In addition to being the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, this year also marks the big 4-0 for another movie that greatly influenced me as a kid (and well into adulthood); Steven Spielberg’s ‘other’ big movie of the 1970s, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Looking back on it, I still very much remember the circumstances under which I was first drawn into CE3K’s orbit. My family had gone into L.A. to see Star Wars at the Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. This was about my 5th time seeing Star Wars (with no end in sight; I was an addict), but my father wanted to go across Sunset to the Egyptian (now more commonly known as the American Cinematheque) to see that new movie from ‘that JAWS guy’ Steven Spielberg. Needless to say, my then-11 year old self didn’t go with him at that time; I, along with my sisters and mother, elected to see Star Wars in 70mm Dolby sound in the best theater on the west coast at that time. Thus, my poor old dad went to see CE3K solo.
A few hours later both of our respective movies ended, and we met back in front of Mann’s to go home (dad had the car, after all); and my otherwise quite rational father was nearly incoherent in trying to describe what he’d just seen. The following morning he was sketching Devil’s Tower on a blank space of the newspaper, and telling me that this mountain was ‘important’ in the movie. He kept going on about how ‘incredible’ it all was, the “huuuuge” ship, the beautiful music, blah, blah, blah. So help me, he was nearly babbling. I’d never seem him that awestruck by a movie before. My dad wasn’t a big movie fan; he was more of a sports guy, so this was unusual for him (to say the least).
Well, I assumed (at that young, naive age), that my entertainment meter had just apexed with Star Wars; and that nothing could rival it for sheer awe and spectacle. I was a pretentious 11 year old at the time, and I thought I knew everything … of course.
So, a week or two later we all went back to L.A. with my dad to that very theater to see just what he was babbling about. Well, in this case? Father knew best.
I am not a religious person, but that movie was possibly the closest to a religious experience I’ll ever have in my lifetime. And given how huge a role the soundtrack plays in the movie, it was fitting that we sat towards the rear of the theater, near the rumbling low-end speakers. We didn’t just see CE3K; we felt it. If Star Wars was (in the 1970s anyway) the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster? Then Close Encounters was perhaps more of a hot-air balloon ride. Thrilling yes, but also majestic and awe-inspiring in its serenity.
But before the glorious final 40 minutes of the movie, the first hour and a half or so is a enigmatic puzzle composed of pieces that don’t seem to entirely fit together (at first):
Previously missing WW2-era fighter planes (from the real-life, lost “Flight 19” of 1945), seemingly, inexplicably dropped off in the Sonoran desert of Mexico, with an international investigative team led by Claude Lacombe (played by legendary French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter Laughlin (Bob Balaban).
An Indianapolis air traffic controller calmly advising an alarmed pilot to avoid a collision with a UFO.
A young toddler named Barry (4 year old Carey Guffey) trekking across the Indiana backwoods (followed by his worried mother) chasing unseen creatures who are ‘coming out to play’.
Mysterious electrical power drains across the American midwest.
An oddly pleasing five-note musical cue first heard in India, as well as a vision of an unusual mountain that are seemingly driving their recipients into obsession; including the toddler Barry, his mother Jillian (an underrated Melinda Dillon) and harried family man/electrical power-line repairman Roy Neary (played by Spielberg favorite Richard Dreyfus; deftly assuming the type of ‘everyman’ role that Roy Scheider had so successfully played in Spielberg’s earlier “JAWS”).
A shadowy government conspiracy to drive local residents out of a secluded patch of Wyoming; using a cover story of a toxic gas-rail disaster to clear “every living Christian soul” out of the area.
These seemingly disparate pieces eventually culminate in a climactic, spectacular rendezvous between humankind and extraterrestrials at a hidden base behind Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, led by Lacombe’s team with the help of the US government.
That’s the nuts and bolts of it (more or less), but the movie is SO MUCH more than the sum of its enigmatic parts. Assuming that you, the reader have already seen this 40 year old masterpiece, I’m going to make my usual grocery list of what works for me in the movie, and a few things that don’t (no film is completely perfect, and that’s okay; more on that to come…).
