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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Steven Spielberg, newly famous for his ’75 hit, Jaws, furthers his fame with another big hit: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE, for short). He both wrote (with help) and directed. His movie is, perhaps, the best landmark of the watershed between the old era of sci-fi and the new. Spielberg blends old-school UFO lore with new-age benevolent aliens. CE was a big budget, A-level film, but also very well received in the box-office. Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, the obsessed ‘everyman’. Melinda Dillon stars as the obsessed mother of lost Barry. Francois Truffaut stars as the French scientist. Teri Garr plays Roy’s wife. Much has already been written about CE, so this review will only touch on a few elements.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Claude Lacombe (Turffaut) and his time are called to the discovery of five Grumman Avenger aircraft from Flight 19, lost in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945. An old man who was there said, “The sun came out at night, and sang to him.” Later, several airline pilots and air traffic control experience a near-collision with a UFO, but all decline to report it. Still later, Lacombe is summoned to the Gobi Desert to see the freighter SS Cotopaxi (lost in Bermuda Triangle, 1925). Meanwhile, back in Muncie Indiana, Little Barry is awakened by offscreen aliens and goes with them. His mother, Jillian, frantically searches for him. Roy Neary, a lineman, is called in to help with a massive power outage. While in his truck, he has several UFO experiences. In them, he crosses paths with Jillian. Over time, Roy becomes obsessed with internal visions of a mountain. He draws it and sculpts it. His obsession ruins his already tenuous middle class suburban lifestyle. His wife (Garr) leaves him. Roy sees a TV report about a nerve gas train accident near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The mountain was his vision. He drives to Wyoming. The government had, meantime, been decoding signals from space to be coordinates for Devil’s Tower. They fabricated the nerve gas accident as a ruse to evacuate the area. Roy, and some others, including Jillian, have also made their way to Devil’s Tower. They are all captured by the military, but Roy, Jillian and an expendable named Larry, escape to the mountain. The army uses sleep gas to stop them, but Roy and Jillian escape. In a box canyon at the mountain, the see an elaborate landing pad compound. Little light-spangled craft float in first. Attempts are made to communicate using the five-note motif. Then the huge mother ship comes down. More communications take place. A hatch opens on the bottom, and out walk all the people who mysteriously disappeared, starting with the crew from Flight 19. Little Barry is returned to Jillian. A row of volunteers is presented to the aliens. Roy gets to be one of them. The aliens decide they like Roy, so he gets to go with them in their ship. It lifts off majestically. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Spielberg does an excellent job of providing compelling visuals and telling the story from  Roy's uninformed point of view. Dreyfuss plays his part well. The effects still work.

Cultural Connection
Optimistic Unification — Where Starship Invasions sought to unify many loose ends in UFO lore, with the more old-school hostile aliens, Spielberg unifies them with friendly, benevolent aliens. This is the watershed between the old era of sci-fi and the new. The old era view developed in the Cold War and amid Atomic Angst, in which “new” was a source of fear. The new-era mythos cast aliens as benevolent wonders. Spielberg, (born in ’46) grew up through the old era of fear and angst. He lived through the decline of the Cold War, and the counter-culture of the 60s. That counter culture longed for good news (“give peace a chance…all you need is love…” etc.) so the creation of a new alien mythos was developing in the 70s. Spielberg wove in elements of the old era — abductions, missing ships and planes, government cover-ups, etc. — but put a happy spin on them. It was as if Spielberg’s message was ‘all that stuff we feared turned out to be good.’

Third Kind? — The title is a reference to “ufologist” J. Allen Hynek’s ranking system. A First Kind encounter is viewing a craft that is less than 500 feet away. A Second Kind, is viewing a craft from less than 500 feet and there is some physical effects (car stalls, lights go out. heat, etc.) A Third Kind, is seeing the aliens themselves. Others have added 4th and 5th Kinds to Hynek’s list. Others have divided Hynek’s kinds into subtypes. One might argue that the movie CE is actually about the 4th Kind (going inside the craft) and the 5th Kind (communication between aliens and humans), but at the time of the film, the Third Kind was a high as it got.

