CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Rated PG
(for action sequences, some disturbing images, and language)
Released: December 25, 1977
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, Lance Henriksen

Day 6 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

Steven Spielberg has called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List his most personal films. I’d call Close Encounters Of The Third Kind his most spiritual. The truest test of a film’s spiritual merits for a viewer, or how one defines any experience as spiritual (movies or otherwise), is how closely it mirrors their own. More on that in a bit.

Directing his own original screenplay (also his first), Spielberg makes a staggering leap in scale and scope, but also thematic ambition. There is considerable growth on display here, both as a filmmaker and (perhaps especially) as a storyteller. If Jaws showcased a total command of cinematic craft, Close Encounters revealed an artistry – not just visual, but soulful. It’s amazing that Spielberg could express such a profound universal longing while still in his late 20s, to a degree I couldn’t fully begin to articulate until my early 40s.

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By having Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) – following a brief encounter with an alien spacecraft – wrestle with his place in the universe, Spielberg seems to be wrestling with his own. Neary’s angst is most certainly Spielberg’s, finding voice through this parable of alien contact – that ranges from the local to the global to the galactic – in which it’s not simply life from other planets that’s discovered but, possibly, purpose and meaning.

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This is a story of existential crisis. Roy, and a select few others like him from around the world, feels a stronger attachment (or perhaps even a calling) to an unknown “out there” than to anything known here. It’s the belief, the faith – the complicated, frustrating faith – that feels drawn more to mystery than certainty. Yet it’s a mystery so unfathomable, in some ways abstract, and so beyond ourselves that it can induce as much anxiety as hope. But it’s also the only thing that can really be trusted.

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This sentiment is best expressed in the film’s most poignant exchange – from a movie filled with them – between an earnest scientist that’s trying to help Roy and others like him (the aliens’ first disciples?) who are drawn to a specific location by metaphysical compulsion:

CLAUDE LACOMBE: What did you expect to find?
ROY NEARY: An answer. That’s not crazy, is it?

On a personal note: for most of my life, my Christian faith was the same way. It was an existential Christianity. And on a recent viewing of Close Encounters, I saw my whole spiritual journey of the last several years, in essence, laid out in front of me. It started in a faith that made sense and provided hope, even answers, but still had holes. Holes that shouldn’t have been there but were. It didn’t add up like people kept telling me it was supposed to – not just for me but, perhaps in some cases, not even for them. Like Roy, I kept feeling drawn to something I couldn’t define, or even find. But I couldn’t stop looking. That wasn’t even a choice. But when I found Eastern Orthodoxy, my Christianity was no longer existential. The Orthodox Church was, to put a fine point on it, my Mothership.

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But I digress. Yet I do so to stress just how much Close Encounters resonates, that it definitely is “of a kind”, and most astonishingly that it came from the singular soul – as both director and writer – of a very young filmmaker.

For as deep as all this goes, it’s a far cry from ponderous musings of philosophical pretense. This is not Terrence Malick sci-fi. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is, in modern terms, the quintessential J.J. Abrams “Mystery Box”, perhaps better than it’s ever been done, unraveling an epic mystery (right from its opening scene) as much by its characters and their yearnings as it does through a perfectly constructed plot machine. Along the way it raises more questions than it answers, yet still provides a resolution that is both narratively and intuitively satisfying.

And then there’s the spectacle. For as well-shot and made as Jaws was, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond – working with Spielberg a second time, following The Sugarland Express – elevates Steven’s instincts considerably. Zsigmond paints Spielberg’s vision with a much richer palette. Dreyfuss, too, is working at his peak. 1977 was his year; he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. But, as is often with that honor, it was for the wrong role: the Neil Simon romantic dramedy The Goodbye Girl. His performance here as Roy Neary is clearly the better, richer, superior one; deeply felt and passionately wrought.

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Once again, much of the power in a Spielberg film has to be attributed to the music of John Williams, particularly here as those distinctive 5-note tones were the crucial point of communication between humans and aliens. Williams’ compositions run a wide range, from provoking fear and terror to building mystery and, ultimately, capturing elation. The 12-minute suite that underscores the finale is one of his all-time epic achievements (and would, providentially, be mirrored and arguably surpassed five years later with the finale sequence of E.T.).

Star Wars may have been the blockbuster breakout of 1977, but Close Encounters – despite its big budget and Spielberg sentiment – was, in spirit, the year’s art house sci-fi. In the end, Close Encounters taps into the core of what profound spiritual journeys illuminate: that Truth isn’t learned through intellectual ascent or clarity. Truth is revealed. Experienced. It’s not a collection of facts that can be learned, mastered, and controlled. Truth is a mystery, and it must be encountered.

Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Produced by Columbia Pictures, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind marked the first movie that Spielberg made outside of Universal Studios.
  • Richard Dreyfuss – reuniting on his second-consecutive film with Spielberg following Jaws– was not the first actor to be offered the role of Roy Neary. Others who turned it down first: Steve McQueen (Spielberg’s initial choice), Dustin HoffmanAl Pacino,Jack NicholsonGene Hackman, and James Caan all passed for one reason or another.
  • Meryl Streep was in the running to play Neary’s wife, but Spielberg chose Teri Garr instead, in large part because of the range of emotion she showed in a 30-second coffee commercial.
  • This marked Spielberg’s first collaboration with film editor Michael Kahn. It would not be their last. Kahn’s continued partnership with Spielberg is second only in duration to composer John Williams.
  • After hearing John Williams score for Star Wars through friend George Lucas, Spielberg said he feared that all of Williams’ good space compositions had been used up.
  • As you stay on the lookout for “Spielberg Oners” (see definition in my post here), possibly the most subtle from all of his films is found here. It’s the moment Roy discovers what “the shape” is that he’s been compulsively sculpting. It’s a 90 second shot in which, after an initial short dolly, the camera never actually moves; rather, it’s Roy’s choreographed movement that causes the shot to shift from being a wide to a medium to a close-up. Another is Roy and Jillian’s ascent to Devil’s Tower, as helicopters pursue.
  • One of the featured UFO watchers in Roy’s suburban neighborhood was played by Roberts Blossom; he would go on to make a strong and lasting impression as the neighbor Old Man Marley in Home Alone. He also worked once more with Spielberg, in Always.
  • There’s a shot of a ship stranded in the middle of a desert. In the distance, scientists look on. This was achieved through good old fashioned “forced perspective”, placing a little model in the sand, staging the actors far off in the distance, and then with the right lens making it appear as if people are observing a gigantic tanker of actual size.
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