In 1977, a science-fiction/fantasy/action film written and directed by George Lucas, Star Wars, grabbed the pop culture zeitgeist like few films before or after. While I saw Star Wars several times that summer, another film held my imagination and interest until its November release date. The film in question? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg's follow-up to Jaws, the blockbuster adaptation of Peter Benchley's bestselling 1974 novel. Long production delays and massive overruns were quickly forgotten as Jaws became the all-time box-office leader, if only temporarily (Star Wars took the title two years later). Post-Jaws, Spielberg could pick any project to direct, ultimately deciding to return to a long gestating project that began with a screenplay written by Paul Schrader (Mishima, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) originally titled Watch the Skies (after the last line from 1951's The Thing from Another World).
J. Allen Hynek, a scientific consultant and advisor who worked with the Air Force advisor Project Blue Book, wrote a serious book on UFOs that sparked Spielberg's imagination (mine too). Hynek served as a consultant on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As thanks, Spielberg gave Hynek a cameo in the last scene (he's smoking a pipe). More importantly, Hynek developed the UFO classification system (i.e., first encounter: sighting of a UFO; second encounter: evidence of a UFO; third encounter: physical contact with aliens) that gave Spielberg the final title of his film. A decade earlier, Star Trek: The Original Series' mission statement explicitly called for visiting other worlds, not to conquer, but to explore. It was that message of hope and optimism that profoundly affected me at an early age.