Thursday, 23 August 2018

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

We Are Not Alone in Spielberg's optimistic sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), J. Patrick MacNamara (Project Leader), Josef Summer (Larry Butler), Robert Blossom (Farmer), Lance Henriksen (Robert)

If you had any doubt that Spielberg in his prime was a fundamentally optimistic filmmaker, then sit down and check out this warm, extremely personal, tale of mankind encountering aliens. It’s one of the very few films that Spielberg also wrote the script for, and every frame is full of his trademark yearning love of the unknown and the childish sense of adventure in us all. In an era where you couldn’t move for depressingly grey films about the corruption of America, Close Encounters is all about dreams and hope.

Throughout mid-West America in the present day, strange crafts covered in lights are seen in the skies by ordinary people like repairman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). The American Government is very aware of the presence of aliens – recently in the Mojave desert, plans and ships missing since the 1940s have recently reappeared in perfect condition. Led by their UFO expert Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), the government does its best to control access to, and knowledge of, the aliens. However, Roy Neary and hundreds like him are unable to shake obsessive visions of a strange landmark they seem drawn to create in art. While Neary’s wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) is unable to understand his obsessions, Neary finds a kindred spirit in Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose young son has been taken by the aliens.

Spielberg has spoken about how, if he could take one image from one of his films to summarise his career, he would choose the one of young Barry Guiler opening the door to reveal an outside flooded with alien light. This also perfectly sums up the movie – a young, optimistic, innocent and instinctive reaction to something unknown but strangely wonderful. If that’s not Spielberg’s reaction – particularly at the start of his career – to the new and unusual I don’t know what is. The shot captures all these feelings, as well as being incredibly arresting and beautiful in itself. It places the viewer at the doorway (if you’ll excuse the pun) of hope and new possibilities in the future.

But then that is the whole film, a gentle exploration of what it might mean to discover we were not alone, especially if our alien visitors were unknowable but essentially benign. Plot-wise, very little happens. The aliens come, we puzzle out their message, the aliens come back. The last 30 minutes of the film are effectively an awe-inspiring light display as the aliens arrive. We learn nothing at all about what they want, what they are doing or what they wish to tell us. Instead it’s left entirely up to our own imaginations, and the magic is in finding our horizons broadened. Like Spielberg, the film is staring up at the sky and dreaming about the future.

And this all works extremely well. The cynicism of the modern age makes you want to knock Close Encounters, more than any other film in Spielberg’s cannon. You want to look at it like a cynical grown-up, to point out its romantic optimism and its gentle humanitarianism. You want to say that it’s unlikely that a government official with such control as Lacombe would be such a warm and wryly amused figure. You want to say that the army would probably be much more defensive in its attitude to the aliens. But the film is so swept up in its joyful discovery that you don’t mind.

Spielberg’s brilliance as a visual stylist here also works massively in the film’s favour. The striking images of the aliens travelling through the countryside or soaring through the skies are mixed with Spielberg’s mastery of the small scale and personal. He’ll compare the simple and homespun with moments of pure wonder and majesty. 

He can also brilliantly mix tension, wonder and fear. The scenes with the aliens intruding in the Guiler home, and later trying seemingly every entrance to the house to try and take Barry with them, are only a few degrees away from genuine horror. Watching the awe-inspiring arrival of the aliens, and their light show around a government facility in the wilderness, it’s hard know not to see how close this is in style, filming and design to the horrifying face-melting conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

All this optimism and yearning finds its expression in Richard Dreyfuss’ lead performance as Roy Neary. A deliberately average working man, with no desire to rock the boat, Neary is clearly a dreamer turned conformer, a man who still has a childish fascination with models, toy trains and Disney films. Perhaps this is why the aliens have a bigger effect on him than anyone else – it’s a chance for him to discover the sense of wonder and adventure you think he has probably left behind in adulthood. Dreyfuss sells playing a character who is essentially obsessive, manically building a model of the alien landing site, which involves trashing his house and scaring away his wife and kids.

Ah yes the wife and kids. If there is a problem with the film (and even Spielberg has acknowledged this) it’s that it’s very much a young man’s film. Neary’s wife and children are an encumbrance. Teri Garr, in a thankless role, is a nagging shrew who wants her husband (reasonably enough) to grow up and focus on supporting his family. His kids lack understanding or interest in their father. When they leave Neary, he seems (to be honest) not really that concerned – and their absence never troubles him again from that point. While I get Spielberg is focusing on the dreamer as a grown man, casting wife and children as problems that need to be overcome rather than people for whom he has considerable responsibility is something it’s harder to forgive the older you get. It’s easy to see Neary as more than a bit selfish.

Spielberg’s more conservative view of women and especially mother’s comes out in Jillian Guiler’s fierce maternal love for her child – needless to say she’s not fussed about the aliens, only in finding Barry. The kidnapping of Barry – harmless as it might be – is a sort of child-loss horror that feels even more unsettling today with our fears of what might happen to our children. But Dillon gives a good performance as the film’s mother figure, and does at least have the most emotionally true plotline, even if the film doesn’t want to touch the dark implications of her son’s kidnapping.

But this is a film about hope and dreaming, and when it focuses on that it does extraordinarily well. It’s a marvellous and visionary film, full of arresting and beautiful images. Truffaut, very good as the French UFO expert, I’m sure would have loved the film’s magical, old-school, hopeful Hollywood style. Spielberg is a clever and skilled director, with plenty of heart – even if he still at this point didn’t perhaps understand parenthood (something he himself has acknowledged) – and he crafted in Close Encounters a very personal film of an adult who still clings to childhood, who wants to look up at the skies and dream.

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