Columbia Pictures badly needed a hit in 1977. The studio had yet to be taken over by the might of the Coca-Cola Company and had only a few recent financial successes. It had a critical smash with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in 1976, which was produced by the duo of Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips. They had won Best Picture for director George Roy Hill's The Sting in 1974 for Universal.

It would be those two that would bring another emerging directorial talents work to Columbia. Steven Spielberg had just had a massive financial success with Jaws, his third feature film, at Universal Pictures. It was during post-production of his second feature film, The Sugarland Express, in 1973 that Columbia had picked up a new science-fiction project Spielberg had been working on for a while. With the vast acclaim of Jaws, Spielberg would be given unprecedented complete creative control of what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind, also taking full screenplay credit for the picture -despite numerous other writers working on the project, including Taxi Driver's own Paul Schrader.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind would go on to critical acclaim and financial success -thus saving Columbia from the indignity of bankruptcy- and established Spielberg's artistic voice of childlike wonder and astonishing imagery for years to come. Like Star Wars -released the same year to even bigger financial rewards, the film has established iconic imagery that even those who haven't seen the film recognise. But what does it tell us about Spielberg and our relation to film as an art form?

The film began life as an early amateur feature that Spielberg had made called Firelight as a teenager. Entire sequences from this attempt at a full-length feature were lifted and incorporated into Close Encounters. It was an idea formed at a young age, during a meteor storm that the youthful Spielberg had witnessed.

From this and buoyed by the success and stresses of Jaws, and it's lengthy shoot, Spielberg started putting together the elements of Close Encounters. Working backwards from its iconic climactic sequence, the script was heavily influenced by the song 'When You Wish Upon a Star' from Walt Disney's adaptation of Pinocchio. Under the working title of Watch The Skies -which would later be referenced in the Joe Dante directed but Spielberg produced Gremlins (1984), as a film playing at a movie theatre- the film went into production in 1976. The film's final title would come from famous ufologist J.Allen Hynek, who had written a book called “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry” that detailed his three points of contact with UFO's. The First Kind: A sighting of one or more UFO's. The Second Kind: Observation of physical evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. The Third Kind: Contact with one or more extra-terrestrials.

Casting wise, Richard Dreyfuss got wind of what Spielberg was up to as his next project during the shooting of Jaws and campaigned to play the lead role of Roy Neary. Spielberg later conceded that Dreyfuss was perfect for the character as he was "a bigger child than his own children" which perfectly fit with Roy's descent into total obsession with the imagery he sees after his close encounter. One of Spielberg's great celluloid heroes, François Truffaut, plays the role of Lacombe, the French scientist entrusted with extra-terrestrial activities in the United States. Truffaut was ably supported by a young Bob Balaban as his interpreter and by sparse appearances from Lance Henriksen. The crucial roles of a mother called Jillian and her young son Barry are portrayed by Melinda Dillon and Gary Guffey. More so than Neary's own family unit -a post-Young Frankenstein Teri Garr portrayed Ronnie Neary, Roy's wife- these two would act as kindred spirits for Roy's journey in the film.

The journey Roy takes is fascinating and there are numerous interpretations one could read into it. The concept of him being obsessed and plagued by visions of what would eventually be Devil's Tower- the point of contact for the extra-terrestrial life-forms- is one almost of religious enlightenment. Roy is given the clues by an other-worldly force and is possessed enough to follow this whim, to the complete detriment and abandonment of his family unit and earthly responsibilities. Spielberg has since admitted -not being a father at the time of creating this picture- that he regrets the way that Roy takes himself away from his family. But in a spiritualist reading of the events, with him ascending to another world or reality at the end, is there any other way it could have happened? Similarly, Jillian is led to Devil's Tower after the abduction of her son Barry, via perhaps the film's most iconic sequence where bathed in bright light and the possession of a variety of household appliances, he opens the door to them. She is plagued by the exact same visions. The breath-taking cinematography of Close Encounters would win cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond an Oscar and it's likely that this sequence was at the forefront of voters' minds.

There is the nature of these visions too. When Roy starts to have them, he initially draws them. This quickly expands to creating models out of his children's train sets and his food until, in the last straw for his confused and terrified family, he erratically starts taking elements of the outside world in to build Devil's Tower. Shovels full of dirt and fences are thrown in through the window. He himself is almost about to give in when, either in a coincidence or divine intervention, he sees the location on television as a decoy story the government are running to protect their own investigation, which has also led to Devil's Tower. When he begins his journey there are others alongside him trying to reach the Tower, who are also compelled to be there. Some have had an audible communication from the life-forms. This five note communication would go on to become another iconic element and was composed by John Williams, two films into his collaboration with Spielberg which continues to this day.

Another interpretation is one of film making itself. Is making a film not a series of visual ideas that require drawing or constructing before being let loose in reality? Was Spielberg reflecting on the whole creative process? It's an interesting thought.

The idea of the participants in the event being challenged and exerting themselves to be there creates a great tension in proceedings that is then magically lifted with the arrival of the mothership. Infamously, Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn have reflected that the last 35 minutes of this film were the hardest they have ever had to cut together and Spielberg was not satisfied with his final cut upon its release in November 1977 -Columbia's financial woes leading to pressure for getting the film out there. Kahn would go on to edit every film Spielberg has directed since.

The sequence concludes with Neary stepping onto the mothership and disappearing off into space with it, beginning a new life. With the release of the special edition in 1980, thanks to the massive box office success of the picture, audiences got a glimpse inside that mothership. Spielberg's dissatisfaction with the original cut leading Columbia to let him add some sequences in, as long as they had something massive to promote a re-release with -hence the addition of that moment. He has since admitted to regretting adding it, believing it to be the province of the audience's imagination as to what the interior should look like. It's telling that for the 1998 Collector's edition version of the movie, he kept most of the other changes and excised that sequence leading to his definitive directors cut.

With its financial success, the picture kept Columbia from going under, but more importantly it firmly established Steven Spielberg's cinematic manifesto. More so than Jaws, this is the escapist child-eyed imagery that would later be complemented by E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial and Jurassic Park. The eyes of a dreamer who could express his heartfelt emotions via dazzling effects sequences and technically superior compositions. Forty years on from it's theatrical release –let's not forget, in the same year as George Lucas's Star Wars, which gave us a completely different science-fiction story to be dazzled with- the film retains all of its power and despite the protesting of its inaugurator, is as near perfect and as cerebral as some of the greatest of science-fiction classics.