would really square the circle on a career spent hanging out with aliens.

This blend of films is more about vision and tone, but they're all about reaching for something beyond your grasp. Some are about surviving it.