MY FAVORITE PIECES OF THE CE3K PUZZLE:
* The opening shot.
From a blackened credits sequence (with a gradually building music cue) to a blast of light onto the Sonoran desert. In a darkened theater, this sudden dark-to-light trick REALLY works. Doesn’t work quite the same at home, unless you watch in a fully darkened room in the evening.
* “He says the sun came out last night… he says it sang to him.”
An old Mexican man in the Sonoran desert, sitting on a bench, is sunburnt but smiling. He talks to Lacombe, Laughlin and the investigators (via an impromptu Spanish translator within the team). The interpreter says, “He says the sun came out last night…he says it sang to him.” And despite the old man’s burned face and obvious shock, there is no fear in the old man’s face. It’s more like joy. It’s a small moment (very early in the film), but in retrospect it heralds the climax of the entire movie, with fear giving way to optimism in the face of the unknown.
* The Indianapolis air traffic control tower sequence.
Almost Hitchcockian in its sparseness, as a steadfast air traffic controller (a thoroughly authentic Richard L. Hawkins) calmly talks down a pilot (and a commercial aircraft) seemingly doomed to collide with an unseen UFO. We never see the plane or the pilot’s perspective. We never see the actual UFO (we only hear a pilot talk about its “striking” alternating colors, and its bright “anti-collision” lights). The dialogue between the controllers and the pilots is clipped, professional-sounding and even overlapping. There isn’t even music. The scene is real, genuinely tense and downright eerie. The adult part of me really responds to it now, far more than I did when I was 11. What you infer is often as unsettling as what you see.
* The first appearance of the UFOs.
Roy Neary is in his truck, lost on a lonely road, trying to reach his repair site (in vain), when he waves yet another pair of headlights behind him to ‘go around.’ The lights go up, not around. Then the truck cab goes dark. Nearby mailboxes rattle. A loud burst of low-end, rumbling sounds fills the audience’s ears as a massive ‘object’ flies over Roy’s truck.
We don’t get a full view of it, save for tantalizing bits here and there. The scene is edited to perfection; and the audience is in near-perfect synch with the fear and awe that Roy is experiencing. We only snap out of it as Roy’s flashlight relights after the encounter (a textbook jump-scare) and the truck’s ignition roars back to life.
Three of our main characters converge on an old hillside road in rural Indiana, as Jillian is out looking for her son (whom Neary almost hits when the boy is in the middle of the road). These three characters come across an old rural pilgrim and his family, who calmly await the ‘arrival’ (they seemed quite expectant, in fact; as if they’d done this many times before). In the quiet night air, the old man whistles “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”
It’s a scene that anyone who’s ever gone stargazing late at night with a telescope can relate to. And the payoff is pretty spectacular as a fleet of small, brightly-lit/colored UFOs buzz the roadside. The alien craft don’t just fly by; they reverberate through the audience’s being as well.
It’s a fleeting moment, but I always find myself feeling that same anticipation as I did back in 1977 whenever I see it. Even on the scaled-down screens of television, it still works.
* The international scope of the film.
We see the investigative team arrive in the Sonoran desert of Mexico at the beginning of the film to verify the return of the lost “Flight 19” squadron (a nice Mojave-for-Mexico substitution).
We then follow the team to India (a sequence shot on location; no cheating) to meet a group of Hindus who are repeating the alien’s five-note musical riff as sort of a spiritual chant. When asked “where did these sounds come from”? The monks shout and point skyward in perfect unison.
In the 1980 Special Edition of CE3K (more on that later), there is an added sequence of an old 1925 tramp steamer ship (the real-life Cotopaxi) found in the middle of the Gobi desert. The scene is a needless one that only reinforces the opening scene of WW2-era aircraft stranded in the Mexican desert. While I’m not as much a fan of the 1980 Special Edition as I am the 1977 original, this is one moment from it that I still enjoy, despite its redundancy. The ship’s foreground miniature against the Gobi desert (nee: Mojave, California) is an absolutely seamless bit of forced perspective (however unnecessary).
