Plot: When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) “encounter” a UFO, they travel to its landing site, Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Jillian is seeking her son, who disappeared with the alien ship, but Roy is strangely compelled to go in a way that is incomprehensible to him. Obsessed with recreating the monolithic Devil’s Tower out of shaving cream, the mashed potatoes on his dinner plate, and finally out of mud, in a massive sculpture that takes over the living room, Roy drives his family away.
Roy meets Jillian, also drawn to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. They find that they are not the only ones who feel they have been called there. French scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a top-secret U.S. government installation, and others feeling the same compulsion are there to meet the enormous spacecraft, which returns dozens of humans taken over decades (including Jillian’s son). Then the aliens leave the ship, and Roy joins the group boarding the ship in an intergalactic exchange program. In the reissue, which added some new scenes, we get a glimpse of the inside of the spacecraft.
Discussion: This is a thrilling adventure story and a brilliant example of the art and craft of movie making. The craft is in the way the story is told. It unfolds with extraordinary power, involving us as much in Roy’s inexplicable compulsion as in Jillian’s search for her son. The art is in the story itself, the idea not just that “something” is out there, but that it is something wonderful. Watch how Spielberg lets us know that the aliens are friendly. In one of several tributes to Disney, the interplay between the large and small spaceships has a fond, protective, almost maternal quality. This is a device Disney uses over and over, perhaps most memorably with the dancing mushrooms in “Fantasia.” And there is something very believable and compelling about the way that the aliens use music to communicate, and to teach the people on earth. They use art as well — Roy’s sculptures and Jillian’s drawings help the message to reach their conscious minds. Spielberg creates a sense of wonder not just in Jillian’s son Barry (Cary Guffey) but in the adult characters and in the viewers, making them children again, with the aliens as the “adults,” who reassuringly, look and behave like gentle children, giving us a sense of comfort.
Questions for Kids:
Why was music a good way for the aliens to communicate with the people on Earth?
What did the scientist mean when he said it was the first day of school?
What movie did Roy want his family to see? What does that tell you about him? How does that movie relate to this one? (Hint–listen for a familiar song.)
Do you think aliens will come to Earth? What will they be like?
What do you think would happen in a sequel to this movie?
Connections: Francois Truffaut was a distinguished French film critic and director (“The 400 Blows,” “Small Change”).
Activities: Kids can draw a picture of what they think the aliens’ planet looks like. Do they live in cities? What kinds of inventions do they have that we don’t have? Make a model or draw a picture of the planets in our solar system. Go the library or a museum to get information about space travel. Check out NASA on the World Wide Web at http://www.nasa.gov to get information about the next space mission. Or write to The SETI Institute, 2035 Landings Drive, Mountain View, CA 94043 for the latest research on UFOs and extraterrestrials.