Wishing on a Starship
Eric Hynes on Close Encounters of the Third Kind
For a filmmaker best known for grand gestures—bringing dinosaurs back to life, orchestrating a bicycle ride across the moon, exhuming Kubrick, monumentalizing D-Day, the Holocaust, and the slave trade, even making the hair on Robin Williams’s back disappear—Steven Spielberg might be at his best when illuminating errant details. A dedicated symbolist, he can’t help but bestow import on whatever he captures (the more obvious his object, the more blunt the effect, whether it’s an American flag, a dark face, or a red coat in a black-and-white world.) His cinema telescopes and microscopes, making big what’s small, and near what’s far, and always making you feel—both physically and emotionally—the ingenious contraption at work. Rarely has his marriage of form and feeling worked as fluidly and guilelessly as it did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film of colossal ambition that plays as intimate, of heart-thumping sensations that register as cosmic, of wondrous spectacle that in the end just sings.
Coming just two year’s after the director’s own Jaws jump-started the blockbuster era, and a mere six months after Star Wars raised the bar, Close Encounters still exceeded all expectations, raking in over $300 million and furthering the culture’s science-fiction craze. Yet even with its big budget and masscult appeal, it still managed to feel like a film of the American maverick era, with one foot in the future, and the other in the dusty, post-hippie, faux-wood-on-a-station-wagon present. While Lucas blasted us into a galaxy far, far away, Spielberg brought the galaxy home, shining its brilliance right through the kitchen door. A large thanks for this belongs to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance), who won an Oscar for visualizing a world in which spaceships and bellbottoms share the frame. He films a cluttered suburban living room with the same sensuousness as the Gobi Desert, a little boy with the same majesty as he does unlikely costar François Truffaut. The blockbuster era was at hand, but so was a global recession, so were fresh memories of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Forget the special effects: Spielberg’s most impressive trick was producing a seventies-set drama so devoid of cynicism.
It’s the small things you notice first. A blip on the radar screen; a toy robot buzzing to life; lights in the rearview; Johnny Mathis spookily summoned on the turntable; a little boy’s frown turned upside down by an off-screen marvel. These initial signs of alien life are negligible phenomenon, but they register as profound. And since they take place in private spaces—in the home, in the car—they also feel personal. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary acquires an asymmetrically sunburned face from his first unidentified encounter, it’s more than proof of alien life—he’s been tangibly altered. Vital to the construction of the larger story, the sunburn detail is even more crucial to the development of the personal one. Whereas his wife wants to cover up or explain the burn away, Roy wears it like a badge. After all, the phenomenon happened to him.
Roy struggles to make sense of what he’s seen, and with the fact that he has no control over how he’s changed. He’s lost his job, alienated his wife, and spooked his kids, yet he can’t bring himself to care about any of it—not since the universe slipped in through the car window. While the film’s protracted middle section is its most forgettable, here Spielberg’s at least striving to ground his fantasy in everyday life (something he’d nail in E.T. ). Essential as these scenes are, Dreyfuss and Teri Garr chew more scenery than they should (watching a Cassavetian domestic meltdown in the middle of a science fiction flick isn’t as fun as it sounds), and a lot of screen time is burned without a whole lot of character development (we get it: he’s obsessed, and she’s had it up to here). Spielberg also gets a little too cute with the Devil’s Tower compulsion, belaboring Roy’s unconscious noodling, drawing, sculpting and construction of flat top mountains before he finally notices that his inspiration is right there on the TV! Then it’s a cross-country scamper to Wyoming with fellow traveler Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon, who’s marvelous but underexploited emotionally, especially since she plays the mom of a toddler who’s been abducted by aliens), a sit-down with fellow wide-eyed obsessive, the French scientist Claude Lacombe (Truffaut), and finally the mounting of the Tower. But the Tower is merely a location, not the destination. Not exactly a red herring, the land mass is more like a knowable entity in the midst of the unknowable, a tangible goal as the unfathomable waits right around the corner.
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