Such attention to international goings-on gives credence to the line spoken near Devil’s Tower by Truffaut’s Lacombe later in the film, “This is an event sociological.”
* The American midwest is captured in perfect, late ‘70s/early ‘80s Spielbergian glory.
While most of the suburban scenes were shot in and around Mobile Alabama, the feel of suburban midwestern America is juuust right; right down to the McDonald’s restaurant, interstate toll booth and gas station seen during the blackouts.
As a child of the suburbs, Spielberg is most at home here; and he’d later revisit suburbia splendor with “E.T.” a few years later.
* Barry’s abduction.
Pure nightmare fuel. The violent jostling of the Guiler’s rural home, the sudden activation of electrical appliances, and the constant threat of the never-seen aliens surrounding the house as Jillian fights a nightmarish (losing) battle to save her son against unseen aliens (who wreak havoc with her home’s electricity, phone and other systems). This is the movie’s most disturbing scene; and my wife says it scared the hell out of her when she first saw it as a little girl. I can easily see why. And it’s why I’ve never been able to listen to crooner Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” quite the same way afterward, either.
Melinda Dillon (as Barry’s mom, Jillian) really gives this scene her all as well. This entire sequence is more akin to something out of Spielberg’s later “Poltergeist” (directed by the recently, sadly late Tobe Hooper) or even William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” than what one might typically associate with a pre-“Schindler’s List” Steven Spielberg movie.
* The use of unusual American landmark Devil’s Tower as a location for the movie’s climax.
While I was too young and unsophisticated to appreciate it then, I realize now that the movie owes much inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”; with it’s everyman hero (Richard Dreyfuss/Cary Grant) thrown into a vast conspiracy, teaming with a blonde female partner (Eva Marie Saint/Melinda Dillon) and even a climax spent scaling an American monument, Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower (in place of Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota). It’s clear that there are some classic influences to this otherwise truly unique Spielberg film.
Devil’s Tower, with it’s odd, tree-stump shaped appearance, is a unique and inspired choice for an alien rendezvous.
Its use in CE3K was recently parodied in the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost alien/road-trip comedy mashup, “Paul” (2010).
* Music as a means of communication with the aliens.
As anyone with even a fleeting interest in the prospects for extraterrestrial intelligence might imagine, mathematics would be the one truly ‘universal’ language between humans and extraterrestrials (see the movie of, and/or read Carl Sagan’s “Contact”). But CE3K isn’t necessarily that kind of movie. Yes, it has realistic-sounding logistical bits sprinkled throughout (the aliens transmitting ground coordinates to Devil’s Tower, lip service to Einstein’s special relativity, etc) but CE3K’s big payoff in the climactic final encounter is overwhelmingly emotional, not intellectual. The aliens, aboard their giant majestic mothership, communicate to the humans on the ground with “a basic tonal vocabulary”; which translates to a terrific John Williams-scored synthesizer concert/light show. Just how and why tonal vocabularies would be any different than learning an oral language isn’t really made clear; even one of the characters asks aloud, “What are we saying to each other?” Does the scene make sense? Not particularly. Is it emotionally satisfying? Absolutely.
* The return of the human abductees.
Before the aliens reveal themselves to the team of first contactees on ‘the dark side of the moon’ behind Devil’s Tower, they return all of the humans they’d abducted over the years. Beginning with the pilots of 1945’s infamous “Flight 19.” This scene works exceptionally well, as the actors playing the mind-blown pilots are truly amazing. Each one walks a bit ungainly at first (as if they’re getting used to Earth’s gravity again) and each has a haunted, far-away look in their eyes. They haven’t aged either (thanks to special relativity). The first pilot identifies himself as a junior-grade lieutenant named “Frank Taylor” and the nervousness in his voice as he unsurely gives his name, rank and serial number is pitch-perfect. Other more recent abductees are returned as well (including Barry, who runs into his tearful mother’s arms), but those returning pilots were by far the most memorable. I have often imagined a future, low-budget sequel chronicling the return of these guys; what happened to them after their arrival at Devil’s Tower? Could they be assimilated back into society, 30 years after WW2? What about their families? Would be an interesting idea to follow up on someday; if not in a motion picture, maybe a TV miniseries, or even a graphic novel (?). Who knows…
* The aliens revealed.
