Watch the skies.
Was the working title for Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Anticipation was very high for this film as it would be Spielberg’s follow-up to his hugely successful 1975 horror thriller Jaws.
Was Jaws just a one-off fluke or was a new and exciting director now on the scene ? Well with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind Spielberg proved it to be the latter.
The film’s story is quite simple as it tells the story of an everyday blue-collar worker in Indiana whose life changes after an encounter with a UFO which eventually leads him to Devils Tower in Wyoming where the aliens make contact with us.
When I saw this first on its initial release in the theatre I was blown away. It affected me profoundly. I thought the whole concept was fresh and new, the yearning for and then actively seeking a higher concept for one’s life, the mental breakdown of the main character as he tries to visualise what’s inside his head – messages from alien beings.
The film is also still quite unique in that it still remains one of the few major big budget science fiction movies where first contact with alien life is friendly and benign. It remains an optimistic movie that still retains its hopefulness even today.
The main players in Richard Dreyfus, François Truffaut (my favourite French film director), Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon are all perfectly cast; along with Cary Guffey, the child actor, who is also superb.
As a microcosm of life in the 1970s, the film is amazingly evocative, the perfect young family suburb, the children, the stay at home wife, the backyard barbecues. The husband who is a dreamer and when he starts to act it out, shatters this perfect home life.
Then the action moves to Devils Tower where the aliens are preparing to land. This scene is highly emotional. The music, the lights, the response of the mother ship. All highly charged cinematic moments.
However, and it is a big one. The transition of Richard Dreyfuss’s character is far too sudden, he turns his back on children he obviously adores without any reflection whatsoever. For me the middle section is the film’s weak point that despite Spielberg’s tinkering over the years (there’s been 3 versions of the film) he just can’t seem to quite properly address it.
As the movie progresses, the tone begins to shift, and the true intent of the film begins to peek through. This isn’t about being afraid of the unknown, but rather embracing it. Paying attention to the subliminal images in life, allowing them to lead you into something unknown and perhaps dangerous, only then can one be open to wonder and experience the world through the magical eyes of a child.
Dreyfuss’ character takes us on this journey, met with resistance all along the way. His wife, his neighbours, his job, his community, all are working against him, and it’s only when he’s reached his craziest that he truly gives in and begins to stop trying to understand and instead embraces the experiences in store for him. The scientific community is seeking to understand, but without having any personal calling to be involved. Only the child Barry is truly able to throw himself into the strangeness that is taking place, and his enthusiasm is greeted by both the characters and the audience as somehow alien and threatening.
The ending of this film, when all the fear is finally stripped away and the sense of amazed wonder overtakes everyone on the screen and in the audience, brings about an amazing catharsis. Discarding all the adult sensibilities and being able to approach life once again with a sense of innocent amazement for the Strange hidden amongst the Ordinary, one can begin again to approach life from a fresh vantage point.
Powerful, mystifying, and rejuvenating. I highly recommend Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for anyone jaded with life and seeking a sense of renewal.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . It’s going to be a bumpy night.