This is gonna be a fairly in-depth analysis and, as such, I'm gonna dip inordinately deep into spoiler territory. Watch first and then read this later!
If you were to ask me to name a movie that best epitomizes the "magic of cinema", I'd be quick to mention Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like Star Wars seven months earlier, I distinctly remember stumbling out of the theater after seeing the film as a kid back in November of 1977, looking up at the sky and feeling as if I'd been changed somehow.
When electrical worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) responds to a swath of late-night power outages he has an experience that will forever alter his life. His service truck conks out near some train tracks and he's blasted from above by a blinding light. When he looks out to determine the source of the disturbance one side of his face gets burnt beet red. The nearby railroad crossing sign starts undulating wildly like a spastic metronome and a hive of mailboxes begin to open and close all by themselves. Gravity goes nuts inside the cab of the truck, sending flotsam and jetsam spining everywhere.
After the odd phenomenon abruptly ends, Roy spots a huge, silent object floating away overhead. He gives chase and eventually gets a really close look at some unidentified flying objects. During the pursuit he nearly runs over three-year-old Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) who's been running after someone (or something) that just broke into his rural home. His distraught mom Jillian (Melinda Dillon) is too stunned by what she's just seen to be mad at Roy and the two immediately bond over this strange sighting.
They both become obsessed with the encounter and are haunted by the vision of a mysterious, volcano-shaped mountain which they try to re-create using such diverse media as pencil, sculpture and mashed potatoes. Things turn particularly grim when little Barry is abducted by the aliens and Roy's wife Jillian (Teri Garr) leaves her husband after he builds a giant butte in the middle of their living room.
But when Roy and Jillian witness news reports about a nerve gas accident near Devil's Tower in Wyoming, things start to fall into place. Motivated by an inexplicable drive for answers, the pair make a pilgrimage to the area, hoping to sneak into the quarantine zone. Almost immediately they're arrested, questioned and sent packing. At the last minute, Roy gambles that the crisis is a sham and dashes off with Jillian. Together they make a final desperate bid to fulfill their cosmic invitation and experience the ultimate close encounter: contact.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is definitely the product of its time and if Spielberg tried to make it today I think it would turn out a lot different. First off, the esoteric title would stymie the movie marketing morons and would probably be changed to something like Invasion From The Stars, Keep Watching The Skies! or The Fast and the Futuristic. The age demographic of the two leads would likely be dropped from thirty-something to twenty-something. It's also highly improbable that Frenchman François Truffaut and plain-jane Melinda Dillon would never be cast.
I suspect that the secondary / concurrent story-line with the scientists would also be jettisoned, thus compromising a major source of the film's aforementioned "magic". Check out that freaky, yet vaguely superfluous opening sequence in which researcher Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his ersatz interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) find a fleet of missing, mint-condition World War II-era fighters sitting in the middle of the Mexican desert, sans pilots. When they question an old man who witnessed their sudden and inexplicable appearance he simply tells them that "the sun came out at night and sang to him."
I'm convinced that Chris Carter probably saw Close Encounters at the perfect time and it heavily influenced his work on the X-Files. This, in turn, had a positive creative ripple effect on countless other movies and T.V. shows. Consider how many times your attention's been piqued by some weird, seemingly-unrelated hook at the beginning of a television program. A hook that, at face value, has nothing to do with the show's continuity or the first twenty minutes of the episode. It works because it defies expectations, shatters conventional story-telling structure and gives us a juicy mystery to ponder right off the bat.
More weirdness abounds in the script. We watch on pins and needles as an air traffic controller presides over a close encounter between two passenger jets and another unidentified aircraft that displays unearthly speed and maneuverability. He asks the pilots if they want to report a UFO but they sheepishly decline, perhaps fearing the repercussions of doing so. Later on in the film, Lacombe and Laughlin come across a missing cargo ship just lying in the middle of the Gobi Desert. As a kid growing up in the 70's all of these mind-blowing oddities dove-tailed nicely with Bigfoot, Crystal Skulls and the Bermuda Triangle.
Things get even trippier when a bunch of odd lights in the sky transmit a five-note musical phrase to hordes of people in Dharamsala, India. The scientists beam the notes back into space and receive what appear to be random numbers in return. Eventually it's determined that the digits are a set of co-ordinates centered around Devil's Tower in Wyoming. This sets off a series of events that completely shattered my fragile eggshell mind as a kid.
