Star Wars Close Encounters of the Third Kind

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired, or help us better understand, George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

If you were standing at a bookie’s office in January of 1977 and were going to put money on which was going to be the bigger film, Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where would you put your money? If you’re George Lucas, you put your money on Close Encounters. Steven Spielberg definitely seems like the sure bet. His films have a better, longer track record and Lucas was coming up with his Junior effort that no one really believed in.

It was on the set of Close Encounters that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made exactly this bet. Lucas was convinced Star Wars would bomb and Close Encounters would be the bigger hit at the box office and, as the story goes, Lucas wagered 2.5% of the box office receipts against 2.5% of Spielberg’s film. Close Encounters was huge, but Star Wars was astronomically bigger. If the bet was paid out, it’s estimated it could have cost Lucas upwards of $40 million.

Close Encounters

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a 1977 film directed by Steven Spielberg about Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, a frustrated line worker who brushes against something incredible. His encounter of the third kind drives him mad and sends him on a quest across the country to see the alien visitors he witnessed return and to find out what it all means. It’s an intense film, well-made and deserving of its status as a classic.

But how does it tie to Star Wars?

Perhaps the most obvious tie between the world of Close Encounters and the galaxy of Star Wars is the music of John Williams. The maestro offered some of his most iconic themes to both films, and it certainly paid off. Williams was nominated for Academy Awards in 1978 for both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and ended up winning for Star Wars. In fact, in every category where Close Encounters went up against Star Wars that year, Star Wars won, but that’s not to say that Close Encounters isn’t as good. It’s a phenomenal film on many levels.

Attack of the Cloners

By the end of the Close Encounters, we’re treated to a view of the aliens who populate the galaxy and are ready to take Roy into outer space. They look suspiciously like the Kaminoans seen in both Attack of the Clones and The Clone Wars. In the book “Mythmaking: Behind the Scenes of Attack of the Clones,” George Lucas admitted that the Kaminoans were “a very deliberate nod to the classic aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

It’s not the last time Close Encounters of the Third Kind would creep its way into Star Wars. According to the official Star Wars: The Clone Wars Facebook page, the opening sequence of “The Lost One” is a direct reference to the opening sequence of Close Encounters. In the film, Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) approach a puzzle in the midst of the sandstorm. Airplanes missing since World War II have appeared on a desert runway without their pilots. Where did they come from? How did they get there? This is the mystery that sends characters on a quest of discovery and the same is true for this particular arc of The Clone Wars. “The Lost One” kicks off a journey of mystery for Master Yoda, but it begins just like in Close Encounters. Clones, in the midst of a sandstorm find a lost forgotten ship, but inside they find the lightsaber of Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas.

This is curious for a number of reasons. Sifo-Dyas, you’ll remember, is the Jedi who ordered the Clone Army in the first place. In the movies, he’s something of a cypher, a name mentioned in passing, a mystery never solved. This Close Encounters-influenced series gives us a window into his last days and reveals more information about one of the greatest mysteries in the Star Wars universe.

Instinctive Journey

Just as Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary is driven by a feeling he can’t understand to end up in outer space, so too does Master Yoda go on a spiritual journey across the cosmos. While the famous object of obsession in Close Encounters is the iconic Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, in The Clone Wars it turns out to be Dagobah, and then Moraband, the ancient home of the Sith.

Driven by a sense of instinct that can only be found by trusting things beyond your conscious self, Yoda searches for meaning in the stars and finds the path to immortality. His Neary-like journey is what gives him the knowledge he refers to at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Where Roy Neary finds aliens willing him to whisk him into the cosmos, Yoda finds the consciousness of Qui-Gon Jinn, who rearranges his way of thinking completely.

A Classic

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a brilliant film. For a movie that seems so loose, it’s tightly paced and the theme winds through even the small details of the film beautifully. There are few things more exciting than watching Spielberg in the prime of his youth directing such an exciting motion picture. If you haven’t already seen it, I would suggest that this film would be mandatory viewing for fans of cinema. For those interested in doing an extra step of homework after watching the film, I would read Bob Balaban’s book about the making of Close Encounters, “Spielberg, Truffaut & Me.” George Lucas even has a cameo in that book that is definitely worth your time.

Availability: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and is available to rent on most streaming platforms for a modest rental fee.

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