Spielberg Film-by-Film: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters - Poster

Close Encounters - PosterSixth in a series

He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

Steven Spielberg wrote and directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s not particularly well-written, but the direction is out of this world. Three feature films into his career, Spielberg seems increasingly indifferent to writing and acting (the best performance in the movie is by four year-old Cary Guffey), but his technical proficiency, his skill in conceiving and framing images, his use of color as an expressive tool, make Close Encounters almost as awe-inspiring as the director intends. If it ultimately falls short, it’s because the drama is never grounded in the performances.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is the everyman – our surrogate in a story that only wants to elicit awe. (The film’s original title was Watch the Skies, a better choice.) Neary is an electrical lineman, called to investigate a massive power outage. He becomes lost, and in the film’s funniest sequence we see what we’d taken for a car’s headlights rise vertically behind Neary’s truck. As in Jaws (1975), Spielberg teases us by withholding – we glimpse bits at a time, and see things being acted on, without comprehending the source. A blinding light shines on Neary, which instantly sunburns half his face. From that point on, Neary is consumed by a desperate need to find the source of that light.

The story is essentially a religious pilgrimage, with scattered true believers recounting hints of “something out there,” then making their way to a rendezvous communicated by mysterious visions. (An early draft was titled Kingdom Come.) Spielberg reinforces the religious concept with imagery from old Biblical epics: herald angel spacecraft are accompanied by roiling clouds lifted from DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956); late in the film Neary commands “Don’t look back” as the pilgrims struggle to reach the Promised Land – the one who disobeys is felled by sleeping gas (preferable to a pillar of salt, but we get the idea.) The film’s climax is essentially a church service (driven home by a short scene depicting an actual religious service), complete with music and ritual.

The music in that final scene is spectacular, although it’s entirely too much everywhere else. John Williams knows how to work his orchestral toolset for effect, the same way Spielberg wields cameras. As in Jaws, the music doesn’t so much complement the action as attempt to dictate it (Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn reportedly cut the movie to Williams’ score, a reversal of the usual order.) Williams’ iconic five-tone melody, a kind of cosmic “hello,” is just as effective as the shark’s theme in Jaws, except here it indicates hope and wonder instead of dread. (At one point, a giant spaceship plays the old Jaws theme, an inside joke – the assembled onlookers apparently haven’t seen that film, or they’d run for the hills.)

Spielberg once again opens a film on a black screen, but this time instead of ambient sounds we hear music. Just strings at first, no melody, then brass, building to a triumphant major chord. (It recalls the orchestral tune-up in The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.) That beginning summarizes the entire film – uncertainty, growing cacophony tinged with awe, followed by joyous resolution. We see Lacombe (François Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) travel the globe in pursuit of clues: long-disappeared airplanes parked intact in the desert, a man who saw the sun come out at night (his sunburn predicts the one Neary will receive), a crowd of people in Dharamsala who sing Williams’ five-note theme. (It’s not clear why Lacombe needs to be French, or why he needs a translator, since he seems to understand and occasionally speaks English. Laughlin’s only real purpose seems to be the “eureka” identification of the geographic location of the film’s climax.)

The action shifts to young Barry (Guffey), awakened in his room by self-animating toys. He gets up, unconcerned that food from the refrigerator has been scattered and splattered around the kitchen, and is summoned outdoors by Something. Jillian (Melinda Dillon), Barry’s mother, tries to protect him in a scene out of a horror movie – nightmare lighting, floor vents unscrewing themselves, stove turning on and off, Something coming down the chimney… It’s not really terrifying because we’re encouraged to see it through Barry’s wide, delighted eyes instead of through his mother’s. When the action shifts to Roy’s story, his skeptical wife (Teri Garr) and children think Roy is having a breakdown when he constructs a mountainous sculpture of soil and garbage in their living room (a reasonable conclusion). By now we’re clued in to Spielberg’s theme: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Roy’s family doesn’t have faith – not only do they not enter the kingdom, they disappear from the movie altogether.

