Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Close Encounters of the Third Kind draws from both the tabloid popularity of UFOs in the late Seventies and a B-movie sensibility (consider the title an example of the latter influence). Its action is connected to factual myths; it is a two-hour work of fiction inspired by and drawn from contemporary mythology.
It is established from its panicked and abrupt opening scene that something is happening. In the Sonora Desert, in Mexico, a group of researchers locate a circle of vintage fighter planes in perfect working condition. A verification reveals that the planes are identical in make and number to a team of fighters lost in 1945 in the Bermuda Triangle.
In operation this scene founds a lengthy montage that traces the relation of mysterious sightings and findings in random and distant parts of the world. There are other, less distinguishable happenings — satellite dishes receive a repeated series of five notes and a series of repeated numbers. Amidst commotion, a translator notices that the numbers are specific directions: “This first number is a longitude. … These have to be Earth coordinates.”
On the home front (the film is centered around a family in Indiana) Gillian, a single mom, is awakened; each electronic toy in his room has been activated. She exits to search for her son in a static long shot, and in the background a brief flash is seen (it is one of many subtle teases in the film).
It is ambiguous whether these “encounters” are by a benevolent or hostile race, and up until the climax, a sense of curious awe is hand-in-hand with skeptical defense. In a standout sequence (taken page-by-page in Signs) Gillian sees lights exiting clouds above her. She races inside, shutting every window and opening. The sequence is commendable for its restraint. Like the opening attacks in Jaws, we do not see what is causing the lights and turmoil, we only see its evidence and the heightened emotions of the targeted characters. One is rightfully terrified — and so are we. Gillian clutches her son, her eyes darting in every direction as the noise of footsteps and unrecognized verbal clamor is heard from most every direction. Her son, sharing not her fear, exits her grip and the house through a pet door. He is abducted, and the lights promptly ascend.
The objective, opening portion of Close Encounters is replaced with the introduction of Roy, husband, utility technician, and father of three, also in Indiana (he also shares the innocence and interest of Gillian’s abducted son). He is inhabited by Richard Dreyfuss who, drawing from his performance as Hooper in Jaws, is Steven Spielberg’s doppelganger. In both films he is the believer, the everyman necessary in affording viewer identification. (Masked by glasses and beard he even has the likeness of his director.)
Roy is a man tormented by a close encounter. The meeting, in which he is collided overhead by a brilliant beam of light, is an epiphanic moment. It applies a distinct vision, and, as we will learn, others sharing similar encounters have the exact same vision. Others draw what they see (each rendering is a nondescript mountain); Roy sculpts the scene in his living room (the famous setting, Devil’s Tower, is cleverly affirmed in a brief shot of a topographic map).
Viewing this, in what is perceived as the mental collapse of a father and husband, Roy’s family departs. Roy and his wife have maintained an impression of compatibility, and here it is violated. It is of note in a film so formulaically adherent that this action even occurs. In Spielberg’s bookending efforts familial stability is a discernable and redemptive quality in the characters. In Jaws an attack on his son prompts Chief Brody to hunt the killer shark (and to overcome his fear of water); in E.T. Elliot is redeemed from life-threatening sickness by, in part, the support and interest his family. In Close Encounters this redeeming familial bond disintegrates as the family father is prisoner to the vision that haunts him. He displays little remorse for losing his family, and expresses no interest in finding them (in a later scene, he even violates his marital vows). It is an exceedingly cynical action in what is an otherwise joyous film.
Furthering this notice, governmental repression supplies a major, prohibitive force to the film’s narrative destiny. The film has roughly four central characters; two are sided with the government, two are everymen. Through deciphered transmissions it is learned that aliens are targeting a specific location and time for contact. To keep the event secret a false epidemic is staged, and thousands of people are exported from the area surrounding Devil’s Tower. This is a revealing action that tells of political cynicism, and enlarges the film’s mythic inspiration as it suggests that actual governments have the power and logic to repress similar findings.
Close Encounters opened in 1977, signaling (along with Star Wars) a brief and popular Science Fiction boom including Blade Runner and the Star Wars sequels. Close Encounters has the trademark emphasis on special effects of this boom, yet is distinguished among the like for its reality. The main characters are deliberately general, middle-class Midwestern Americans — they are mundane caricatures of typical mannerisms, accents, and human qualities, and are therefore collectively relevant.
The lasting remembrance of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is largely due to its majestic ending, in which the presence of alien life is affirmed. It is a trademark — if not characterizing — movement between Spielberg and composer John Williams. The two have the ability to craft the most seemingly significant depictions of the most mundane actions, shielding the derivative nature of action that is continually employed in the pair’s joint efforts; for measure, a later scene heedlessly combines every famous sequence from North by Northwest. The ending of Close Encounters is so drenched by romantic impression that it is difficult to criticize it for that very reason. It is, admittedly and however, a rare moment in film, one in which every filmic element is heightened and signified. Viewing it we are reduced, as Roy, to a childlike perception, overwhelmed by the luster and might of the vision before us.