Monday, August 19, 2013

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban

In the summer of 1991, my parents packed up our Dodge Caravan, threw me and my sister in the back seat, and set off for a six and a half week cross country adventure.  We went from New Hampshire to Kansas then got as far southwest as the Grand Canyon, then swung north to complete our loop.  I mention this because a very significant, very important stop along the way was (as you’ve hopefully figured out by now) Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.  Naturally, one doesn’t go to Devil’s Tower without understanding its cinematic significance, and that means that I had already seen – and loved – Close Encounters of the Third Kind by that early point in my life.  I have loved this movie a very long time indeed; it’s high time I try to do it some justice in blog form. 

[FAIR WARNING: I get a bit spoilery in my discussion of this film, mostly because I love it and its finale so much.]

Strange things are happening.  Military planes reported missing in 1945 are showing up in the Mexican desert; ships are showing up in Africa; sounds are heard over India; unexplained lights are being seen over Indiana.  Single mother Gillian (Dillon) has her young son Barry taken from her by the lights in the sky.  Regular family man Roy (Dreyfuss) witnesses those lights first hand when he’s called by work to deal with a power outage.  His wife Ronnie (Garr) and children watch helplessly as Roy becomes more and more obsessed with these lights and the possibility that it might be aliens.  Meanwhile, government agents, including Lacombe (Truffaut) and his cartographer slash English interpreter Laughlin (Balaban), are witness to the alien signals, and plans are underway as to how to best deal with the possibility of an alien visit.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the embodiment of everything I think of when someone says “classic Spielberg.”  When I was younger, I didn’t really understand what it was about Spielberg that set him apart as a director, but in these last few years, after watching hundreds of films and writing about hundreds of films, I understand better what the term “Spielbergian” means, and Close Encounters has it in spades.  It’s in the nearly nonstop litany of gently comedic family moments (the toothpaste one being very good), even as Roy’s relationship with his family deteriorates.  The use of the Budweiser beer jingle on television being the in-scene musical accompaniment to Roy’s breakdown, or how Barry’s childhood toys cheerily sing and clatter as he’s being abducted.  The amusing yet threatening reveal of government agents rolling out in Baskin Robbins and Coca Cola trucks.  Spielberg is very good at making you laugh while something serious is going on, better than any director I can think of at the moment. 

There’s also no shortage of stunned awe in Close Encounters, something else I consider “classic Spielberg.”  Given that this is a film about alien encounters, you would naturally expect a feeling of bewilderment, but no one does bewilderment like Spielberg.  Right from the get go, there are tons of close ups on the faces of those who have encountered something they haven’t seen before, and it is mostly through these, their reactions, rather than the encounter itself, that Spielberg communicates the wonder of the experience.  We don’t really need to see what Roy is seeing as long as we can read his awe in his face, all lit up and smiling and wide-eyed.  This sense of awe is paid off in a big way in Close Encounters during the conclusion, especially after Spielberg carefully makes you sit through Roy’s anguish in the first half.  Roy is so utterly driven by something he doesn’t understand that it rips his family apart; the sense of fulfillment when we finally get to see Roy get his desperately sought answers is incredibly satisfying.  He went through so much pain, it makes me happy to see him so happy in the end.

Speaking of Roy, his story drives Close Encounters, and I like that it’s not a wholly happy one.  Poor Ronnie, watching Roy go mad.  I’ve gone both ways on how I feel about Ronnie; sometimes, when I watch Close Encounters, I’m angry at her for not standing by her husband through a difficult time.  Other times, I feel nothing but pity for her, watching her husband descend into what appears to be lunacy, and finally having to strength to do what is most likely best for her children.  And frankly, that I’ve felt both ways about her goes a long way towards the great characterization in Close Encounters.  Even though Roy gets his wish at the end and finds his way to Devil’s Tower, I never forget that it was at a cost.  I always think of Ronnie and Roy’s family, just as little Barry is reunited with his mother.  

And oh, the finale!  Close Encounters has a brilliant one.  More often than not, movie finales or climactic sequences are rather brief, maybe five to ten minutes or so, and to be fair, this is usually appropriate.  But Spielberg doesn’t cheat you in the slightest on the finale of Close Encounters; it’s a full thirty minutes and has its own smaller storyline.  I love the initial gasps and awe of seeing the first three alien crafts, the tension of communicating with them through music, and the complete joy when they answer back.  Like the government agents and scientists who applaud and cheer when those three ships fly off, you think the encounter is over and it was a success.  Ha ha ha, thinks Spielberg, you ain’t seen nothing yet!  There is the “light show,” and then the mother ship, and then the abductees – another great fake out by Spielberg, when you’re expecting to see aliens – and then finally, finally we get a glimpse of the aliens themselves.  The finale builds its own tension throughout and it’s just marvelous.  It’s a spectacular final act.
I’ve also long had a fascination with codes.  Some of my favorite stories, books, television episodes, and films have to do with cryptography.  I think that “The Janus List,” the season 3 finale of Numb3rs, is, frankly, one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen because it’s ENTIRELY to do with codes and code-cracking.  Suffice it to say, a lot of my fascination with this stems from my early introduction to Close Encounters, and the scene where Laughlin the cartographer deciphers the alien message (and then the unforgettable rolling of the globe down the hall) is memorable in the extreme.  But it’s not just that scene in Close Encounters that deals with codes, although that one is the most direct.  The entire film feels a bit like decryption; Roy must find it in himself to figure out “what this means.”  It’s not a literal code, but an emotional one.  He’s been sent a message in his soul, and he has to somehow determine its meaning, and by god, I love watching him do it.

