Sunday, June 26, 2016

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) - ****½


Rated PG
Running time: 137 min.
Release date: December 25, 1977

For as long as movies have entertained, alien life forms have always been depicted as bug-eyed creatures, maybe with threatening tentacles, seeking to conquer Earth or to all-out destroy it. Then along comes Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which takes an alien invasion, or rather a small concentrated visit to the American mid-west, and turns it into something less malicious. Rather than approach extraterrestrials with tanks and guns, humans approach with technology and curiosity. It's a rather refreshing approach and coupled with the lights and sounds seen here, it is an approach that entertains and awes nonetheless.

The movie opens with the usual credits then a momentary blackness. Suddenly, we are bombarded with light and loud orchestral crash. The movie opens in the Sonoran desert, where a group of scientists have discovered the sudden overnight appearance of World War II fighter planes which were reported missing in 1945. There are no pilots, however, and the planes run as if they were still new. On sight are French scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his cartographer-turned-interpreter, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). They meet an old man who witnessed the event, as he states "The sun came out last night, and sang to me". Cut to air traffic control in Indianapolis, as two flights report near-collisions with Unidentified Flying Objects. Naturally, neither pilot doesn't want to file a report on the incident. Then in Muncie (Indiana), 3-year old Barry is awakened by the sound of his toys coming to life. He goes downstairs to the kitchen and what he sees makes him smile, rather than frighten him. Spielberg holds off on the big reveal here, wisely so, as the child's face tells us all we need to know.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is an electrical lineman sent out to investigate a large scale power outage. Finding himself lost at a railroad crossing, he waves passing vehicles around him while he checks his maps. We get a glimpse of one pair of headlights that go over him rather than around him, in one of the funnier and smarter scenes in the film. Roy has an encounter at that point that will change his life. His truck is bathed in light and everything around him shakes. He looks out his window and sees on object hovering and decides to give chase. The objects are shown as glowing orbs of colorful blues, reds and oranges. They disappear into the night sky, while Roy rushes home to share the experience with his unbelieving wife and kids.

At this point, Roy becomes obsessed with UFOs, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr). He starts to exhibit odd behavior such as building mountains out of his mashed potatoes and shaving cream. Meanwhile, young Barry is abducted by the aliens, while his mother (Melinda Dillon) is helpless to protect him. Spielberg gives the audience a sense of dread here, as the house is awash in colorful light. The aliens keep finding different ways to get in the house, until finally Barry crawls through the doggie-door and we get a tug-of-war between mother and aliens. Up until this point, the alien intentions were unknown, but the young boy here is key, because he shows no fear in the face of the unknown.

The middle portion of the film drags somewhat, as we get Roy's obsession taking over, as he loses his job and then his family. The idea of implantation of images by the aliens is presented, as several different people in the film all share the same vision of a mountain, which turns out to be Devil's Tower in Wyoming. We see the government and military collaborate on a cover-up to evacuate that area of the state, as they prepare for something important involving the alien visitors. Roy's single-minded obsession at the expense of his everyday life becomes a little uncomfortable to watch, as he throws dirt and bricks through his kitchen window in order to construct a model of Devil's Tower. This is the only drawback to the film, which Spielberg would correct in 1980 with added and deleted scenes.

The special effects by Douglas Trumbull are the highlight of the film. When the spaceships appear on screen, we get inundated with colorful lights and a sense of wonderment at the sight. The mothership is especially grand and extravagant-looking. John Williams score combines with the visual effects to create an orchestral-like performance piece that fills us with awe. Close Encounters is probably Spielberg at his best when it comes to packaging the sights and sounds together into a cohesive visual feast.

The ending to the film takes us out on a whisper rather than a scream. I have issue with Roy's decision at the end, because it betrays his character as being an everyday family man. Aside from that misstep, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterpiece of visual and aural craftsmanship.

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