Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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“These are ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances,” says David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) near the end of the film.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is like Spielberg’s other films, mostly Jaws.  Normal people encounter crazy situations and struggle to deal with them.  In this case, they really struggle.  Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is out late one night when he spots a UFO, or more specifically, it spots him.  Roy is appropriately shaken, and he becomes obsessed with finding this UFO.  He joins a small watch party up on a hill that includes Jillian and her son Barry, who also had a close encounter of their own.

Roy’s struggle becomes a deeply internal one as he begins to go mad with vision of some sort of mountain.  It turns out that everyone who saw the UFO has begun to have frustratingly vague visions like this one.

At home Roy wavers behind ecstasy and fear, at one point sobbing fully-clothed in a running shower in the middle of the night.  Eventually his wife takes the kids and leaves him, and he just continues to obsess over the mountain, building a mud-version of the mountain in his own house.  Watching the TV he sees Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and recognizes it immediately as the mountain he’s been seeing.

Meanwhile, the aliens visited Jillian’s home and abducted her son, Barry.  Okay, now you’re caught up.

Roy meets Jillian in Wyoming as they have both shared the same vision and recognize it as Devil’s Tower.  The government concocts a lie that necessitates the widespread evacuation 300 miles around the monument.  Roy and Jillian, though, know it’s a pretense, and they sneak through the barricades anyway.

In the film’s climactic sequence, the large alien ship docks next to Devil’s Tower with scientists waiting and ready.  They have a brief musical exchange (they can only communicate through musical notes), and then a group of people stagger off of the ship.  Many of these are soldiers from War World II who went missing in 1945.  They haven’t aged a day.

Jillian’s son Barry returns as well, and they are reunited.  It seems as though nothing bad happened to the humans who were abducted, instead it was kind of nice for them.  In the end, the aliens usher Roy into the ship and he leaves with them.

What I like about this film is what I liked about Jaws: the moments between the trailer moments.  Sure this is about aliens and UFOs, but the characters have to be compelling.  Watching Roy devolve from childlike wonder to crazy person is tough to watch, but we are dealing with actual aliens, so their presence would cause some problems.

In one of those quiet moments of self-destruction, Roy carves up his mashed potatoes and sculpts it into the mountain he’s been seeing in his visions.  His son begins to cry, seeing his dad going down a rabbit hole.  This scene is effective and a little more haunting than I’d expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.  There is a human element at play, but I do think the end to Roy’s story isn’t wholly satisfying.

The story really cares about Roy, as it should, but once we get to the third act and the alien arrival, he seems like an afterthought, and maybe that’s the way it should feel.  The alien arrival means more for humanity than it does for Roy, and it makes him so much smaller within the film when they arrive.  Yet he ends up climbing into the ship which doesn’t seem like a happy ending even though he’s smiling.  He might never see his family again.

The story does a good job of balancing this personal drama with larger set pieces.  When Roy first sees the UFO, it’s engaging, frightening and funny.  He’s stuck on a road in the middle of the night, lost.  While he struggles to locate himself on a map, a car pulls up beside him before passing him.  Then another set of lights pull up beside him, but instead of going around, it goes up.  Suddenly it shines a light beam onto him and his gravity begins to change.  The UFO then leaves, and when Roy’s electronics turn back on (after having been turned off by the UFO), he yells, startled.  The whole time it feels like we’re dealing with a real character.

The next couple of times we see the UFO, the technology really dates itself.  I thought we might never clearly see the UFO until the end of the film, but not long after we see the three or so ships flying low to the ground, evading the police.  The lights and animation look like something out of an old tv show, and the sets on which the film is shot becomes much more visible.

Still, the visual effects is pretty impressive.  Instead of relying on the alien ships throughout the film, they use cloud formations (that were created in a water tank) to signal the alien arrival, such as in the scene in which Jillian’s son Barry is abducted.  That scene plays out like a horror film with an invisible force blasting light into the house and turning everything on its head.

Until this point I have ignored the other half of the film which follows the scientists and leading experts on the UFO sightings.  One of them is Claude Lacombe, interestingly played by French director Francois Truffaut.  Lacombe and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) cross paths with Roy and Jillian near Devil’s Tower later in the film, and they prove to be believers.  Lacombe in particular knows the visions multiple people have shown up with means something, and in the end they (as well as Jillian and Roy) stand in awe when the aliens arrive.

I don’t know what to make of the ending much more than it’s awe-inspiring and uplifting.  It’s life-affirming, I guess, which seems like a trend in Spielberg films and maybe escapist films as a whole.

The aliens arrive, the humans watch, in suspense, and then they leave.  Maybe it’s because of a familiarity with more recent science fiction films, but I expected something more to happen, maybe not on a dramatic/explosive level, but on a character level.  Jillian gets her son back, which is nice, but there wasn’t much invested in that storyline.

I don’t know what else to say, I suppose.  I enjoyed the set up of this film much more than the reveal.  The opening, with Lacombe and Laughlin tracking down the sudden appearance of World War II era military planes is extremely enticing.  It’s a strong way to open the film, and Roy’s first encounter with the UFO is just awesome.

Even the scene in which little baby Barry wakes up to his electronic toys turning on and going crazy.  He goes downstairs and someone or something (an alien) has rummaged through his fridge.  That scene is eerie as well, and it feels like the seed of the idea that became ET.

I guess Roy’s story and mental breakdown is more engaging than I initially thought.  The story takes it’s time with his mental instability, and it is sad to watch.  It also plays on our emotions by showing how affected the children are.  Again, like his other films, Spielberg has plenty of shots of young children looking on at things they can’t control, whether it’s their imploding father or literal aliens.

We’re not in control, and we never were or will be, or something like that which is meant to come off as positive and not Nietzchean.  Being out of control isn’t wholly a bad thing.  In Jaws it certainly wasn’t good, but here, when we see Barry crying at the end, we can tell he misses something.  The aliens aren’t dangerous, they’re stunning.

I read that in the shot of little baby Barry crying as the aliens leave (after he’s been abducted and returned), Spielberg told him to imagine all his friends leaving forever.  So the aliens are friends.  It’s also nice to see the scientists and military not jumping the gun and freaking out, shooting at the aliens.  Instead they play music.  It’s playful, like two children learning to communicate with each other and become pen pals.

So this film is life-affirming in the sense that we can work together to decode something or communicate with aliens or that there even is life outside our planet.  Or maybe it’s more just a hopeful film that if there is other life outside of earth, that it won’t attack us like in Independence Day.

 

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