Apart from the very good Gustav Holst John Williams score (OH SORRY NOT SORRY), Close Encounters is also fucking awesome for having one of the most ingenious uses of film music of all time.  Once, on my old site, I wrote a series of pieces about the different ways films use music and my favorite examples of them.  The way I see it, there are four different categories of music in film: the film musical, the original film score, the use of previously written music as a scene accompaniment, and “in-scene” music, where characters produce or interact with the music in some way.  It’s in this last category that Close Encounters excels.  Being a musician and a lifelong fan of music in general, I adore the conceit that human beings use music to communicate with alien life.  That music is truly universal.  Written and spoken words have their role, but when encountering beings so incomprehensibly different from us, music makes such perfect sense as a means of reaching out.  The theme is lovely and simple as well, and who doesn’t love it when the alien ships finally respond in kind?

Additionally, Close Encounters remains a big reason why I will always irrationally love Francois Truffaut and his movies, and why I’ll always be willing to cut him all kinds of slack.  Richard Dreyfuss may be the hero of the film, but Truffaut steals the show.  His character has such an aura of powerful calm, and he’s the guy who stands up for those called by the aliens in the end.  He is empathy and tolerance embodied.  He is goddamned cool.  How amazing that Truffaut agreed to be in Spielberg’s film, and what a great job he did with such a cool character.  (Plus he has one of the most awesome lines of the film – “They belong here more than we.”)

It’s one thing to talk about favorite movies, and another to talk about favorite movie scenes.  While I truly love Close Encounters, I don’t think it would make a list of my Top Ten Favorite Films.  It does, however, have the honor of having one of my Top Ten Favorite Scenes.  I’m not even entirely certain why, but the relatively short scene where Lacombe and Laughlin go to India and hear the people chanting in harmony and ask them where the sounds came from gets me every time.  Every damn time.  It sends shivers down my spine and brings tears to my eyes.  There’s something about the men singing, so insistently, so beautifully, and it’s the first introduction of the musical motif in Close Encounters.  It finishes with the absolutely perfect shot of all the people pointing up to the sky.  I love that scene.  Absolutely love it.

Finally, I have to mention the general treatment of the concept of the close encounter in this film.  We have plenty of movies where aliens land on earth and then promptly proceed to blow it up.  Close Encounters couldn’t be further removed from these types of films.  Everything about alien contact is treated with gravity and seriousness; all right, so Spielberg injects some of his trademark humor, but it never cheapens the experience of making contact.  Few films have had the courage to approach this topic with such seriousness (Contact and The Day the Earth Stood Still spring to mind), and even among this small pool, Close Encounters is different because of how positive and optimistic it is.  Whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still is (somewhat) realistic, it is also incredibly downbeat about human beings’ abilities to maturely communicate with life beyond the planet Earth (to be fair, with definite justifications).  It’s uplifting, then, to watch humanity play out an entirely different tale in Close Encounters, one that shows that we CAN man up, so to speak, and not immediately default to violence and warfare.  That we have it in ourselves to have a peaceful interaction with something utterly foreign.  Close Encounters is a message of hope.

In my humble opinion, this is Spielberg at his finest.  Spielberg has shown in the last two decades that he is obviously capable of doing gritty, violent, and realistic dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) but… I think I prefer younger Spielberg for sheer entertainment value.  Think Jaws, think Raiders of the Lost Ark, think Close Encounters.  The sheer joie de vivre in these films is off the charts.  They are all engaging and entertaining, and they are everything that makes watching movies fun.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.  Duh.


  1. I was pleased when I got around to re-watching this because I remembered liking it and hadn't seen it in years. I forgot just how amazingly good it is. So good. So damn good. It has so many elements of other genres in it that all come together perfectly.

    It's easy to forget this in Spielberg's filmography because he has so many good ones, but it's as good as his best films. And damn, those five tones are really something special.

    1. I agree that Close Encounters tends to get a bit overlooked. It's not part of a film series, and everyone always remembers Jaws and ET before this one. WHY? But jesus, it's good. I loved it as a kid and I love it as an adult, and there aren't many films that can survive that transition without relying on nostalgia.

      Like I mentioned, I actually welled up a few times while REWATCHING it, not because the scenes were sad, but because the movie was so good, I could only cry out of sheer movie-viewing joy.

      My sophomore year of high school, our marching band did a sci-fi themed show. Our warm-up was the five tones from Close Encounters. (I was playing cymbals that season, and my favorite bit of the show was when i got to do awesome cymbal crashes during Darth Vader's Imperial March.)

  2. My favorite scene is when Dreyfuss is lost on some back country road, a truck comes up behind him, we see the headlights, he waves it by, we see the lights turn sideways as the truck goes by, a second truck comes up behind him, we see some fancy headlights, he waves it by...then the lights rise vertically out of the frame.

    By the way, if you haven't seen the 2011 movie Paul, I think you'd like it. It was done by people with an obvious love for Close Encounters, Star Wars, and E.T. Here's my review of it, if you are interested:

    1. I love that scene you mention. It's such a smart scene. As a viewer, I can sense what's coming with the lights, but it's still SO DAMN COOL when it does.

      (I also love that scene because that's where Richard Dreyfuss calls the other driver "TURKEY!!!" I need to work on bringing back that particular insult.)

      Thanks for the rec! I haven't heard of Paul.