Mr. Spielberg has two new films coming out in a few weeks, so this is as good a time as any to write up this post. I am an 80s kid, so of course Steven Spielberg's work had a major impact on my development as a movie fan. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" were the big titles, "Jaws" was too scary to watch more than parts of, but was always lurking somewhere in the nether regions of my consciousness, and "Jurassic Park" was the first real non-Disney event movie I remember getting hyped up for.
So I suppose it's ironic that I associate Spielberg so closely with my childhood, but my favorite film of his is one I didn't see until I was an adult. I'm not exactly sure when it was that I first laid eyes on "Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind," but I know it was after high school because I remember getting my hands on the novelization first. I found the book intriguing, but it was a poor substitute for the actual film, which does things with music and visual effects that are astounding to experience, and utterly transcendent of the old sci-fi B-movies that preceded it. Yes, on the surface level "Close Encounters" is about mankind encountering alien visitors from outer space, but more fundamentally, it's a film that examines the basic act of communication, through many different means.
We start with various strange occurrences around the globe: missing fighter planes and ships reappearing decades after they were lost, strange signals coming from unknown sources in the sky, and various people suddenly compelled to act in odd ways. UFOs are the cause, and everything seems to be building up to some bigger, imminent event. We follow three major characters through the film - family man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who has a close encounter with a UFO, and becomes obsessed with them, a young mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who searches for her missing son, and a French scientist, Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), leading a group trying to determine the visitors' intentions.
Throughout the film, Spielberg examines how humans communicate with each other, as they seek to find a way to communicate with alien beings. One of the canniest decisions he made was casting Truffaut as Lacombe, a character who speaks entirely in French and requires the use of an interpreter, played by Bob Balaban. The most knowledgeable, charismatic, and intelligent man in the movie is someone who is incomprehensible to the majority of the American audience without the aid of a go-between. On the flip side we have Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, struggling with to respond to the message that the aliens left with him, which was conveyed in a manner that defies traditional language completely. Communication with aliens seems impossible at first, but then patterns emerge, signs take on meaning, and the John Williams score does the rest.
I always feel compelled to watch "Close Encounters" the whole way through every time I stumble across a broadcast on television, because I get caught up in it so quickly. The entire thing is one long build-up toward a grand finale, and finales don't get any grander. The sight of the alien mothership descending on Devil's Tower is one of the greatest images in cinema. Nothing beats it for sheer, jaw-dropping visual splendor. And it creates such a feeling of wonder - sheer wonder at witnessing the characters in their first moments of discovery. I especially love the designs of all the spaceships. Instead of something hard and solid and tactile, they're these almost intangible collections of glowing lights, the embodiment of a hundred different UFO sightings and stories. They dazzle, and yet retain their mystery. And cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, responsible for all those indelible landscapes, got the Oscar for this film and deserved it.
"Close Encounters," along with "E.T." also solidified Spielberg's reputation for making very humanist, very aspirational blockbusters. His critics write them off as fairy-tales, but I always appreciated Spielberg's optimism and faith in mankind's ability to do good. It's difficult to imagine in an age of so many violent, bloody alien invasion pictures, that we could ever have the scenario that plays out at the end of "Close Encounters," where man makes contact without aggression, fear, or paranoia. And yet having the possibility of it there, captured on film, does make a difference. I wouldn't call "Close Encounters" a feel-good film, but I always come away from it feeling a little better about the human race. Even if such collective magnanimity is beyond us today, at least it's still there in our dreams - courtesy of Mr. Spielberg.