Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The wondrous, phenomenal, frighteningly near-perfect Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains perhaps Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievement, second only to Jaws and maybe not even that, and for all the strengths of his work in the new millennium, it’s hardly likely that he will ever top it, as he has openly admitted he would not be able to make the film today. It stands to reason, additionally, that he has been plagued with more insecurities about this masterpiece than any of his other classics. While Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark have gone untouched for 2-3 decades, CE3K has been recut at least five times. Of the three versions currently available, the so-called “Director’s Cut” seems definitive, but the original theatrical print has plenty of merit as well — and even if you screen the somewhat inferior “Special Edition,” the beauty, grace and genuine, unfaked wonder of the film itself are undiluted.

Close Encounters predicts what might happen if UFOs suddenly came into our world, not the sort of hyperreal paranoid universe seen in the sci-fi films of the ’50s, as a reality; the skygazing quacks who see the crafts everywhere are mocked (if affectionately), while the authorities laughing off the crazy rumors are sympathetic. Meanwhile, François Truffaut’s humanistic scientist is sent around the world by his obsession with happenings that might just be The Real Thing. Truffaut’s performance is magnificent, even if — as Ray Bradbury has believably claimed — he was essentially playing himself. It is through this character’s rational perspective that the film finds the beauty in the everyday, the wonder of what is in fact a tentative, benign connection between humans and aliens. It would be easy to make a movie that takes that relationship beyond the abstract, but it would also be a distortion, and an unnecessary one at that.

Obsession finds the other two principal characters in other ways. Melinda Dillon loses her son in one of the most impressive sequences ever put on film, certainly the finest and most exhilirating use of special effects I am aware of. The crackpot mythology that then builds up around her looks excruciating, but she has lost her son (portrayed hauntingly by Cary Guffey, who almost costarred in The Shining a few years later) and her bond with him is what ultimately leads her to be drawn by mysterious forces to Wyoming. (Happens to me all the time.) It is an alien signal that has infiltrated her (ditto), but it is more importantly her own need to go as far as she must to recover her child. It is her humanity that leads her to him.

Richard Dreyfuss is extraordinary as the completely ordinary Roy Neary, an overgrown child who’s blossomed into a malformed, uncertain adulthood, unfortunately replete with the almost inevitably broken family. The aspect of the story that takes Dreyfuss away from them is what Spielberg has a difficult time with today. A family man now, he can’t relate to the notion of leaving it all behind, but that’s the whole idea. It’s not something most people can accept or understand, but it’s a calling that finally brings him his purpose. To give him a family that can’t comprehend what they perceive as his insanity makes this painfully complicated… but that’s how you tell a story. The simpler it is, the less worthwhile it is to tell.

If there were no conflicting emotions about the courageous ending, in which Roy responds to his own mysterious need — beyond alien messages — to reach this place and to achieve this next level, his determination to fulfill something within himself at last, then the movie would be a good deal less interesting. (And I would feel the same way if this character were Meryl Streep from Kramer vs. Kramer. I criticized the movie harshly because she leaves her son and husband to “find herself,” but that was because the movie really gave no reason for it and provided no opportunity to find her sympathetic, and yet expected us to do so anyway.) Spielberg’s naturalistic portrayal of the family falling apart is audacious and discomforting. He populates the scenes of children and scientists both with chaos, madness, and miscommunication — it comes close to an inability for simple messages to reach the occupants of his film.

As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, part of what’s so moving about the film is its wondrously drawn transition from scientific rationality to surrealism and, finally, fantasy; narratively, it’s one of the most sophisticated movies in existence. Equally striking is the flawlessness of Spielberg’s visual sense. Nearly every shot in this movie has been ripped off by someone or another, with good reason; they all have an iconic pizazz built in. And Spielberg’s quick-witted skill with character development — defined as much by his directorial choice as by his screenplay — is always a joy to behold. Watch how he completely defines the character of Jillian in one shot. From the way her room is arranged, her door being fully ajar, her TV being on, and the clothes she wears to bed, we know everything there is to know about her in something like fifteen seconds, and it is not lazy characterization; it is just incredibly precise and movingly humanistic.

