When I wrote Alien aesthetics earlier this year, I intended to make a recurring feature of analyzing the films I watch. And, as so often happens, life got in the way and pushed me down the stairs like a school bully.
But I’m taking it back. I’m taking it all back.
I recently watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time. Well, the first time in its entirety. Close Encounters used to show up on television pretty often when I was a kid, but Close Encounters isn’t really a movie for eight-year-olds — especially when it consists of so many quiet moments being shattered by regular commercial breaks. Watched with the patience of an adult (and the blessing of commercial-free home video), Close Encounters proved to be truly magnificent.
You can see how Steven Spielberg earned his reputation for being a soft-hearted, happy-endings kind of director here. Close Encounters is like no other science fiction film I’ve ever seen. It has alien abductions, an everyman hero, and the active participation of the U.S. military… but it’s not that kind of movie. There are no villains, here, and the government seems uninterested in trapping aliens or stealing their technology or however it usually goes in movies; instead, everyone is simply driven to unravel the mystery of the unidentified flying objects that keep appearing over North America. No one is a bad guy, and the climax of the film resolves the plot’s tension not with violence or conflict but with the cathartic discovery of what it all means.
As a kid, I thought the aliens were the point of the movie, which is part of why I found it so dull; outside of the extraordinary final chapter of the film, Close Encounters goes easy on the special effects, with only a handful of puzzling appearances by quick-moving lights to tip the story’s hand. But really, the aliens are practically incidental — they could be any kind of mysterious visitors, fantastic or mundane. The extraterrestrial element simply pushes it more toward a science fiction designation — though this is far from the clinical take on the genre of a 2001. On the other hand, it’s considerably more grounded in reality than Star Wars, which debuted with its own memorable John Williams score a mere six months prior to Close Encounters‘ November 1977 debut.
If Star Wars was a coming-of-age tale presented in the style of a Kurosawa epic with a Buck Rogers backdrop, Close Encounters was the story of a middle-age crisis presented through a high-class ’60s B-movie. Spielberg’s visual vocabulary here emphasizes long focal lengths and extended single-camera scenes. But it’s not really dated; the conservative cinematography gives greater impact to the alien encounters, which are filmed more adventurously. Tight camera crops and flaring lights against the darkness of the night keep the visitors enigmatic and ensure their otherworldly perception. Spielberg developed this trick as a matter of budget necessity with Jaws — he didn’t have enough money to build an effective shark prop, so he almost never showed the eponymous great white on-screen — and here he employs it more deliberately. The weakest moments in the film are the ones that show too much of the aliens: The awkward puppet that flashes gang signs of peace, and the craft interior shots added at the studio’s behest (and later removed again in Spielberg’s “definitive” cut).
And yet everyone made fun of J.J. Abrams for doing this.
The scientists who work to decrypt the visitors’ enigmatic messages, transmitted to Earth in the form of musical stings and numerical strings, are an earthier, more ’70s take on the strong-jawed scientist archetypes who drifted through black-and-white laboratories filled with Van de Graff generators, making terse proclamations to fainting lady assistants. The random machinery of old sci-fi is replaced with functional equipment — room-sized minicomputers, reel-to-reel audio and data recording setups, elaborate light-and-sound setups borrowed from a contemporary Pink Floyd or Genesis stage setup to allow NASA technicians to speak to their interstellar guests via synthesizer riffs.
The government seemingly has benevolent intentions — to make peaceful contact with an unknown intelligent life form and recover citizens lost to abductions through the past half-century. Nevertheless, the scientists play the role of interlopers here; they’re not villains, but they’re also not really who the aliens want to meet. They exist in the background here, helping advance the story while complicating the real protagonist’s drive to make face-to-face contact with the aliens and put his personal obsession to rest.
Eventually, you come to realize that Close Encounters is the story of Roy Neary, who slowly rises from the chaos of the film’s many different story fragments to become the one man most profoundly affected by the looming presence of the extraterrestrials. After a close encounter that takes the form of unexplained electromagnetic phenomena and a bright orange light that bathes his pickup in the dead of night, Roy becomes fixated on learning more about the forces behind his experience. He begins hunting for clues to the exclusion of his job and eventually his family, who leave him behind when he tries to clear his head only to become afflicted with a renewed fervor.
It should be said that Close Encounters doesn’t simply represent the story of a mid-life crisis; it represents a young man’s interpretation of a mid-life crisis. Spielberg was still fairly young in 1977 and has admitted that if he had been a father by that point, he’d never have written a movie where the protagonist willingly abandons his family to go off on an adventure. But I think the movie is stronger for Roy’s eagerness to leave everything behind. It doesn’t make him a nice person, but it makes him more interesting — a man gripped so powerfully by an obsession that he’s willing to leave behind his life, his love, everything he’s ever known in exchange for the answer to the enigmas that have taken over his life.
While it could be easy to find Roy unsympathetic as he destroys his life, barely even blinking as his family abandons him and exploring his attraction to a fellow alien obsessive, the dusty, mundane look of the film really grounds him. He’s a salt-of-the-earth type, a normal joe consumed by something beyond his control or his comprehension. It’s not so much that Roy is making a pilgrimage, but rather that he’s performing an exorcism.
What I find most compelling about Close Encounters is its general lack of conflict. I can’t imagine anyone getting away with making a movie like this today, especially one that culminates in 20 minutes of people standing around looking at musical lights. And yet that finale is so profoundly moving, as the scientists tentatively learn to communicate with the visitors and finally reach the breakthrough that allows Roy to satisfy his obsession in exchange for 40 years’ worth of abductees going free — a symphony of vivid sight and sound.
After Jaws‘ success, Spielberg could have made any kind of auteur movie he wanted. He chose to create one that embodied a childhood sense of wonder at the unknown. We could stand to see more of that.