'Close Encounters of the Third Kind': How Spielberg's sci-fi classic launched R2-D2's cameo career 40 years ago

Marcus Errico
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Forty years ago, on Nov. 16, 1977, Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind touched down in theaters. While not as well-remembered as the filmmaker’s subsequent aliens-on-Earth all-timer, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters remains a sci-fi classic on its own merits, with a touching story of lost-and-found souls, state-of-the-art effects, and a typically spectacular John Williams score. Close Encounters also is responsible for launching one of Hollywood most enduring side careers — R2-D2 as the king of cameos.

Months before Close Encounters invaded cinemas, Star Wars had solidified itself as a bona fide phenomenon. George Lucas‘s space opera, which opened in May 1977, dominated pop-culture discourse, and one of its breakouts was the trash-bin-shaped astromech R2-D2. Spielberg and Lucas were best friends, and Spielberg trusted the VFX of his movie to the wizards at Lucasfilm’s in-house effects team, Industrial Lights & Magic.

R2-D2’s big moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

As an Easter egg, the droid was affixed to the bottom of the alien mother ship in Close Encounters. Spielberg’s camera briefly captured the inverted Artoo during the film’s climax.

Model of the mother ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

(Fans who make the pilgrimage to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center can view the model and its intricate details, including the astromech, a TIE fighter, a Jaws-like shark, a mailbox, and a miniature cemetery.)

R2-D2 detail from mother ship. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

From there, Artoo’s hidden adventures have continued for four decades and counting, notably appearing (with C-3PO) as hieroglyphs in the Lucas-Spielberg joint Raiders of the Lost Ark, built into the pirate ship for The Goonies (although he didn’t get any screen time in that Spielberg-produced film), and as space debris in Michael Bay’s Transformers (another Spielberg production). Star Wars fanboy J.J. Abrams, an acolyte of Spielberg, included Artoo in all his movies, from Super 8 to Mission: Impossible III to both his Star Treks, before the director finally got to play with the real-deal robot in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So on this 40th anniversary of Close Encounters, let’s take a look back at all of R2-D2’s secret adventures in the video above.

Watch the trailer for the 40th anniversary release of Close Encounters:

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