After the abductees are returned, the aliens finally egress. First we see a much taller, animatronic-looking alien (who mysteriously vanishes after one quick shot!). That ‘ambassador’ alien is immediately followed off of the ramp by throngs of smaller, typical ‘grays’ (little humanoid creatures with bulbous heads, gray skin and large eyes).
Most of the grays are clearly children in costumes, but they’re strongly backlit and the overall effect still works well enough. Though I must admit that on a brighter home television screen, you can see the false-looking eyes and seams of the costumes a bit too tellingly. No matter; by this time, one is so caught up in the experience that it really doesn’t detract. Much like the animatronic shark in JAWS, it works more by sheer force of good storytelling rather than simple technical means.
There is also a terrific moment where a fully animatronic alien creature (created/operated by future “E.T.” designer Carlo Rambaldi) communicates with Lacombe (via hand signals corresponding to the aliens’ five-note contact riff) and even manages a very human-looking smile. It’s an amazing piece of movie magic that still holds up today. Yes, these days the aliens would probably all be CGI renderings, but at least the grays in CE3K were physical entities; they occupied the same space as the actors, and that makes them just a bit more ‘real’ for me.
* The actors.
A final round of applause for Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban and “Young Frankenstein”’s Teri Garr; who is annoyingly on-target as Roy’s harried, disbelieving wife Ronnie. All of the kids playing the Neary children (one of whom is Richard Dreyfuss’ real-life nephew) are all pitch perfect representations of ‘70s suburban Americana.
Also of note is 4 year old acting wunderkind Carey Guffey as Barry (who later chose a career in education instead of acting).
His uniquely honest and sincere performance is among the first in a long line of brilliant Spielbergian child actors (a list that includes Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Christian Bale and Dakota Fanning, to name a few). Most of the actors in the film are so natural that they’re almost invisible; only adding to the quasi-documentary style of the film’s first two acts.
* John Williams’ music.
From the man who already gave us (at this point in his too-long-to-list-here career) the iconic soundtracks to “The Godfather”, “JAWS” and “Star Wars.” His music in CE3K alternates between eerie, suspenseful, chaotic, playful (his use of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, the five-note alien motif), and finally jaw-droppingly sublime (the gorgeous, pull-out-all-the-stops end title music; complete with church bells…!). I needn’t mention that he’d follow this score with “Superman: The Movie” (1978), another one of his all-time best. Soon to be followed with “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ll have to stop there, as I could easily do several blog entries on his music alone…
AND A FEW PIECES THAT DON’T QUITE FIT SO WELL…
* The idea of ‘hero’ Roy Neary leaving his wife and family to go off and commune with aliens.
Granted, the Neary family is shown as being somewhat obnoxious, intolerant and even annoying, but they’re still Roy’s family. His wife. His kids. It’s pretty hard to imagine there was a time when family-friendly filmmaker Spielberg made a movie where the film’s hero essentially ditches his family (kids and all) for an extended vacation with aliens. Even Spielberg himself has said (in interviews done for the CE3K DVD bonus features) that is something he’d probably do differently today.
* The 1980 Special Edition.
George Lucas wasn’t the only ‘70s filmmaker who tampered with his own masterpieces. In fact, Spielberg beat him to the punch with the 1980 release of the Special Edition of CE3K. I remember going to the theater (again) to finally see the previously unseen interior of the vast mothership… and then wishing like hell afterward that I hadn’t. It ruined the mystery.
