Saturday, September 4, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg has said that if he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind today the ending would be completely different. After becoming a father himself, he could no longer conceive of a father leaving his family to embark on the great journey that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is about to take at the film’s end. But I think Spielberg’s mistake in such thinking is the presumption that everyone’s experience of fatherhood is identical to his own.

In a way Spielberg is selling himself short by making such an observation because Roy’s decision to leave on the alien ship doesn’t come about out of the blue. It has been a slow and steady crescendo of a decision from the very beginning. And not just from the moment when the aliens make contact for the first time. We see this in the first scene involving Roy and his family. He seems distracted and somehow disconnected from his family. From here, it just takes the tipping point of a close encounter to send Roy headlong into a maniacal quest for answers.

On some level this is a film about the artist’s obsessive pursuit of truth and meaning. The touch of the aliens affects only a select few, but those who have been touched (and I make this assertion in the knowledge that Spielberg really only gives us two clear examples – Roy and Jillian, played by Melinda Dillon) can’t let go of the idea that eats away at them. They both demand to understand what is happening. Roy all but has a breakdown to the point that he fills his kitchen with dirt and bricks to construct a sculpture of Devil’s Tower which will ultimately be the site of the historic meeting between aliens and humans. Jillian obsessively draws and paints pictures of Devil’s Tower.

Upon arriving at Devil’s Tower on the day of the ship’s landing, they meet several other people who have presumably been just as determined in their own pursuits. As UFO expert Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) points out to some government officials, these dedicated few have risked everything to get there on that day. He suggests there were others who didn’t have the courage to come. Moreover, only three escape from the helicopter that will ferry them far away and still only one makes it to the very end. Is there a clearer metaphor for the feeling of being an outsider that true geniuses feel? Or is Spielberg suggesting something about the agony of film making and the way it can become an obsession at the expense of your family, personal life and sanity?

However, the film is not only about Roy. It didn’t become a blockbuster hit on its initial release and induce a Special Edition re-release in 1980 off the strength of a character study. This was an astounding genre picture for its time. Despite the fact that Star Wars had been released six months earlier with stellar effects, Close Encounters held its own with an impressive array of tricks including the small UFOs that flitter about and some interesting mechanical tricks. But the piéce de résistance, of course, was the alien mother ship in the climax. And the effects still hold up today, 33 years later.

As an effects film, Close Encounters is tasteful. It doesn’t bask in the overuse of new technology. As an alien film it was and remains unique. As far as I can recall, there was no other alien film prior to Close Encounters, and I can’t think of one since, whose focus is on something other than fear and destruction. The aliens have no bad intentions. Nor are they cute and cuddly – depths which Spielberg would mine several years later with E.T. They have come, quite simply, to return some people they took many years earlier and take some new ones back with them. Think of all that humanity might learn from such a venture. Additionally, there is a complete lack of bureaucrats and officials concerned for the general welfare of the people. There is no trigger happy military man (so wonderfully parodied by Rod Steiger in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!) who wants to shoot first and ask questions later. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue in the whole film that even questions the intentions of the visitors. The assumption is one of benevolence.

Another thing I think Close Encounters gets absolutely right is its lack of expository explanations. When scientists find a man in the Mexico desert who appears sunburned on half his face, babbling about the sun coming out at night, we make the connection later when Roy is exposed to a blinding light from above and later turns up half sunburned. When the same scientists find a collection of WWII planes that went missing more than 30 years earlier, we don’t need anyone to explain where they went. Likewise with the big ship found in the middle of the Gobi Desert, nothing more is offered in the way of explanation save a throwaway line about it “really” being that ship.

Think about how this material would be handled by a modern Hollywood studio. It would be stripped of everything resembling intelligence and subtlety. And yet its box office result is a testament to the fact that it’s not necessary to pander to the lowest common denominator. It is possible to expect more from an audience, and yes, they will still turn up. It was somehow inevitable that last year’s District 9 was made outside Hollywood. The first really smart alien science fiction film in years could not have been made by a major studio. Yet even that film eventually devolved into an extended action spectacle.

Oh well! We’ll always have the classics.

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