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Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, 1977, 135 min.

Steven Spielberg has had a career filled with unparalleled successes, and he has also had great influence on the field of science fiction. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was his first science fiction outing, followed by E.T., another high point in his career. Lately he has returned to the genre, with the mixed result of the dull AI and the fascinating but overlong Minority Report. If in fact there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and that life does decide to contact us, we will know at that point whether the Spielbergian legacy of Close Encounters and E.T. has misled us. And if this film is not about aliens at all, and only about humanity and human tendencies, then the theme here is still as profound.

The main themes of Close Encounters, and the mysterious tone of the movie, are set up in the opening scene. We are in a desert in Mexico, and a group of investigators arrive; they are trying to speak Spanish, and also interpreting for Lacombe, a French investigator who seems important, so the process of communication is immediately foregrounded. Some American planes have shown up in the desert and they look brand new, even though they are from a flight that disappeared right after WWII. This vignette is one of several that show up in the story, more of the mystery and the investigation than the human side of the story. Later in the movie, this team of investigators looks at a tanker ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert and at a group of people in Dharmsala, India who have heard some strange tones from the sky. This team is the official face of the movie, and the head of the team is not a military type but the friendly Lacombe (played by Francois Truffaut, and I'll be discussing his role at length later in this review).

After the opening scene, the movie moves to Indiana. Air traffic control reports a near miss but the pilots don't want to call it a UFO. In an isolated farmhouse, a little boy (we later find out he is named Barry) wakes up in his room because all of his electronic devices have started on their own. Meanwhile, an everyman named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family are having a typical night, arguing about what to do. There's a power outage, and Roy's job as a linesman means he has to go out to help fix it. While on the road, Roy has a close encounter and he chases the glowing object. He nearly runs over Barry, who is in the middle of the road. Three ships and then a glowing dot come up the road; when the lights come back on, Roy has a sunburn on one side of his face. He drives home to wake up his family, but they don't find anything. His subsequent talk about the UFO, and his strange behaviour, lead to talk in his town and the loss of his job.

Meanwhile, the investigators have found a signal that seems similar to the singing found in India; they decipher the signal and find out that it is a longitude and latitude somewhere in Wyoming. This is followed by a terrifying scene where the aliens are after Barry and his mother Jillian tries to barricade the house (a scene which has never made much sense to me). Barry is abducted and a distraught Jillian goes to the press. Subsequently, the Air Force has some kind of press conference to deal with all the sightings and the disappearance of Barry. When the Air Force says that they had no test flights in the area, Roy blurts out, "You can't fool us by agreeing with us!" Roy is also lumped together with some truly insane people, but the movie clearly differentiates the two; Spielberg doesn't leave much room for ambiguity in the movie's treatment of Roy. Roy is right, even though few around him can understand it.

Roy's disintegration continues in the famous scene of his mashed potato sculpture. "This means something," he exclaims, while around him his family is crying. But he is seeing a shape in his head and he has to figure out what it is; his obsession drives his family away and he doesn't seem to notice. He builds a giant sculpture in the living room. Thankfully, Lacombe's investigative team has used a cover story of a nerve gas spill to evacuate the area in Wyoming where the aliens are now expected to land, and Roy sees this on TV. Devil's Butte is what he has been seeing, and he immediately takes off for it. Not surprisingly, Jillian is there too, and they have to figure out how to avoid the evacuation. Roy and Jillian are captured but they escape and sneak up Devil's Butte. What follows is another strange and non-logical scene where the military is going to use sleep dust to knock out anyone on the mountain. Roy and Jillian make it to the other side, where a big installation is already set up. The ending brings together everything that Lacombe and Roy have been searching for. Communication, contact, return of the abductees, and a chance at secular transcendence.