Spielberg seems to have broken a cardinal rule of cinema – the body count must reflect the money spent to make the movie. The fact that Columbia Pictures went bankrupt before Close Encounters was released might put the studio’s executives in the category of True Believers as well. Spielberg’s heretical climax is not a decadent orgy of violence but a beatific liturgy. No people are even harmed in the movie, let alone killed. Even military forces are presented as vaguely threatening obfuscators – the worst they do is dust with sleeping powder. It’s in this naïve/hopeful sense that Close Encounters is perhaps the ultimate movie fantasy. In refusing to be cynical, by insisting there is something BETTER “out there,” it redeems the vision and commitment of the faithful more effectively than any religious epic before it. More than that, it suggests there is hope for all.

* * * * *

Spielberg’s first full-length movie was called Firelight – it was financed by his father and played one night in his hometown cinema in 1963. In 1973, Columbia Pictures agreed to make a science fiction movie with Spielberg, and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) wrote a draft. Spielberg wanted to expand his original Firelight vision as well as his own short story Experiences (1970). The original budget for Close Encounters was around $3 million; by the time it was finished, it cost more than $19 million. It was Spielberg’s second huge budget and scheduling overrun (Jaws was also a monster in that regard.) Of course, Columbia recovered their investment and then some.

My first memory of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is seeing the novel in my favorite bookstore, before the movie was released. I didn’t know what novelizations were back then – I figured since Steven Spielberg was named as author, he wrote the book and then decided to make a movie out of it. (Star Wars was the same way – I picked up the novel “by George Lucas” before I saw the movie. I realize now they must have been ghost-written, but I won’t mention how long it took me to figure it out.) I remember being bored by the book (without Spielberg’s visuals, it must have been pretty boring.)

The movie’s advertising campaign also emphasized the “Close Encounters” categorization popularized by UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. At first I thought I’d somehow missed Close Encounters of the First Kind (and Second) – I was miffed not to have seen the beginning parts of the story. I remember newspaper (maybe TV) ads that asserted, “The events depicted in this film have never been disproven.” So of course I thought it was all based on a true story. Add to the mix that I’d just seen Star Wars (Lucas’ film beat Close Encounters to market because of Spielberg’s delays.) I was ready for the Greatest Movie Ever.

So… Close Encounters of the Third Kind was not at all what I’d expected. My parents wouldn’t let me watch Jaws, but I’d read the Mad Magazine spoof so I knew it was action-packed. Star Wars was the hottest thing going among my friends – we couldn’t wait for another cinematic spectacle. If it wasn’t for the music (John Williams also composed Star Wars), and the occasional flying spaceships, Close Encounters would have totally let us down. The scenes with young Barry were great, but watching Roy’s meltdown was a drag. It didn’t register that Roy left his family to follow his bliss – in fact, when Richard Dreyfuss kissed Melinda Dillon just before he went to meet the aliens, I’m pretty sure I thought she was his wife.

Although I’d hoped for some good laser shoot-outs, what ultimately registered was sheer awe at a Spielberg’s cinematic spectacle. I didn’t know it then, but almost every view of the night sky in Close Encounters is a special effect. Aside from the obvious (swirling cloud formations), every single star is huge and incredibly bright. Also, Spielberg’s colors were much more intense than Lucas’ (Star Wars has always looked washed-out to me.) I’ve said before that my approach to stage lighting was influenced by The Empire Strikes Back; it strikes me now that Close Encounters also played a major role in my artistic development. Finally, I’d found Lucas’ climactic Death Star explosion disappointing – it looked small to me. Spielberg’s ending, on the other hand, was immense. The mother ship floated above that landing strip in the desert and said, “Anything is possible. You can go to the stars. And nobody’s going to shoot you.”

Whereas Jaws was nominated for Best Picture, with Spielberg overlooked for Best Director, Close Encounters saw him nominated for Best Director but not Picture; the “fantasy film that has no chance” slot was filled by Star Wars (it would lose to Rocky.)  As time went on, I realized Spielberg was head and shoulders above Lucas in terms of filmmaking technique; still, when I heard they would be collaborating on a project not long after Close Encounters, I remember thinking it was a marriage made in movie heaven.  Stay tuned.

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