Bah bi bah bom baaaaaaa.After a series of bizarre incidents where long-lost ships and aircraft begin reappearing in very unusual places around the world, a wide swath of the state of Indiana is buzzed by a very flashy troupe of UFOs. One of the many witnesses to this flyby is power-company employee Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Following the event, Neary is inflicted with visions of a distinctive-looking mountain. His family life quickly falls apart, and he eventually learns that what he is seeing and obsessively sculpting is the rock formation Devil's Tower, Wyoming. He meets fellow witness Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) a mother desperately seeking her young son Barry, who has been carried away by the UFOs. They attempt to reach the Tower, even as the US government, well aware of what is happening, concocts a biohazard scare involving the derailment of a train carrying nerve gas and places a military cordon around the site...This is a film directed by Steven Spielberg. The original version was released in 1977; a "Special Edition" Re Cut was released in 1980 after Spielberg had proven he was a serious director. (There had been Executive Meddling with the cut of the original, though entirely justified as the studio was going bankrupt and production had to be hastened.) Spielberg re-edited the film yet again for a "Collector's Edition" in 1998. All three cuts were included in the film's Blu-ray release in 2007, along with a new interview with Spielberg explaining the editing.The title comes from UFOlogy, an encounter of the third kind being one in which the observer sees the aliens themselves as well as their craft.
Anti-Villain: Ronnie Neary is pretty bitchy and close-minded, but her only real goal is to do what's best for her family.
Also, the government investigators seem sinister and dangerous but they're trying to make First Contact without making things more complicated.
Appeal to Force: The aliens abduct men, women and children in the 1940s then return them, unaged, 30—40 years later. This isn't exactly nice, but with that display of the mothership at the end no one really wants to pick a fight on the issue of earth's rights and jurisdiction in the matter.
The Bermuda Triangle: There's a brief shot in the Special Edition of a ship is in the middle of the Gobi desert. It's supposed to be one of the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. The film opens with the discovery of Flight 19, a Navy aviation training exercise that disappeared out of Ft. Lauderdale.
Big Blackout: The UFO's presence causes Muncie and other cities in Indiana to go dark, along with temporarily disabling Roy's truck with an EMP-like effect when it Hypno Rays him.
Bittersweet Ending: Jillian gets her son back, but Neary leaves the Earth to go off into space.
Jillian is under the same effect, but is satisfied with just getting her son back and decides not to leave.
Roy's life was pretty much a mess even before the encounters.
Blue and Orange Morality: we never learn why the aliens abducted people and why they're returning them now. They are depicted as an entirely unknowable force who do things for reasons the human characters cannot begin to fathom.
California Doubling: Mobile, Alabama stands in for Muncie, Indiana. Additionally, nearby Bay Minette, Alabama stands in for Moorcroft, Wyoming. Some scenes were filmed at the real Devils Tower, though the climax was, of course, filmed on a sound stage... an aircraft hangar in Mobile, Alabama. The Ohio state line was filmed on the approach to the Vincent Thomas Bridge, in Long Beach California.
Dramatic Alien VTOL: In fact Spielberg did a lot of help make this trope. The climax has the ship come in first, just as the bright lights at first with the shadow of the Flying Saucer shape eventually becoming clearer as the five notes we've heard through the movie comes through the score. It lands and then the ramp opens and again a crack of light and then the shadows of the aliens themselves, stamping the image of the Greys, in their first appearance on film, in our heads.
Fake Rabies: Roy's brushing his teeth knowing his kids are behind him with a paddle and a Polaroid camera. When the kids whap him in the ass he whirls around with a mouth full of toothpaste froth and growls "ARRGH," and they get the perfect shot.
First Contact: Not the first movie to detail the first meeting between Humans and Aliens, but the one to codify it.
Flying Saucer: And beautiful ones at that; they look like ornaments covered in lights. And wait until you see the mother ship. Imagine a ship the size of a town decked out with neon Christmas lights.
Originally the mothership was supposed to be hugely impressive but a bit menacing. In fact, Trumbull was about to get all Freudian and have the underside of the ship resemble a giant breast. Then Spielberg, filming in India, drove six nights in a row past a gigantic oil refinery that was all lit up in a million colors, full of interesting antennae, walkways and pipes, and the "city of light" was born. Bless you, Bharat Petroleum. Thank you.
Forced Perspective: The shot of a ship sitting in the middle of the desert provides the photo illustration on the page. It wasn't really that big!
Foreshadowing: During the initial UFO chase, Barry and Jillian encounter a man sitting next to the road who is whistling "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain." During the final scene, of course, a mothership comes 'round a mountain.
Government Conspiracy: You don't want to go to Wyoming. It's anthrax, or nerve gas, or something. Just turn your vehicle around, ma'am.
