Blog Directory CineVerse: We are not alone in our admiration of Spielberg's Close Encounters

We are not alone in our admiration of Spielberg's Close Encounters

Thursday, May 21, 2020

When you recall the early part of Steven Spielberg's directorial career, it's easy to immediately think of the blockbuster masterworks like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. But often overlooked among this period is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his standout treatise on science-fiction and the possibility of contact between man and alien life forms. Our CineVerse group looked upon this 1977 classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to our recorded discussion) and came away with these observations:

Why was this film important and groundbreaking in 1977, and how did it prove to be influential?

  • This movie benefitted from excellent timing, being released right on the heels of Star Wars, and further proving that science-fiction could be an extremely popular and important genre.
  • Like Star Wars in the same year, the special effects in this movie significantly advance the genre and our expectations for how a sci-fi film can and should look. The mothership, in particular, was and is breathtaking.
  • The film no doubt inspired many first-contact sci-fi films that came later, including E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Abyss, Fire in the Sky, Contact, and Arrival.
  • This was a refreshing return to the concept of benevolent aliens and the potential for friendly contact between humans and extra-terrestrials. Consider that so many science-fiction movies, from the 1950s up through the present day have often depicted threatening, monstrous, and evil alien creatures bent on conquering or destroying the earth.
  • While this film is often tonally consistent with conspiracy thrillers of the pre- and post-Watergate era, which milked the mistrust Americans had in their government and reflected a cynical and pessimistic worldview, we end up seeing the authorities doing the right thing here, including preparing for and communicating with the aliens in a non-defensive and amiable way; although they frighten away the public from the Devils Tower location with deceptive tactics, these tactics are relatively harmless.
  • It’s a rare example of a film that works equally well for kids and adults without having to dumb down the material or aim for a G rating.
    • Reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “Close Encounters is one of those rare films that works equally as well for children and for adults. Kids see this film as a promise of what might be out there and an unthreatening look at the possibilities that the universe holds. How many UFO believers today began their fascination with alien life after seeing this movie as a child? Adults, even skeptics, see Close Encounters as an accomplished fairy tale. Whether UFOs are real or not, this movie beautifully postulates the best of all alternatives - that the government cares about first contact and about the welfare of its citizens, that the aliens are benevolent, and that we can take comfort from the fact that "we are not alone". Remarkably, a film like Close Encounters speaks to the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”
  • This movie undoubtedly encouraged many people to watch the skies, learn more about science and astronomy, believe in UFOs and alien life, and take a closer look at Francois Truffaut, the brilliant French director who Spielberg cast in a key role here.

What is impressive or interesting about Steven Spielberg’s approach to the material and directing choices?

  • He captures the middle-class American family perfectly. The scenes between Roy and his family are impeccably crafted, with realistic dialogue and believable emotions. The dinner table scene with the mashed potatoes is a master class in cinematically depicting a typical dysfunctional nuclear family.
  • He doesn’t attempt to answer every question. We don’t learn why the aliens choose who they do, why they are returned, how they or their vessels work, or why they’re coming to earth at all. We are meant to maintain a sense of wonder and indescribable awe about what we and the characters experience.
  • The picture smartly weaves scary and pessimistic elements with upbeat, optimistic, and emotionally moving elements to take our feelings on a roller coaster ride.
    • Kieran Fisher of Film School Rejects wrote: “The brilliance of Close Encounters is the way it subverts the scary tropes of alien invasion movies to tell a story about overcoming fear and achieving great things. The only way to find progress is to make compromises, and we can’t co-exist with others if we don’t learn about them. The movie contains some great values about acceptance, but it doesn’t shy away from giving us terrifying thrills and some complex food for thought to chew on, either. In the end, the blind optimism of Roy and the kid paid off, but the movie is an emotional roller coaster all the same.”

Themes at work in this picture

  • The importance of maintaining a childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Consider that the only two characters we see who are taken away by the aliens are a very young child and a grown man who still loves cartoons, exudes a youthful mindset, and maintains a strong sense of curiosity about the world. It’s no mistake that there are several references to Disney’s Pinnochio here, including a Jiminy Cricket toy and strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” heard in the musical score.
  • "We are not alone" (the film's tagline) in the universe. There is higher life that exists outside our planet, and we can find common ground and communicate with these life forms if we choose to.
  • The search for truth, life, and connection beyond our planet can be a spiritual or religious experience. Think about how Roy seems to have been “enlightened” in his first and last close encounters with aliens, and recall the awe and wonder on the faces of the authorities who make musical contact with the aliens at the conclusion. And recall how we are briefly shown a scene from The Ten Commandments movie on Roy’s television: the sequence where Moses splits the Red Sea. The filmmakers continually remind us that Roy is undergoing a religious experience.
  • Music is a universal language that bridges cultures and, in this case, worlds.

Other movies we think of after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind

  • Sci-fi films of the 1950s, particularly the rare ones with benevolent aliens including The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Cocoon
  • The Abyss
  • Fire in the Sky
  • Contact
  • Arrival

Other films directed by Steven Spielberg

  • Jaws
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark and its 3 sequels
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler’s List
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • A.I: Artificial Intelligence
  • Minority Report
  • Munich
  • War of the Worlds
  • Lincoln
  • Bridge of Spies

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