#72 Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

(1977, Steven Spielberg)

“Have you recently had a close encounter?”

Steven Spielberg loves his aliens. From E.T. to his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, aliens rank as one of Spielberg’s most common themes alongside Nazis. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is Spielberg’s first attempt at making a major alien movie. It’s actually a major codifier for many of the themes of the alien abduction genre, and possibly alien “invasion” movies in general.

It’s about Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a power plant employee. During a major blackout, he is instructed to head out and investigate one of the sources of the problem. While there, he witnesses a series of strange bright lights in the sky. He chases down the lights in his truck, almost running over a small boy, Barry, in the process. Over time, both he and the boy’s mother, Jillian, (Melinda Dillon) begin to get strange visions of a mountain, and Barry gets abducted. Meanwhile, French scientist Claude Lancombe (Francois Truffaut) discovers the missing Flight 19 in the Sonoran Desert, but there’s no sign of the crew. He launches an investigation into where it came from, crossing paths with Roy and Jillian along the way.

Now, maybe it’s because the film was so influential in shaping the entire genre of alien abduction movies, but I failed to connect with this film on any real level. There was no suspense in the events (because, well, the whole time I was thinking “yep, aliens”) and the whole experience actually felt kind of boring. There’s also very little going for the mystery behind Roy and Jillian’s visions. It’s obvious that they’re seeing a mountain from the outset, and it’s obvious that the aliens intend to make contact from there.

It’s not the only thing that works against the movie though. The story feels very disjointed, and not a lot actually happens. By leaping between Lancombe and Roy constantly, it’s difficult for the audience to connect with either very well. Truthfully, I didn’t care about these characters. We see a whole lot of Roy’s family life, but to me it felt like it was added as an afterthought, rather than something that contributed to the story as a whole.

And Lancombe’s investigation sounds fascinating on paper, and probably could have been a fantastic movie on its own if handled right, but here it feels like he’s just popping up now and again so that Spielberg can say the government’s looking into this stuff. There’s no real explanation as to why specifically a French scientist is investigating this over an FBI agent or something. Is Lancombe an expert on ufology? A scientist specifically dedicated to seeking out mysteriously vanished planes and ships? Either explanation would be acceptable, due to these being niche studies that likely wouldn’t have had an American equivalent, but neither are in the movie. He’s just there.

It feels bad to criticise Close Encounters so heavily, because I’m aware of its cultural influence and how well-loved it is by many people, so I’m sure I’m in a minority here, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

I don’t outright hate it, of course. Being a Spielberg movie, the production values are high. It’s a very professional package. The performances are good based on what the actors are working with, and the effects are especially impressive, still holding up 35 years later. The famous scene where the scientists of Earth and the visiting aliens “talk” to each other through musical tones is a genuinely great moment in cinema history, and it feels like the entire movie was written around this one scene. I also liked Roy’s mental breakdown where he begins building a replica of the mountain in his living room. There is plenty to like about the movie, but as a whole package it falls apart.

Like I said, though, maybe most of my feelings of indifference towards the movie come from its age and how many other movies have followed in its footsteps, making it obvious that the movie is about aliens from the outset now, whereas in 1977 it felt new and exciting, and genuinely mysterious. It’s hard to say for sure, but to me it did feel bland.

Of course, regardless of how lacking I found Close Encounters, it was definitely improved a few years later with the appearance of E.T. I’d advise watching that instead.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon & Francois Truffaut
Written by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Julia Phillips & Michael Phillips
Music score by John Williams
Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Edited by Michael Kahn

Favourite Scene: The darkly comic scenes where Roy fills his house with soil and rubbish so he can build a giant mountain in his lounge, causing his wife to take the kids and leave as his obsession spirals out of control
Scene That Bugged Me: Barry’s abduction scene. So, Spielberg, you put this creepy, terrifying scene in a movie where you’re trying to make us feel all amazed and humbled by this supposedly benevolent alien race? Doesn’t really work for me, I’m afraid.

Watch it if: You aren’t expected aliens
Avoid it if: You want stuff to actually happen

Originally posted on Blogspot Tuesday 27 March 2012

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Posted on April 15, 2012, in 1970s, Sci Fi. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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