Personal Journey — One of the strengths of CE is that it has depth beyond the surface story of aliens and UFOs. Overtly, CE is about an official contact between earthlings and aliens. Beneath that, it is the story of one man’s “awakening”. Roy Neary starts out as a blue collar ‘everyman’. He has normal, but not very satisfying, suburban lifestyle. Even though he wasn’t seeking change, he gets “inspired” (by the aliens). His new sense of mission, a purpose for his life, begins to crowd out the old life. He loses his job. His wife leaves him. He abandons his suburban home to follow his dream. When the power of authority tries to squash his dream, he fights back. When physical hurdles get in his way, he climbs them. He even turns down the opportunity for love with a fellow dreamer (Jillian). Like a Homerian hero, he overcomes monsters and sirens to reach his fulfillment. Roy’s dream stands in for less sci-fi goals: art, social causes, a business, etc.

Big Visuals — The special effects in CE may not look as slick as modern CGI, but they hold up well enough. Younger viewers who have grown up on abundant CGI and have only see CE on the small screen, tend to kvetch about the poor special effects. Older viewers, who saw CE in its original theatrical release, still recall the awe and wonder Spielberg created. The big mother ship’s arrival at Devil’s Tower impressed people on a par with George Lucas has his “big fly by” visual in Star Wars. Douglas Trumbull was involved in the special effects for Kubrick’s 2001 a decade earlier. His “New Era” style can be seen in The Andromeda Strain (’71) and Silent Running (’72). He would go on work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (’79) and Blade Runner (’82).

Bad Girl? — Some critics dislike the Ronnie Neary character (or Garr’s portrayal of her). Ronnie is the counterfoil for Roy, so she’s going to be different. She is supposed to be so entangled in the stereotypic middle class life that she cannot see anything else. Where Roy is chasing his dream, he is also ruining hers. She is not the model mother (the kids are unruly brats). She wants Roy to be her middle class spouse more than she really wants him. Stability and her public image are more important — not in a snooty sort of way, but in more of a desperate way. Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was young. He ended up going with his father, while his siblings stayed with his mother. The Ronnie and Roy subplot can be seen as a personal story by Spielberg. The mother is the inflexible, unforgiving one. The father is the sympathetic figure, as the misunderstood visionary.

Variations — For a later re-release for home video in 1980, Spielberg added some footage at the end, at the behest of the studio marketing wing. This new footage showed the interior of the mother ship. The original cut did not have this. Spielberg regretted the addition, so when the film was re-re-released video in 1990, the mother ship interior scenes were taken out, making the third cut closer to the original.

Bottom line? CE is a must-see as a cultural benchmark, even by those not fond of sci-fi. This is one of the early examples of the Good Aliens paradigm that would carry through to present. Spielberg’s directing keeps things visually rich, though some criticize him not using more directorial devices like traveling shots or boom or dolly work. His spare use of camera tricks helps keep eyes on the story. The story lags somewhat in the middle with the Roy-Goes-Nuts element being a bit drawn out. The ending scene is probably too long for those of short attention span, but it has several layers to process through. CE is well worth seeking out.


Tony said...

A bona fide sci-fi masterpiece! Hynek himself appears in the last minutes of the movie, as well as Lance "Bishop" Henriksen (assistant to Francois Truffaut's character)...
Taking the point of view of one "everyman" was a stroke of genius.

Spielberg later regreted having Roy Neary leaving his family/earth, forgetting that it was his wife that took off with the kids!

Nightowl said...

Yes, CE is a classic. The breakup of the Neary family is a tough story and does tend to bother some people. Movies usually have single heroes who get the girl in the end. Having the movie's hero not care about anything else (even getting the girl) but following his dream rubs mainstream movie tradition the wrong way.

Randall Landers said...

A few notes: I seem to recall a scene where various townspeople are interviewed (and ridiculed) by USAF personnel that has disappeared from the version I have on VHS.

I also got a kick from the music where the greeting (HELLO) is reminiscent of JELLO.

My favorite scene is in India(?) where they're all singing the song from the UFOs. That was an impressive scene for me, along with them pointing up at the sky.

Nightowl said...

I think those scenes were part of the 1980 "Special" version. I had read that there was more character development added, but parts of other (admittedly longish) scenes cut to compensate so overall run time was about the same. I think the 1990s version restored things close to the original.