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Close Encounters of the Third Kind at 40: The Movie That Proved ‘Spielberg’s Reputation Is No Accident’

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When Close Encounters of the Third Kind premiered in New York City on Nov. 15, 1977 — 40 years ago this Wednesday — filmmaker Steven Spielberg, though not yet 30, already had a reputation to uphold. His Jaws had been such a massive hit in 1975 that his new film would be judged on standards that hardly any movie could match. Given its UFO-centric subject matter, the 1977 success of Star Wars, which had cost about half as much as Close Encounters to make, only added to the pressure.

So it was no secret that extreme measures were taken to make sure the movie remained a surprise. The cast didn’t discuss the plot with the press, and the set was closely guarded.

Those moves paid off, as Frank Rich pointed out for TIME when the film was released, as “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.

But, as the TIME story explained, some of that secrecy about the plot wasn’t so much a matter of protecting a surprise as it was a matter of confusion. The now-classic film, which Spielberg identified by genre as an “adventure thriller,” follows several characters in their quests to achieve direct contact — the titular degree of close encounter — with extraterrestrials. But what exactly was going on in the story was opaque even to some of the movie’s stars. “I never really tried to figure out what my role meant,” said French director François Truffaut, whom Spielberg had cast in one of the roles. “I know I was there a lot, but like Greta Garbo, I can say only that I had the feeling of waiting.” (One group of fans, however, got the meaning perhaps a little too well, TIME later reported, as the movie contributed to a real-life increase in interest in UFOs.)

Still, perhaps it wasn’t necessary to see the deeper meaning of every plot point into order to get the message of the film, encouraging the openness required to hope for a meeting between beings.

“In Spielberg’s benign view, the confrontation between human and alien is an ecstatic evolutionary adventure, rather than a potentially lethal star war; it is a wondrous opportunity for man to be reborn,” Rich wrote. “When the earthlings and the visitors at last communicate in the film, bellowing ‘Hello’ to each other in bursts of light and music, it is like hearing a child speak for the first time — or, as one character explains, it is ‘the first day of school.'”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com