Clearly Spielberg and his generation were still working through the implications of the Watergate scandal. Indeed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was my very first introduction to the concept that people in authority can lie to you. To prevent widespread panic and ensure that there are no eyewitnesses to the big interstellar rally, the military concocts a fraudulent nerve gas leak story in order to evacuate thousands of locals from the surrounding area. When I first saw the film I missed the whole part about the military using knock-out gas and left the theater thinking that the army had slaughtered all of the local livestock to give credence to their lie. That's a pretty hefty thing for a seven-year-old kid to process.
Another thing that Spielberg himself would probably not do nowadays is have his main character flat-out abandon his family. We get some hints of this early on in the film: Roy's model train set dominates the living room and later he tries to cajole his unimaginative family into seeing Pinocchio, the story of a puppet becoming a real boy. This last reference also foreshadows Roy's gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at.
In 1976 Steven Spielberg was thirty years old, single and without kids. His script for Close Encounters seems to hint at a fear of commitment and responsibility. Roy is a man-boy who likes model trains and cartoons and his real-life obligations are slowly beating the inner child out of him. The aliens represent imagination, alternatives and wonder, not fear or obligation. Little Barry isn't scared of the visitors and neither is Roy, but all of the other adults see them as either a threat or as a hoax.
The film also functions quite nicely as a mid-life crisis analogy. Roy is immediately fired from his stressful, thankless job the second he talks about UFO's on TV. His wife is a boring, unimaginative, shrew who has nothing but disdain for his flights of fancy. His kids are ungrateful, destructive, emotionally manipulative little hooligans. Roy's terrestrial life is so dull and pointless there's no wonder why he wants to find the aliens and fly off with them. The visitors are like a hot, young, new love interest who comes along, thinks you're fascinating, wants to get to know you better and then tempts you to run away with them on some crazy, irrational adventure where the possibilities are, once again, endless.
Yes, you can have a field day with all of this sub-text but you can also enjoy the movie on a purely superficial level. The household banter and chaos of the Neary household is achingly real and rife with subtle humor. When Roy impatiently waves at the traffic behind his truck to move along only we're privy to the sight of the "headlights" rising up and out of frame instead. The aliens activate all of Barry's wind-up toys, leading to a cacophony of cymbal-clanking monkeys, grinding gears and flashing laser beams.
Countless evocative moments abound in this film. You can almost smell the bug-off, roasting weenies and warm summer air as a group of amateur UFO enthusiasts anxiously await the return of their extraterrestrial friends. The alien ships resemble airplane guide-lights shrouded in a corona of fog, giving them just enough authenticity to feel real. To this day I still think of Close Encounters whenever faced with opposing traffic cresting a distant hill on the highway. I fully expect those high beams to start strobing, change colors and then launch off the top of the hill and fly overhead.
It wasn't just thoughts of government conspiracy that scared the ever-lovin' shit outta me; I was also completely traumatized by Roy's increasingly-erratic behavior. As a kid, your trust in adults is absolute and if they start acting weird, your whole world gets rocked. When Roy starts taking fully-clothed showers, sculpting his side-dishes and weeping openly at the dinner table the resulting strife felt uncomfortably real and very scary to me. Mercifully the tone does lighten up when Roy begins his unconventional, in-house landscaping project but up to that point it was pretty rough going for this l'il shaver.
And then there's the film's two bravura moments, the first being the abduction of Barry. Very few movies succeed in generating the sort of cresting tsunami of dread that this scene engenders. The aliens herald their arrival with roiling, apocalyptic-looking storm clouds, instantly evoking shades of Norman-Rockwell-meets- Invaders-from-Mars when superimposed high above Jillian's impeccably color-timed farmhouse. Thanks to a perfect storm of taut direction, excellent lighting, and John William's amazing score, this sequence becomes the stuff of pure, unadulterated nightmares.
Jillian does her best to barricade the house against imminent invasion and prevent her son from voluntarily waltzing out the front door. But as soon as Spielberg gives us a macro view of bolts slowly unscrewing out of the floor vent by themselves we just know that the kid's disappearance is inevitable. I think this was the first time that this gimmick was ever used in a film and when you add it to the rest of Spielberg's technical virtuosity, it results in one of the most thoroughly-effective and unnerving scenes in cinema history.