Much of the interior of the grand mothership looked like a poorly matted miniature effect, and added reaction shots of Dreyfuss are clumsily inserted into it (Dreyfuss only looks noticeably older as well). The final shots of the mothership’s interior end with a cascade of light and holier-than-holy choir music literally raining down upon Richard Dreyfuss that puts the whole thing WAAAAY over the top. It’s an ice cream sandwich with cinnabon rolls as bread, topped with chocolate sauce. Too much.
It also didn’t help that some of the earlier scenes that helped build the suspense and realism of the first acts of the original are cut completely (the post-abduction press conference, for example). And while the added sequence of the Gobi desert-stranded steamer “Cotopaxi” was well-done, it only reinforces the Sonoran desert sequence at the opening of the film and does absolutely nothing for the rest of the story.
There is also an added scene with Roy’s family finding him crying in the shower, fully clothed. Roy is made to look even more pathetic here than he needed to be, and having his wife and family standing outside screaming at him just doesn’t help. The previous dinner table scene (with his sculpting of mashed potatoes into Devil’s Tower) did the trick well enough, with just the right amount of tension and drama. The shower scene, like the mothership interior, just puts the whole thing too far over the top.
Less is often better. In the case of the CE3K Special Edition, that point is glaringly obvious. I’ve also watched the 2001-DVD version of the movie which attempted to reconcile some of the disparity between the previous two versions in an ‘ultimate cut,’ but for my taste? I prefer the 1977 original. It works best.
* Just how the hell did that gigantic mother of a mothership ‘hide’ behind Devi’s Tower like that??
Moving on now…
* The actions/motivations of the aliens themselves.
Something that occurred to me as I watched the movie once again last night for this recap is that the actions of the aliens themselves are somewhat dickish. At times, they seem to just want to play; doing flybys of rural and suburban communities for shits and giggles, and completely upending people’s lives in the process; often driving them mad with visions and ideas that they’re powerless to comprehend, let alone reify.
They steal a child from his mother, snatch ships from the sea and stick them in deserts (!?) and return pilots home after 30 years… when everyone they ever gave a damn about is either dead, moved on, and/or collecting pensions.
Wouldn’t such advanced creatures have some version of the Star Trek ‘non-interference directive’? Would it really be such a bright idea to buzz airplanes, drain power lines, and cruise interstates just to screw with the stupid earthlings?
Maybe to the aliens we’re just hopeless animals; much in the same way researchers regard rats or lower primates. One would hope that aliens who are capable of star travel would be above that sort of experimentation on biologics. It shows a surprising lack of empathy from ‘advanced beings’; especially since they’ve lived with abducted humans aboard their ship for awhile at that point. You’d think they’d know us a little bit by then; at least enough to understand how disruptive their presence is to our life cycle. While this seeming lack of empathy on the aliens’ part serves the movie well in its earlier acts, it kind of clashes with the vision of them as friendly, child-like innocents who just want to have a light show and synth-jam with us.
This seeming dichotomy of the aliens is never resolved, but in fairness, it’s also something you don’t think about as you watch the movie for the first time.
CE3K is a movie experience to be felt, not deeply-examined. It is a movie about feeling your way through an intellectual challenge, not nitpicking it down to the millimeter. Do that, and it kinda falls apart.
The excellent 1997 movie “Contact” (based on the equally-excellent 1985 Carl Sagan novel) is a much more on-the-nose intellectual exercise of how a first contact scenario might go down (especially in its use of mathematics & science as a communications foundation), but CE3K is a more satisfying moviegoing experience. It also opened my eyes to the wonders and mysteries of the night skies in a way that Star Wars didn’t. This wasn’t grandiose space opera set in a galaxy far, far away; this was taking place in the backyards of suburbia in my then-childhood reality of 1977.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” contributed toward a fascination with space and astronomy that continues unabated to this day (a huge space book collection, a 21 year Planetary Society membership, and many Society conferences/gatherings can attest to that as well…).
I’m 50 years old now (much older than Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary in the film) but I still find myself feeling a wondrous need to “watch the skies” every now and then…