Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]

It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.

It’s also a film that makes for nifty photo spreads, and after an insufficiently closed preview in Dallas last month, such general-interest publications as Time and Newsweek were treating their readers to full-color pictorials and detailed synopses of the movie. I didn’t look at or read them; I hope you didn’t either, because the movie Steven Spielberg made is awfully good fun to watch, and I’m glad I came to it fresh. This, then, will try to be a review that doesn’t tell you more about Close Encounters than you want or ought to know—though I assume we can take for granted that it has to do with UFOs, and that 20 million bucks has not been spent in the service of the thesis that they’re all just weather balloons.

The happy facts are that, as with Star Wars, you don’t have to be hyped on science fiction to dig this movie. Moreover, despite the awesomeness of the premise (We Are Not Alone) and the impressiveness of the major set-pieces, it is immensely satisfying in the basic and magical ways that all good movies are satisfying, regardless of genre. Steven Spielberg is a born moviemaker and his film owes as much to Frank Capra as to Stanley Kubrick.

The little things matter so much. Not the feasibility of spacecraft design or the correctness of the insigniae on some Air Force tunic, but how the night sky looks above a lonely prairie house, the size and clarity of it, the way it seems big and limitless, yet close, friendly, connected to known things: trees, manmade structures, your roof, your bedroom window—the appropriate and available arena for dreams to come true with breathless ease.

This is what has almost always been missing from sci-fi movies, although it’s there in abundance in the fiction of Bradbury and Heinlein and the night countries and immense journeys of Loren Eiseley. This is what Spielberg never loses touch with.

It’s a gentle, genial vision that informs the whole film. The unknown is awe-inspiring but not—unlike the Devil-force in Spielberg’s TV-movie Something Evil (’72), the truck monster in Duel (’71), the White Death in Jaws (’75)—terrifying. Its first manifestations are disruptive but, given a chance, Spielberg’s favorite characters would rather chase it than pray for it to go away. When power-company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and nocturnal runaway Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) and his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) “inadvertently” come together on an Indiana hilltop under a suddenly busy sky, they find a family of country people waiting expectantly in a pickup truck. They look pretty lowbrow and just a tad goofy. They’re also silently, glowingly happy. They know.

There is a moment, about a third of the way into the film, when Roy Neary, last seen in nocturnal depression, blinks himself awake in a soft golden light and listens bewilderedly to the low murmur of a television set. By this time we have got used to the phenomena attending the visitations of whatever-they-are. Among other things, lights and motors that were on have a tendency to go off; conversely, houses that lay still in the night come alive with happy-go-lucky carpet sweepers, mechanical toys, and pulses of moving light. We and Neary assume another visitation is upon us, until Spielberg cuts elsewhere in the room and we see that night has become morning, according to its wont, and his little girl is sneaking a peek at the Saturday-morning cartoons. “You aren’t going to get mad, are you?” she asks with cautious hopefulness. No, he’s not—though, truth to tell, he’s a little disappointed.

Those are more of the little things I mean, the way small shocks of information—about power sources, hilltops, offscreen sounds, headlamps glimpsed through a truck’s rear window, the soothing, potentially scintillating omnipresence of media—accrete and crossrefer until the movie becomes its own reality-system. Which is what, finally, any good movie has to do.

It’s obliging of the extraterrestrials to have such a strong directorial instinct. For Close Encounters—again, like any good movie—is finally about mise-en-scene. From the multitudinous randomness of experience, from all the shapes and sounds available to human sentience, the visitors make selections whose appositeness is not immediately apparent.

“The sun sang to me last night,” an old derelict beams, while in the screaming duststorm around him a motley band of scientists and military personnel stand wondering why a flight of Navy planes missing since 1945 should have just set down intact in the Sonora Desert. On a mountain in India, saffron-robed crowds spontaneously repeat a dissonant but regular chant. In Indiana, Barry Guiler plays the same notes on a flute while his painter-mother finds herself producing pictures of an odd rock formation—which Roy Neary likewise sees echoed in rumpled pillows and heaps of mashed potatoes.

The evidence piles up. Evidence? Mashed potatoes? A child’s random piping? Evidence, yes: form that finally compels its own content. Music that becomes light, gesture, mathematical formula, shapes in space. The metamorphosis of reality, the rediscovery of possibility, the translation of ideas into visible action. What movies do. Why movies exist. Small wonder that the foremost pleader of the UFO cause should be played by one François Truffaut.

Spielberg’s confidence in his artistry is sufficient that he can sprinkle his film with semididactic inside jokes: Early on, Neary mostly ignores C.B. DeMille’s once-admired parting of the Red Sea on a background telly, but he pays closer attention to his daughter’s cartoon show, which happens to feature Daffy Duck’s perplexity in meeting a Martian tar-baby. (In Sugarland Express, ’74, Spielberg punctuated a respite in the cross-Texas chase with a Roadrunner cartoon, to comic and ultimately disturbing effect.)

Indeed, humor is a crucial ingredient in the director’s vision and method. Just as Jaws was greatly enhanced in appeal by the low-key elaboration of the Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw characters as men with individualized notions of what’s funny, Close Encounters relies on its strong but uninsistent comic undertow to persuade us that the human race is vital enough to be worth contacting by a superior order of being.

It must be acknowledged, however, that a significant portion of Jaws‘s audience used the character interludes for popcorn and visiting time, returning to their seats only when Bruce’s next nosh seemed imminent. Likewise, Spielberg’s sharp, affectionate comic indices of human fallibility—a wonderful four-punchline joke about airline reluctance to go official about a UFO sighting, Neary’s excited garbling of “aurora borealis,” translator Bob Balaban’s dogged performance of his job even after the Truffaut character has shifted into English—apparently strikes hardcore sf freaks as unnecessary delaying tactics.

Still, it’s that human dimension that most appeals to me in the movie, just as the cagy Frank Capra used to validate his most aggressive patriotic/pantheistic aspirations by investing his spokesmen with minutely watchable sets of mannerisms and a strong sense of earthy shrewdness. Spielberg is his own writer this time out and the characterizations wear a little thin; but he has the right hero in the klutzy, hugely sympathetic Dreyfuss, and his direction—or just judicious indulgence—of child actor Cary Guffey is nothing short of inspired.

He also has, in addition to first-cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond and 2001 special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, the most distinguished roster of second-unit cinematographers in film history: Douglas Slocombe (Julia), William A. Fraker, John Alonzo (Chinatown), Laszlo Kovacs. How much more splendid their contributions may look in 70mm, as opposed to the 35mm prints circulating in most venues, remains open to question at this point. But in a slightly perverse way the lack of 70mm projection armament serves to refocus critical attention where it most properly and essentially belongs: on Spielberg’s narrative, its rich imagistic and structural cohesion, and on an imaginative sensibility that can adduce the connections among a child’s delight with suddenly living toys, a giddy suburbanite’s trashing of his tract home to erect a shrine to wonder, and a majestic spacecraft that manages to suggest a cathedral, an opera house, and a movie studio. To turn the film, finally, into a close encounter with Steven Spielberg’s machineries of joy.


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