Then we have the big, götterdämmerung alien / human summit in the shadow of Devil's Tower. Again Spielberg serves up the perfect confection of convincing sets, organic dialogue, and exponentially-dazzling sights. Although Steven certainly deserves the lion's share of praise, credit must also go to editor Micheal Khan for taking such a complicated finale and making it tight, crystal clear and packed with one jaw-dropping spectacle after another. If not for Star Wars, I'm convinced that Khan would have won the Best Editing Oscar in 1978.
Contributing to the film's bling-factor is Douglas Trumbull's special effects. To this day, his work is incredibly convincing and the appearance of the massive mother-ship is still a crowd-pleasing, jaw-dropping visual barn-burner. Aided considerably by the stellar work of veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the movie looks fantastic throughout and the final sequence especially so.
Perhaps the only place where the film stumbles a teensy bit is in the reveal of the visitors. The first creature, a spindly, marionette-type thing, looks super-freaky at first but then we get a side-shot where we can clearly see some kind of support beam behind it, which probably explains why we never see it again. Then, for the little "gray aliens", Spielberg dresses up a bunch of kids in skin-tight outfits with over-sized heads, pot bellies and spindly fingers. This works reasonably well since Spielberg shoots them at all a distance, in silhouette and then Micheal Khan's judicious cuts ensure that no one shot lingers on them for too long.
Finally we see the lead ambassador alien, rendered as a full-sized puppet designed by renowned animatronics expert Carlo Rambaldi. Given the liberal application of back-lighting, filters and smoke, the blinking, smiling, head-tilting creature looks legitimately other-worldly and pretty darned authentic. The illusion starts to break down somewhat when the thing is tasked to return Lacombe's Curwen hand signs. The "skin" looks rubbery and the movements are very mechanical, bringing to mind "Disney's Country (Alien) Bear (Hybrid) Jamboree". Clearly this technology was refined quite a bit by the time Spielberg got around to making E.T. four years later.
But the film isn't all about special effects and flashy technology; the human element is also top-notch. Richard Dreyfuss is very relatable: a frustrated, confused everyman who didn't ask to see anything strange, but now that he has and can't un-see it, he's driven to seek the truth at all costs. Everything Dreyfuss brings to the table: the mania, the fear, the epiphany, the anger and the sense of wonderment are all completely convincing. The scene where he's grilled by Lacombe and Laughlin about his presence in the quarantine zone is a true tour de force:
Speaking of Lacombe, François Truffaut was certainly an unconventional choice to play a lead character in an American-made sci-fi film. Nowadays, Truffaut is mainly remembered as a director of art films and not as an actor. Although I do believe that his thespic talents were somewhat limited, his showing in Close Encounters is perfectly serviceable. As a scientist and a researcher, we don't need him to be warm and cuddly. In fact, his "cold fish" approach to the material keeps us guessing about his motivations right up to the very end.
Melinda Dillon is perfectly cast as fretful and anguished single mom Jillian Guiler. Bereft of make-up and possessed of a world-weary bearing that instantly conveys both exhaustion and concern, I totally bought her fictional relationship with little Cary Guffey. It's agonizing to see Barry get ripped right out of Jillian's hands and then watch her get pulled through a knothole of public scrutiny that calls her competence and even her sanity into question. On the flip-side, her joy in finding Roy as a loyal ally is exhilarating and her reaction to the finale is particularly stirring.
The film is also graced by a series of memorable minor performances. Teri Garr is great as Roy's persistently out-of-patience wife Ronnie. Spielberg used very clever and innovative visual and audio techniques to wring a completely authentic performance out of then-three-year-old Cary Guffey. And finally Bob Balaban is cool and collected as cartographer-turned-interpreter David Laughlin.
Close Encounters was made at the perfect time, back when Steven Spielberg was a hot, young, hip, up-and-coming film-maker who managed to wed the unconventional scripting of a Seventies-era maverick auteur with the directorial chops of Alfred Hitchcock. Obvious sentimentality and shmaltz hadn't crept into his films yet. Roy's willingness to abandon his family to fly off with the visitors would be a pretty unpopular choice with contemporary audiences, but back then it sprang from an honest place and I applaud Spielberg for having the gusts to follow through on it.
As such, I still maintain that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most complex and rewarding pictures in all of Spielberg's celebrated body of work.