In this way Close Encounters tells two main stories: an ordinary American who is trying to find out about the bizarre things that have intruded on his life, and the Frenchman who is investigating strange happenings all across the globe. Richard Dreyfuss gives one of his best performances as Roy Neary, whose life is torn apart by this new obsession. He abandons his family life in order to track down the place that he somehow knows about. And Spielberg pulled off a coup with the casting of Francois Truffaut as the French investigator. In the making-of documentary on the Collector's Edition DVD, Spielberg points out that he wanted a friendly, human face for the official investigation, and the casting of Truffaut worked perfectly in that regard. The two plot threads only cross right at the end, but they resonate together strongly for the entire length of the movie. Both men are on a quest, a kind of epic quest or test of manhood that has echoed through western culture for many years (and although I was disappointed, I was not surprised that Neary's newfound female friend didn't get to go along at the end). The Grail, the Ring, or the alien mothership -- they all have much the same function. But Spielberg has not just substituted one set of props for another, despite the similarities of psychological significance. Are aliens only the new transcendent "object" that science can believe in? Not quite: when Neary takes a lift in the mothership, there are different implications for society than if he had drunk from the Holy Grail (I'm thinking of the disappointing ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). The power of knowledge is qualitatively different than the power of magic, which is why it is essential for this movie to have the two plot threads: Neary the believer and Lacombe the scientist (however eager to believe). Together they form something new and exciting.

Spielberg's script for this movie is quite canny. The things about it that have often been identified as flaws -- overlapping dialogue, disjointed plot structure -- seem to me to make the movie so unique and powerful. Spielberg characterizes the Neary family very effectively with the use of overlapping dialogue. So much is happening that the viewer is forced to pay close attention to each exchange of lines. And the consequences of Neary's obsession for his family are mapped out very clearly (although Spielberg has said in recent interviews that, because of how important his own family is to him, he would not let Neary abandon his family if Close Encounters were being made today -- not much of an obsession then, is it?). Spielberg also uses Truffaut as the French investigator very carefully. It's no mistake that there are often several layers of language in Truffaut's scenes -- this is the person for the job when the final assignment is the ultimate challenge of translation. The minor characters are often functional, and even the likeable young child is a symbol of humanity's future. Close Encounters has its own share of terrifying scenes, mostly when the aliens have a house under siege (a scene which was ripped off and expanded to feature length to not much effect in Signs). Why? Well, they want that child. The way that the aliens sometimes carelessly disregard human niceties makes this a much more ambiguous film than E.T. And it's interesting that E.T. comes later in Spielberg's oeuvre than Close Encounters -- was he refining his message or restating it? I suspect that he wanted to re-emphasize his belief that aliens are not going to relive the B-movies of the 1950s when they arrive. Or, to broaden the discussion, that the Other is not to be feared. A valuable message, even if it is embedded in a story that panders to the UFO crowd (as does Spielberg's recent Taken miniseries). Close Encounters works best as a fable of tolerance and transcendence.

DVD Note: Close Encounters is available in a fancy 2-DVD Collector's Edition. The best thing about this Collector's Edition is that Spielberg repudiates the ending from the Special Edition! More plainly: Spielberg ran out of time and money when he was first making this movie, and asked for some extra money, once the film had done so well in theatres, to fix up the flaws he perceived in the theatrical release. He released the Special Edition in 1980; the studio had asked for a hook for an advertising campaign, so Spielberg compromised and added a scene where we see Roy on the inside of the mothership at the end of the movie. This was a horrible decision! Spielberg says so himself in the documentary on Disc 2 of this DVD set, pointing out that it ruins the mystery and magic of the ending. On this Collector's Edition, the movie ends as it once did, with the mothership flying off into the night. A perfect ending.

Disk 1 of the Collector's Edition has the movie, which looks as good as an aging film like Close Encounters can at this point. Disk 2 some deleted scenes, which were deleted for a reason! This includes the famously wrongheaded ending where Roy sees the inside of the spaceship, so fans of this ending, if they exist, can watch it. This disk also includes a 6-minute featurette from 1977 called "Watch the Skies," which is passable but more of a promo than anything interesting. The main feature is 100-minute making-of documentary, which is broken into sections. It is reasonably informative, but not as glossy as the special features on more recent DVDs. I liked the section on casting where everyone talks about Truffaut, who was apparently regarded with awe on set by the adults, immediately recognized as kid-friendly by the kids on set, and was also steeped in movie lore. The disk also includes filmographies and trailers.


First posted: October 21, 1998; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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