Thursday, November 17, 2016

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Director: Steven Spielberg                              Writer: Steven Spielberg
Film Score: John Williams                               Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr and Bob Balaban

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is good, but it’s not that good. I mean, come on, if you’re going to put a Steven Spielberg film from the seventies on The A List it’s gotta be Jaws, right? By the time we get to E.T. the bloom was really off the rose and it was time for the director to move on to bigger and better things. Still, Close Encounters was a memorable film, especially considering the Zeitgeist of the period. Erich von Danken had published Chariots of the Gods to popular success, and Charles Berlitz’s books about the Bermuda Triangle were all the rage, so to come out with a big-budget, family friendly film about aliens was a natural. The other thing that was a natural was special effects that had been designed for his pal George Lucas’s Star Wars, which had been released six months earlier. When Spielberg finally gets around to using those effects in full, in the climax, they are spectacular, just what one would wish that contact with alien life could be like. But while the climax of a film should be the culmination of everything that has come before, it seems to be the only real point of this film. That certainly doesn’t make the film bad; in fact it’s quite delightful. But in comparison to Jaws, for instance, it’s nowhere close. That film had a three acts that nearly stand on their own and everything comes together in the end. Here, it’s just one long journey to the payoff, without which there’s very little else. So to label it one of the one hundred essential films of all time is, as often happens in The A List, a little difficult to understand.

The film begins with a scene lifted--if not directly then in spirit--from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a sand-blown desert, this time in Mexico, in which airplanes that had vanished into the Bermuda Triangle have miraculously appeared exactly how they looked at the time, in 1945. The great François Truffaut is among those investigating the find, and Bob Balaban is interpreting for him. From there, the scene switches to commercial aircraft landing in Indianapolis who see the UFO, but once the collision is avoided they don’t want to report it officially. Then, outside of Muncie, Indiana, little Cary Guffey wakes up and walks downstairs to see aliens in the kitchen, while everything electronic in the house turns on. Elsewhere, Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr are living the seventies suburban nightmare with three kids and not enough money. Dreyfuss is a lineman and a power outage has spread across the county. While trying to find his way on the dark country roads he has an encounter with four small space ships and comes back to the house changed in some indefinable way, and gets fired the next day. While Truffaut is globetrotting the world and discovering the musical notes that people in India heard, Dreyfuss spends his day on the corner where he and several others, including Guffey and his mother Melinda Dillon, saw the ships disappear into the sky. Then, two nights later, the ship comes back and takes Guffey. It’s a harrowing experience that the Air Force makes light of, though they are secretly heading toward the rendezvous at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming that is at the heart of the movie.

Spielberg himself wrote the screenplay, with assistance from four other writers. As a result, the film is long on visuals and light on interesting dialogue. It certainly was a simpler time, when UN peacekeeping troops had nothing better to do than to chase after lost merchant ships that appeared in the middle of the Gobi Desert. And the product placement that was so unique back then seems decidedly garish today. What is interesting about the film is the human drama, especially as Dreyfuss’s family falls apart and Dillon’s quest for her missing son lead in the same direction. Of course, the secretive government agencies that would be so much a part of E.T. are here in more recognizable form, and in an Area 51 type operation that they can’t cover up this time. I remember seeing the film in the theater when it came out and it was entertaining but certainly not transcendent, because so much of what was good about it then had to do with the ideas about UFOs that were in the air at the time. Today it seems fairly one-note, especially when compared to Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course it’s wonderful to see Truffaut, a mere seven years before his untimely death. And Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon are terrific together. The film would influence projects as diverse as Cocoon and The Abyss, but ultimately there are much better films from the seventies that represent the craft of Spielberg prior to The Color Purple and his trajectory toward more meaningful historical films.

In his essay for The A List, Matt Zoller Seitz does manage to touch on what remains powerful about the film, “not just what extraterrestrial life might look like but how proof of its existence might make us feel.” But then he spends the bulk of the film recounting the plot, always a tip off that there isn’t a whole lot to talk about otherwise. And that is the case here. It’s telling that when Seitz does get around to analyzing the film he spends far more time talking about E.T. than the actual subject of the essay. He calls the later film an “unofficial sequel,” but the two are so vastly different that it doesn’t make sense on its face. E.T. began with the meeting of the extra-terrestrial, and the dramatic arc of the film was about the relationship that evolved between the “fatherless suburban boy and a stranded alien botanist.” Close Encounters, on the other hand, tries to deal realistically with the subject in the way that it had been presented in the culture at large at the time. Seitz even seems to understand this disparity when at the end of his piece calls E.T. “a storybook addendum” to the earlier film, which only serves to point out the distinct difference between them, then goes on talking about E.T. and never comes back. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is certainly a spectacle worthy of praise, and an absolutely entertaining film to watch. But strictly in terms of Spielberg’s seventies output it’s not only not his best, it’s not even his second best film of the decade.

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