Joe’s review published on Letterboxd:
Maybe the greatest example I can imagine of spoiler-proof storytelling - the mystery of the plot is right there in the title (not to mention the cultural osmosis the movie has achieved by this point), but the fun and magic is in watching it expertly unfold.
Even more so than the other collaborations between Spielberg and Williams, this is Williams' movie, but in a completely different way than ET or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here, the music doesn't drive the plot, but in some ways it IS the plot, as the visitors' attempt to communicate with us through suspiciously orchestral-sounding tones. But again, this isn't a plot-driven movie the way most big scifi blockbusters are, it's about observing the characters and luxuriating in the palpable sense of awe. That narrative structure here is much different from the blockbuster template - it's more novelistic in nature, bouncing from one corner of the globe to the next before patiently bringing all these disparate people touched by alien encounters together.
Spielberg's too-rarely-cited mastery of naturalism in his early (I'll say pre-ET although maybe you can see it later than that) is probably at its peak here, with so much overlapping dialogue in a variety of settings - military, scientific, and domestic. The feeling of living in a small suburban home with too many kids and too much clutter is captured so well that at one point it occurred to me that maybe Richard Dreyfuss only gets on the spaceship so he can have a little bit of peace and quiet.
Watching that climax on the big screen I was struck by how emotionally effective it is compared to other purely effects-driven sequences - it's a cliche to say that pre-CGI visual effects are more tactile or real, but there is unarguably something special at work here that could never be accomplished with computers. It means something, it's important.