Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey
Tagline: We Are Not Alone
Steven Spielberg’s early masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind took the UFO Phenomenon/New Age 70s/Theology and forged those cultural trends into a cinematic extravaganza to counter the ennui of Post-Vietnam America.
The first 20 minutes set up the separate story lines, creating a mysterious tone. In the Mexican desert a group of government officials interview witnesses and discover airplanes from WWII. We meet the French UFO investigator Lacombe played by Francois Truffaut in a sincere performance. Then a well shot sequence at an air traffic control tower where a UFO is detected on radar. The next scene shifts to the Indiana countryside where a little boy interacts with a mysterious presence. Finally, we meet the Neary family on a typical Saturday night in Muncie, Indiana.
Spielberg’s America gazes at the future with uncertainty and cautious hope. The Neary’s live in uneasy harmony. Roy Neary works as a lineman for the electric company, but wants more. His wife Ronnie (Garr) seems content to live in suburban ease. If it were the 1950s, they would continue on in quiet desperation, but in the 1970s they go their own way.
Spielberg lets us get to know the characters. Roy is working on a train set with his kids and seems more enthralled with it than they are. He wants them to see Pinocchio, but they prefer “goofy golf.” If the movie were made today, about 20 minutes in we would already be off to Devil’s Tower. After Roy is called to assist on a power outage he encounters a UFO and is forever changed as if called by a divine power for a higher purpose.
But the rest of Roy’s family fails to share his enthusiasm, a situation aggravated by his increasingly erratic behavior. The tragic spectacle of a family coming apart is typically not the proper fare of a PG movie, but nevertheless a spectacle consistent with 1970s American culture. In later years Spielberg expressed misgivings with having a father abandon his family, yet it works in the context of the period.
Meanwhile the government attempts to cover up the arrival of the visitors. Spielberg’s depiction of the government marked a departure, here we get a less threatening big brother, keeping the people’s interests at heart to protect them. Many real life government officials actually appeared (including leader of the UFO Report Project Bluebook Dr. J. Alan Hynec.)
The film becomes more of an adventure story during the middle section. With is family gone, Roy heads out to Wyoming to chase his destiny. The sequences shot in Wyoming exemplify Spielberg’s fascination with putting crowd spectacle on film, whether it be the beach goers in Jaws or the voyeurs in The Sugarland Express. The score by John Williams takes on a more majestic tone as well.
The climax at Devil’s Tower remains a signature moment in American cinema. Spielberg’s vision of a harmonious encounter between humanity and an alien intelligence may not have the same resonance today with younger audiences since it’s a New Age concept out of sync with the new Millennium. One can pile upon the interpretations here: the last “love in” before the excessive Reagan 80s, a catharsis to the chaos of post-war America, or as a last gasp submission to a higher power.
Some have accussed Spielberg’s ending of being Fascistic, specifically the idea of humanity turning blindly to some unknowable source for hope, in this case the embryonic beings. Such a view seems a bleak interpretation of cinema’s purpose: reducing people to mindless automatons. It’s about the hero’s journey to achieve transcendence as a liberating force.
Good cinema empowers rather than enfeebles the individual. Art should set the imagination on fire. The well grounded watcher of movies can discern the difference between reality and fantasy.
So Close Encounters of the Third Kind persists as a vision for popular movies frozen in amber because it evokes a sense of wonder, suggesting a course not taken for “tent pole” Hollywood movies. Spielberg became the master of such films in the next stage of his career and few did it better. Most of the imitators came up short, leaving audiences famished and bored. We need grand visions now more than ever!