Many still treasure this second classic that came out of the imagination of Steven Spielberg, and for many understandable reasons. After more than forty years, Close Encounters of the Third Kind still comes off as a tremendous, passionate work from one of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers. It’s easy to see how both then and now, it opens the imaginations of hopeful artists everywhere. Though that doesn’t mean this is a perfect movie, or even necessarily a good one, because it’s still deeply flawed in several crucial areas, especially by the risky stand it takes in wrongly saying that man only needs whatever is most tangible to live peacefully.
The key problem is the characters, who are so lacking in substance, it’s left to the TV to voice their thoughts. The mostly Caucasian scientists who watch the skies for these UFOs don’t get enough narrative focus, most of what they do is stand and gaze with their mouths hanging open. The only genuine piece of ethnic diversity is a group of Indians who chant together—a racist depiction as their only contribution to the plot is inspiring the tone hand signals. Its depiction of gender isn’t that much better either, as the single mother, in particular, lacks interaction with her son, and it leads to having no real reason to genuinely care when he walks away from his mother toward the UFOs. Yeah, it’s meant to trigger every mother’s worst fear, except how are those non-parent audiences meant to connect?
Other incomplete plot points that fail to heighten the message include the sons of the other main subplot who dismiss Disney’s Pinocchio as a kids’ movie, which they do right after their father gives a train set math lesson as apparent foreshadowing later. Neither of these concepts ever come back again to complete any story arcs. In fact, the boys, along with their sister and mother, abandon the father before they can become actual characters, never to be mentioned again. This really hurts the film, because all the focus lands on the father as he hopelessly obsesses over the shape of Devils Tower, something he prioritizes over his family without any thought whatsoever. That jerkish dad is the worst protagonist Steven Spielberg ever brought to the big screen. He’s a horrible role model who sadly gets what he wants in the end, not what he deserves.
Now, onto the good stuff. For those movie fans out there, the trademarks of Spielberg’s filmography pop up all over: the gaze shot (lots of them), the childlike wonder, the hazy lights behind pine needle branches, the rich blue night hues, the strong use of glass reflections, the actors’ reflections on the computer screens, and the daddy issues. Fans will constantly think, “Hey! That looks just like that other Spielberg movie!” It really proves how groundbreaking his vision was, as if even he was later inspired by his own work by reusing these successful techniques! Every element in the frame is cropped together with strong intention, even the Sonoran Desert dust storm that blocks the whole view. Those details are found especially in the little things, which includes the white shaving cream shaped like Devils Tower that connects to the white mashed potatoes shaped like Devils Tower. To complete the sensation, the scary music of the opening titles carries on to escalate between terror, wonder and hope.
These carefully chosen elements convey a peculiar concept: how something terrifying paralyzes an adult, but to youth, such terror shines a wondrous beacon, since the world from his eyes already makes no sense. Just two witnesses see the UFOs that way: one a literal child, one a child at heart. Though it would have been easy for this to fall into the trap of lingering on the wonder of the unknown, it instead keeps more focus on the terror if it. The UFOs appear within a mere small percentage of the run-time, and the drivers of those ships themselves barely appear within a mere small percentage of the UFOs’ screen time. The ensemble-fashioned screenplay thus works to focus on mankind’s limitations while effected by social crisis. From this one phenomenon, the scientists are stumped and the army resorts to conspiracy theories, their real national fear spans across the personal, social, and political levels, as the nation would really react against mysterious forces.
You feel that fear particularly because of the way Spielberg utilizes the techniques of 1970s horror cinema, doing it even better than most of them ever did! Before the actual spaceships fly by, the chaos it triggers around the house starts when the creepy clapping monkey toy moves by itself. Then the lights black out, then horrific sounds are heard, then harsh lights beam in from the windows, then chaotic colors suddenly saturate the image to contrast the dull colors of earth. Next, car headlights reveal themselves to actually be a UFO, and these rattle the bone right away as if from the jaws of a death angel. Scariest of all though is when the nation loses its mind together!
The presence of these unidentified objects continues to unnerve the nerves until the humans’ magical communication via tones guarantees union with the true inner spirit. But just when it seems safe, what little is seen of the creepy alien masks contrasts against the safe human faces, they cannot really be seen past the backlights unless the spectator squints. Even if the animatronic lead alien looks pretty awful, the uncanny valley works to its advantage.
The late 1970s and early 1980s proved to be a jumping point in the way aliens were portrayed in film, before, they were only evil invaders, after, there became a more even mix. Today, science fiction motion pictures feature that same even mix of kind (Arrival) and unkind aliens (A Quiet Place). Close Encounters of the Third Kind hasn’t one-hundred-percent stood the test of time, but it’s still definitely better than that other big classic sci-fi picture of that same year.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!