Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

I never thought I would find myself intensely rooting for a man who, so blatantly, abandons his family, but something inside of you, while you are watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, honestly pulls for Roy Neary. As you should have gathered already, this is not just a movie about aliens. Steven Spielberg has a knack for infusing intense, personal stories into special effects extravaganza's and creating what can only be described as movie magic. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is full of this magic. It's a extremely complex, often times dark and surprisingly beautiful movie that just so happens to have some aliens in it. It's not quite science fiction, and that makes it especially hard to pin-down what makes it work. What do you call a movie full of aliens if you can't simply call it science fiction?

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is, essentially, a one man show. Roy Neary, superbly portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, is not exactly the world's greatest father or husband. These problems only multiply when he becomes obsessed with finding out the truth after an encounter with an U.F.O. This obsession leads him, and others who are experiencing this same, inexplicable, attraction to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, on a journey to discover what really happened. He is accompanied by a woman named Jillian, Melinda Dillon, who he meets on the night of his first sighting. Jillian's young son is abducted by the alien's and both Roy and Jillian do everything in their power to have their questions answered. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is also a technical marvel. The way it's shot, the special effects and the score are all absolutely brilliant. For a movie made in 1977 not to look completely dated is a remarkable achievement from a special effects standpoint. Steven Spielberg has a long resume of classics, or films destined to be classics, but the artful blending of drama, suspense and science fiction in Close Encounters of the Third Kind nearly tops the list of his directorial achievements.

True classic films do one of two things; the define genre or they defy it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind defies genre in a way that few movies have. As a science fiction movie, it's an interesting exploration of first contact with extra-terrestrials. The iconic five note scale that is used to communicate with the aliens and the mysterious reappearance of Flight 19 are ideas that could only come out of a science fiction film, but that is really only a fraction of what the movie is about.

Where the film truly succeeds is in portraying the effects of contact on regular people. This is where the conflict that drives the movie comes from. The blending of suspense, even horror, at times and drama is really beautiful. The terror and mystery that occurs when regular people have a close encounter is really excellent. Roy's first encounter on the train tracks and the abduction of Jillian's son are terrifying sequences that leave you with no real answers. You feel the same need to find these answers that Roy and Jillian feel. This helps you empathize with the characters, even when they do things that aren't exactly good or responsible. This all plays into Roy's obsession beautifully. You feel the same way he does, so even when he is going insane, you side with him instead of his family. It's only when you see how it tears his family apart that you remember there is more going on here. This conflict is essential to the film's pace and to keeping the stakes high, even though they fall off towards the end of the movie. Roy's decision to abandon his family is born out of this conflict, and this decision is one of the things that makes the film truly interesting. Like his decision or not, it is powerfully supported by the rest of the film, even if Spielberg thinks it was a mistake.

While Spielberg certainly creates movie magic, he also has a tendency to show more than he should. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has a few moments that don't quite stand-up to the rest of the film's quality and it feels light in a few, key, areas. The biggest flaw in the movie may very well be in the last fifteen minutes. The film's conflict dies out as the film reaches, what should be it's climax, and most of the tension dries up. There is certainly a lot to like about the movies ending, but it lacks intensity. It's here that you can feel Spielberg's desire to try and hide the repercussions of  Roy's actions. He ends up multiplying the criticism though because Roy doesn't spend a single second deciding whether or not to leave. Spielberg also shows a bit too much of the aliens. There is a really amazing moment where the mothership opens and a disturbing, alien looking creature is inside. That shot alone, would have sufficed, but Spielberg keeps showing us more and more. We go from something mysterious, slightly scary and interesting to what is clearly a bunch of children in rubber suits. Needless to say it doesn't work for me. There is also a slight issue of character back-story throughout the film. Roy's marital issues and history are pretty well alluded to, but I never quite feel like I know who he is. The same can be said about Jillian. These characters are really believable, but I find myself asking a lot of questions about them.

While it doesn't do it total justice, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a science fiction film. It's drama and suspense are derived from a science fiction element, but it is certainly more than your simple alien movie. There is a lot of complexity to dig into here and a lot to love about Spielberg's first, and certainly, his best attempt at making a sci-fi movie.


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