“Humanistic” is a good word for the movie as a whole. Like 2001, which it strongly parallels, CE3K is a warm-hearted story of personal evolution, though perversely (considering how much more explicit and linear its storytelling style is), it is arguably a more metaphorical film than 2001. In the end, both films are celebrations of the individual, and easily among the most intelligent and enlightening of all science fiction movies. To begin with, the scientist Lacombe, positioned as American shorthand for European enlightenment, doubles as François Truffaut the world-famous film director, one of the most recognized faces in cinema and quite obviously a filmmaker with many stylistic ties to Steven Spielberg, moving along a story of an overgrown child finally finding the power in himself to grow up, a personal dimension missing (but unnecessary) in 2001.The director always talks about how Richard Dreyfuss was playing Spielberg himself in Jaws, CE3K and Always; I think Spielberg is equal parts Roy and Lacombe, and the movie in many ways represents the beginning of a resolution to that conflict.

It is popular to compare the story of Close Encounters to Pinocchio, and this is fitting. But I think the best precedent I know of is Reginald Rose’s teleplay — filmed with Pat Hingle for The Twilight Zone — “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” The world is full of overgrown children; Spielberg imagines a world in which they have an opportunity to wake up to themselves and step beyond, ending the hurt they cause in the world they know, finally growing to something fuller and better. Instead of becoming a real boy, Roy Neary steps on the spaceship prepared to finally become a man.

In 2001, aliens exhibiting an advanced state of evolution hundreds of millions of years beyond us guide humanity along its way. They do not invent natural selection, they simply help it along, allow us to reach beyond our rational limits more quickly. The message of 2001 is not that aliens are in control, it is that we have a future beyond our current understanding; it’s really sort of Darwinian. The most significant moment of 2001 comes when Dave, with nothing left to lose, decides to press forward to Jupiter in his tiny spacecraft. His individual need to continue, his impulse to discover, is what takes him to a higher plane. In the exact same fashion, Roy Neary is embraced by a destiny that he has fought for and chosen. When he explains to Dillon that he must go down and get closer to the ship during the climax, she smiles and says “I know.”

The finale with the embittered family cast off (it’s significant and often ignored by those who charge that the film is somehow chauvanistic or childish that Spielberg dwells to no end on the pain Neary causes his family) is a symbol both of the double-sided perfection of the finale and of Speilberg’s brilliance in his impossible-to-recapture overzealous youth. Even if he has improved as a director, and a case could be made that he has, the balls of the twentysomething hothead are inevitably gone forever, which is a boon to his latest films as well as his earliest.

Spielberg is not “manipulative,” at least no more than a director should be. He is more manipulative than Kubrick, but miles less so than Hitchcock. Spielberg, in fact, fulfills a dream of Hitchcock’s, of whittling the craft down to its essence, of using his stories to reach the rawest emotions any American filmmaker has managed. We may feel bitter about this uncanny ability to reach us, just like Roy Neary does at being so drawn to his vision of Devil’s Tower before he finally embraces his future, but it is still undeniable. After all these decades, the sense of wonder this film can thus generate is intact, and a rare miracle indeed.

[With the possible exception of The Graduate, I have written more about this film over the years than any other. The preceding is a condensation of a summary I wrote in 2006, appended with a few things I added later when examining in depth the differences in the three cuts of the film. The latter piece is quite valuable, I believe, and doesn’t have an ideal home here, so I have linked it here: part one / part two. Despite a few typos and some amateurish passages, it’s worthwhile for anyone curious about how the three widely available versions of the film differ and in general how editing can alter the narrative structure of a film. I hope to tackle Dawn of the Dead and Touch of Evil in a similar fashion eventually.]

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