The Greys: The extraterrestrials were physically modeled after real-life accounts of alien abductions. This is one of the first times they were actually used in cinema, the first been in 1956's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.
Also an Unbuilt Trope, as Spielberg deliberately gave the Grays different heights, intending to show that their species had the same kind of diversity as ours. Most abduction accounts and subsequent fiction describe the Grays as all identical.
The initial tall alien was a marionette. It was impossible to completely film it without the strings showing except in the shots visible in the movie, which is why you only see it the once. The other aliens at the end were played all played by young girls, Spielberg felt that "girls move more gracefully than boys."
Hollywood Geography: Muncie, Indiana is over thirty minutes from the Ohio border. The longitude and latitude provided by the aliens actually refer to a spot which is a good 200 miles away from Devil's Tower.
In his truck, Roy looks for Tolono on his map. Tolono is in central Illinois. The voices on his radio speak about activity at or near Harper Valley. There is no Harper Valley. The song is based on Harpeth Valley, Tennessee. However, Cornbread Road exists in Muncie. It's also the title of an on-again, off-again podcast radio series begun in 2011 by ham radio operator Jeff Davis (KE9V) about a secret society of hams in a little country town where all is not as it seems...
Karma Houdini: The aliens, who have spent at least 32 years (since the disappearance of Flight 19) kidnapping humans. Sure they brought them back, but why did they abduct them in the first place if they're supposedly friendly?
Southern Indiana is hilly and even has a few mountains (the Little Smokies), as it shades into the foothills of the Cumberland. Indiana would have been fine if Spielberg had chosen a town like Bean Blossom instead of Muncie.
Reconstruction of sci-fi alien movies. Except that the aliens that originally acted menacingly in the end turn out to be nice grey guys.
Re Cut: The 1980 Special Edition added an extended introduction to the Neary family, a UFO scanning a McDonalds billboard, another UFO passing over Roy on the highway after the tunnel, the wreck of the Cotopaxi in the Gobi desert, Roy's Shower of Angst, and the inside of the spaceship after Roy gets in. The billboard and spaceship interior shots were removed in the 1998 Director's Cut, which, conversely, restored some of the deleted scenes from the original theatrical version, including Jillian's arrival at the press conference, and Roy gathering the materials for his Room Full of Crazy.
Refusal of the Call: Neary tries hard to stop obsessing about his visions. Other people don't come to Devil's Tower. Most of the people that made it there meekly leave when the army scoops them up.
Among other things, including a mini graveyard and a VW van. The model, which is about the size of a large wedding cake, now resides in a glass case at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy center, an annex of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, located in Dulles, Virginia. Definitely worth a look if you're in the neighborhood.
A musical shout-out that borders on Actor Allusion: Briefly, during the Devils Tower musical sequence when contact is trying to be made with the alien ship, the Jaws theme can be heard briefly. John Williams wrote both soundtracks, and Richard Dreyfuss was in both CE3K and Jaws. invoked
Shower of Angst: Roy has this in one of the added scenes from the 1980 recut.
Starfish Language: Near the end of the movie, the aliens communicate/signal with a series of tones that happens to be the same notes as the main Recurring Riff of the soundtrack.
The iconic leitmotif of five tones — 4d3, 4e3, 4c3, 4c2, 4g2; or D, E, C, lower octave C, G — sounds a lot like "hello".
Surprise Vehicle: The "searchlight-bearing helicopter at night mistaken for a UFO" scene that would be copied by later TV shows. In fairness the helicopters first appear from over the horizon, so it's plausible the distinctive sound of their rotor blades might not be heard at that distance.
Through the Eyes of Madness: Neary believes that everything he's doing is reasonable, that the risks he takes and the rules he breaks are for heroic ends, and the film encourages the audience to agree with him.
Time Dilation: The reason why none of the abductees look any older when they return, including the pilots of Flight 19, who have been gone thirty years.
Scientist 1: They haven't aged a day. Einstein was right.
Villainy-Free Villain: When it comes down to it in the end, there are no villains in this film. This is what made the movie such a refreshing take on alien contact in its time.
The aliens are strange and mysterious and do some ethically questionable things, but they aren't overtly hostile and give everything and everyone back.
The government creates a huge lie to clear Devil's Tower for the aliens to drop by, but you really can't blame them - meeting a possibly dangerous, obviously superior alien race. They would want the area clear for privacy and to have an army ready in the background just in case the aliens came out shooting.
Or in case humans did. If one paranoid survivalist with a rifle started taking shots at the alien craft, they could start an interstellar war. It's very reasonable to want to make initial contract under controlled conditions.
On a smaller scale, Ronnie Neary is a bit of a bitch, but you really can't blame her for being freaked out by Roy's crazy behavior and wanting to protect her kids. She does, however, put a little too much stake in the what-will-the-neighbors-think concern.