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SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – <i>Close Encounters of the Third Kind</i>

SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Sean Hanson

September 1st, 2015

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Steven Spielberg is clearly obsessed with aliens — or, more accurately, he’s obsessed with how aliens have traditionally been portrayed. His first film Firelight, completed in 1964 when he was 17, drags a classic alien invasion plot ripped from the pages of War of the Worlds — ”menacing flying saucers” and all, according to the Internet Movie Database — well past the two-hour mark.

Last week, Summers with Spielberg highlighted 1984’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of an alien ever filmed, more Arthur C. Clarke than H.G. Wells. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released in 1977, splits the difference and charts Spielberg’s journey from “aliens are out to get us!” to “aliens love Reese’s Pieces!” … as well as his journey from the modestly budgeted ingenuity of Jaws to the tightly controlled spectacles with which “Spielberg movie” later became synonymous.

Close Encounters begins in the desert, with a character shouting, “Are we the first? Are we the first to arrive here?” Soon, the character will ask a French-speaking American (Bob Balaban) to interpret as he speaks to French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut). “I’m not an interpreter,” Laughlin protests, “I’m just a mapmaker.” Soon, Lacombe, Laughlin, and a team of scientists find warplanes that have been missing since 1945, returned to the desert as if they’d just left the factory floor. Their globe-trotting adventure dovetails with a more intimate, inferior plot — that of Indiana electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), whose encounter with a UFO leaves him sunburnt and obsessed with realizing his strange vision of a giant rock by playing with his mashed potatoes and other malleable substances.

Spielberg’s screenplay, apparently punched up by a team of screenwriting heavyweights (including David Giler and Paul Schrader), shrewdly outlines so many of the film’s thematic concerns — forms of knowledge, the limitations of language, the need for intermediaries, and the thrill of discovery — in that short desert sequence, Roy and his search for meaning seems simultaneously long-winded and undeveloped by comparison. The mystery itself is fascinating, sure, but Close Encounters sets the template for so many of the “obsessive man on a journey his nagging wife can’t possibly understand” films that followed, and Close Encounters handles it all rather queasily, positioning us against his one-dimensional wife (Teri Garr) and his even-less-dimensional children, so that their complaints sound entirely unreasonable, even after Roy refuses to explain why he’s building a six-foot statue out of mud, chicken wire, and lawn debris — and nevermind that a key scene, initially cut from the film for its theatrical release, establishes that Roy wasn’t exactly father-of-the-year material before the incident.

Otherwise, Close Encounters stands as Spielberg’s riskiest and most rewrarding sci-fi film, a near-perfect encapsulation of the peacenik ideas about alien visitation that had been percolating since Carl Sagan helped organize the 1969 American Association for the Advancement of Science UFO symposium. (Strange-but-true story: Sagan, who was optimistic that benevolent aliens would reach out to us first, completed a screenplay for Contact two years after Close Encounters hit theaters, adapted it to a novel in 1985, and died only a year before Robert Zemeckis helmed a new adaptation in 1997, when Contact joined Close Encounters in what is, sadly, a pretty lonely genre.) Only one other Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, emphasizes the sheer sense of wonder that permeates the last hour of Close Encounters to the same effect, and even Jurassic Park finally revels in the joys of chaos and destruction instead of creation and cooperation.

In that sense, the former plays out like the latter in reverse, beginning as a horror story — incidentally, one that prefigures Poltergeist in much of its imagery, inflicting upon the classic conception of the American home the same garish lighting schemes, eerie toys that spring to life once the sun goes down, and introverted children beholden to some dubious higher power — and ending in a celebration of the infinite universe where anything’s possible, whether that’s establishing contact with alien civilizations or resurrecting a wide range of species long thought extinct. Even the shadowy government agents in Close Encounters are a far cry from their counterparts in E.T.: their plan to deal with alien contact sounds like it’s not quite on the up-and-up, but the more you think about it, the more reasonable it seems. Rampant enmity over Vietnam may have primed us to fear bureaucrats and generals, but Close Encounters is subversive precisely because it reminds us that, yes, sometimes government agents really do have our best interests at heart.

Is that a dangerous message? Possibly. Spielberg may catch a lot of flak in some corners for his special brand of moony optimism, but if that were evident anywhere, it would be evident in Close Encounters, a film seemingly absent of villains, but ultimately the movie proves that such optimism is, for the most part, illusory. It’s not that Close Encounters is entirely uncritical of government agents or that it suggests we have nothing to fear should we encounter sufficiently advanced aliens. Close Encounters is unusually obsessed with capturing, in closeup, artifacts of bureaucracy, such as maps, forms, signage, computer readouts, and the kind of block letters that could only come from government-issued pens, a subtle critique of our attempts to classify knowledge and impose order on chaos, and it doesn’t shy away from emphasizing that its aliens have abducted people, seemingly without compunction.

But beyond seeing the universe as a sandbox for villainous G-men and heroic gray men, or vice versa, Close Encounters suggests a third interpretation, one far removed from either War of the Worlds or The Day the Earth Stood Still: the universe is a stage on which electricians, scientists, politicians, wives, husbands, children, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, directors, and composers alike might share something as simple, beautiful, and profound as a five-note sequence meant to convey nothing more complicated than, “We like music too. Would you like to play with us?”

The Eugene Film Society and the City of Eugene Cultural Services proudly present Summers with Spielberg, a weekly series of free screenings of Spielberg’s landmark films. Summers with Spielberg concludes this year’s run with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sept. 2 from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Kesey Square in Downtown Eugene.

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