Spoilers might fly above you.
First of all, I obviously enjoy watching this movie. Sci-fi classics do seem untouchable to amateur reviewers like me, because they’re so universally loved that writing about it can be compared to walking in a minefield. One bad criticism and my readership will go from small to non-existent. However, I think even the precious things we put in pedestals need to come down and be dusted once in a while. You have to be able to criticize the things you love, and I’m happy to say even after so many years, this film still holds up.
There are three versions of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The original theatrical release of 1977, the special edition of 1980 and the Director’s Cut of 1998. I watched the Director’s Cut, because after all, Steven does make a couple of subtle changes. The special edition has the dubious honour of having one extra scene inside a spaceship, supposedly hated by Spielberg but pushed on by the studio. The Director’s Cut takes it out, but does keep the scene of the SS Cotopaxi in the Gobi desert, which was not in the original.
The movie has always offered three stories. One is the mysterious team that follows the strange occurrences around the globe of artifacts from a different place and time showing up where it would be impossible for them to appear. In this story, American cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is drafted as an impromptu interpreter for the mysterious character of Lacombe (François Truffault). Claude Lacombe is based on French UFO expert Jacques Vallée. Laughlin seems like he’s going to be the audience surrogate, but that role easily goes to our perceived main character.
That’s Roy, of course. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is, as Spielberg wanted, your everyman. A blue collar worker with wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and three rowdy kids. This loud but kinda lovable family will pay the ultimate price. In a move that feels so against the mainstream in any decade, the main character leaves his family behind. I’ve always wondered about that. In these days, having the main character literally become an absent parent would be unacceptable and I’m sure it wasn’t a particularly popular character choice back in the late 70’s either.
There’s a subtle different between the original version and the special edition where the movie slightly leans either for or against Ronnie for leaving with the inclusion or exclusion of certain scenes. The Director Cut’s leaves it ambiguous by including both, although in the end you can’t really fault Ronnie for taking the kids away. However it’s painted, Roy becomes unable to ignore the urge to abandon it all and pursue an obsession bigger than himself. It’s not a favorable depiction of a responsible adult.
The event he witnesses, as it happens, might be the driving force for him. Yes, he sees these lights from the sky that he can’t explain, some floating close to his face and traveling at impossible speeds. But it’s not this phenomena that becomes the motivation of the film but Roy himself. His obsession is what most worries us and what pulls him forward. I say obsession and not dream because he’s not fully aware what he’s supposed to do with these images that keep repeating in his head. He hasn’t chosen this, it’s chosen him. Does he have any choice in the matter? Is he under a spell?
For Jillian (Melinda Dillon) it’s not the simple. Hers is the third story, arguably the smaller but the most heart-wrenching. She’s seeing things, but her son Gary is so drawn to run after these lights that she obviously has to keep him in check. When the lights and sounds literally invade her home, the tone of the film falls a lot closer into the horror genre. After her son is abducted, the visions that come to her are less of an obsession she doesn’t understand and more of a hope of finding her child again. For Roy, the “alien call” overpowers his love for his family. For Jillian, it’s a hope she clings on so she can reunite her family, which means finding Gary again. Roy wants explanations. Jillian just wants her child back.
The strain that Roy’s obsession puts on his family is the most controversial part of the film. As Ronnie is trying to keep a brave face, the kids sense something is wrong and are obviously becoming more and more way of his father. This part can be scary for kids to watch, and although Roy never becomes physically abusive he’s obviously ignoring his role as a father. The mental strain is obvious for Ronnie and for their older child Brad (Shawn Bishop, if I’m get the casting right) who stops trusting him as a parent. The part in which he yells at his own father is truly heartbreaking. They’re a dysfunctional family, regardless of how comically Roy’s mental breakdown may seem.
Interwoven are scenes depicting events around the globe. The scene of the traffic controllers trying to prevent a crash of a plane with a UFO is so well done. Despite the technical jargon and no visual cues but the screen, we can sense the danger. Nowadays, we would have probably had the actual plane running into the flying lights, but the fact that this scene causes tension without showing us the actual encounter (of the first kind) is just so well done that I welcome the technical limitations of the time.
The other scenes are actually setup using real disappearances. The opening scene addresses Flight 19, a real life group of five Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that vanished in the Bermuda Triangle while in training in 1945. The movie shows the planes appearing in the middle of the Sonoma Desert in Mexico, still in working condition and even with fuel left in the tank. Same goes for the tramp steamer SS Cotopaxi on route from Charleston, SC to Havana, Cuba which disappeared after reporting it was taking in water back in 1925. In the movie, the boat is found in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
The implication is that the aliens might be trying to bring back what was lost/taken, and that implies that they can even bring back people. This is where the belief comes in. After another event in India gives Lacombe’s team another team in the form of 5 musical notes, there seems to be an intent to communicate. We want to believe this intent is made by the extraterrestrials with good intentions. But we’re not sure, and the movie doesn’t want us to be certain. Spielberg wants to keep the intentions of the aliens ambiguous so we’re apprehensive whenever they show up.
Our expectations are subverted when Jillian’s young son gets abducted. The abduction scene is another example of creating a threat without showing a threat. The vent with screws that start unscrewing. The dust falling from inside the chimney. The iconic scene of Gary opening that door to let the eerie light in. Those details are used to great effect in enhancing the feeling of being stalked by the unknown. This becomes very much like a horror movie at this point, and a lot of films have used the same imagery.
There are some scenes that feel rather out of place and a product of their time, and it’s got nothing to do with special effects. The kiss between Roy and Jillian doesn’t make much sense. They’re both driven to the same thing, and I fully understand the hug when they ran into each other at the train station, but the kiss doesn’t really fit anywhere. The astronauts that have been chosen as probable candidates to take off with the aliens seem to take in a religious service before departing. I guess everyone had to go to the same church back in 1977. On the other hand, I love the town meeting scene with government officials patronizing telling the townsfolk of Muncie, Indiana they want to believe them but there’s no evidence. It’s almost like they’re parenting them to convince them there’s no monster under the bed.
I don’t think I would re-categorize it as drama though. It is, very much, the idea of finally having an official contact with extraterrestrials at both a governmental and personal level. While it makes little sense that Lacombe’s team would have so much influence and power as to involve the military, it does come close to possible that it would take an experienced team several years of research and overwhelming evidence to gain such support. It might not seem feasible but the movie makes it feel the closest to being plausible.
If the intention of the aliens, in their superior intelligence, is to return the people they’ve abducted then why do one more abduction? I understand it from a movie perspective, it’s a subversion so we do not feel inclined to consider them benevolent. Instead, it’s more like their motives surpass our rationale to the point of seeming whimsical. Had Gary been abducted first, we almost could tie the event as the motivating force for the aliens to return the abductees: the little kid would’ve convinced them to take them all home. But the movie starts with the planes showing up in the Sonora Desert. The motivation to reverse their ways is already there. In the movie, the extraterrestrials are almost childlike in their omnipotence. We’re almost at their mercy. What drives them is beyond our human comprehension (in this film, at least).
Obviously extremely recommended for science fiction fans, because like it or not and whether it approaches its subject honestly or fantastically, it remains a milestone of science-fiction movie making. Family crowds should probably go for E.T. instead, which approaches the subject from a completely different perspective, but is more sensible towards children. Okey, I know there’s a longer debate to be had there but that’s another review. In the end, I am glad that Close Encounters remains a standalone that begins and ends where it does. It never tries to teach or preach something, just makes you wonder and leaves the mystery of why and how the aliens exist wide open. You can’t help but like its positive message of two civilizations coming together, that is if you believe such a thing is even possible.
That will do for now.