#TBT Classic Movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I’m trying something a little different for September – a theme. For the next four weeks, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on classics about aliens visiting the earth. While Close Encounters didn’t start the genre, it remains one of the best realized films that focuses on the most basic aspect of it: alien visitors. The aliens aren’t invading, they don’t have a message for us – they’re simply here to check things out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie I wish I could have seen with no preconceived ideas. As the movie starts, you really don’t know what kind of movie it’s going to be – the opening scene actually looks like a time travel movie, which followed by a brief interlude in which several pilots refuse to acknowledge the unidentified flying objects they’ve observed to be UFO’s, which is followed by a scene with a child’s room full of apparently possessed toys. It’s only when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves his house to go on a work call that we’re sure it’s an alien movie.

The strength of the film is that it’s not really about the aliens, it’s about humanity’s reaction to the aliens. Some are fascinated with the visitors, to the point of obsession; some are frightened; some refuse to believe. Neary and his wife, Lonnie (Teri Garr), were a dysfunctional couple before Roy’s encounter, and Roy’s obsession turns out to be more than Lonnie can support. Single mother Jillian Guiler starts out with a mother’s concern when her son Barry wanders off, then watches the visitors with awe, before experiencing terror when Barry later is taken by the alien craft. The aliens are unable to communicate with humanity, and their crude attempts look like either friendly fly-bys on country roads, or a terrifying invasion of Jillian’s lonely country home.

The government response creates the drama for the second half of the film, and I enjoy the tone used here. Of course a government conspiracy is employed to clear the area around Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, where signs point to an imminent alien convergence. Clearing civilians is the extent of the conspiracy, however, as operation staged is not about confronting the aliens, but observing and attempting to communicate with them. There is no alien language developed for the film, simply tones – music – a common language to open a dialogue. For the last 5-10 minutes of the film, dialogue as a whole is largely replaced by the amazing film score – John Freakin’ Williams, ’nuff said.

I don’t know if this movie could be made today, with the subtleties of understanding (and misunderstanding) with the visited humans, and the focus on dialogue with the visitors; military force is never discussed as an option toward the aliens, while in movies before and after Close Encounters the human military or police presence is either a necessary precaution or a typical source of misperceived human aggression toward aliens. In E.T., The Extraterrestrial, Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterpiece produced just five years later, the government actions toward the alien visitor and his youthful friends are overtly sinister, and Peter Coyote comes across as creepy even when he’s ostensibly trying to help. Even in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the closest film that comes to mind in the tone of Close Encounters), the “other” was cautiously treated as threat until its identity as our own creation became clear at the end. (The film also contains a nice Star Trek Easter egg.)

While it’s hard to imagine this kind of film being made today, the movie stands up remarkably well. Because the story revolves around the human reaction to the alien visitors, there is little reliance on special effects or costuming for the aliens or their technology; while “flying saucers” are no longer en vogue, the types of ships aliens would fly is pure speculation, and since they only appear in the dark, their lights are very effective in giving an impression of a space ship, without giving the kinds of details that would date the movie.

I expect that Spielberg is done tinkering with the film – he’s not George Lucas, and his career has seen so many diverse successes that no one film or franchise defines him. (In the interest of full disclosure, I watched the Director’s Cut – Spielberg’s final tinkering with the film – for this review.) Still, I would expect a new release of the film in the next few months, as the film celebrates its own 40th anniversary in 2017. I don’t see any reason to wait to watch it, though – watch it now, and watch it again next year. You can celebrate one of the best examples of the genre more than once.

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