CINEMA: Making Contact

By on August 30, 2017

Why Close Encounters on its 40th anniversary is the movie we need right now.

The mothership arrives in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – This summer, several generations of movie nerds paid homage to the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential movies of modern times: Star Wars. It was a landmark worth acknowledging, but also threatened to overshadow completely other significant releases of 1977: Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Saturday Night Fever and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

On one level, it’s easy to understand how Close Encounters—which returns to theaters this week with a limited-engagement theatrical release of the “director’s cut” in a 4K restoration—might be given short shrift. It wasn’t even the second-biggest box office hit of its year—that would be Smokey and the Bandit—and it often gets lost in the shuffle of Spielberg conversations between his early mega-blockbusters (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.) and his later dramatic classics (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln).

But here in 2017, there might be a few particularly significant reasons for recognizing CE3K’s many lessons, both positive and negative. Of all the vintage films we could get a chance to experience in theaters again, this might be the one we need most right now—and here’s why.

It’s a case study in a different way to approach blockbuster filmmaking. Fresh off the success of Jaws, Spielberg chose to dive into what is still his only solo original screenplay credit. There are plenty of memorably tense scenes—most notably the extended sequence in which 4-year-old Barry (Cary Guffey) is abducted from his home and his single mother (Melinda Dillon)—but Close Encounters isn’t defined primarily by action. The awe-inspiring design of the alien spacecraft somehow still holds up in the CGI era, so it’s easy to understand how the climax could hold an audience rapt, despite the final 30 minutes consisting almost entirely of people staring in amazement. Spielberg trusted that viewers could be as captivated by wonder as they are by visceral thrills—and perhaps more filmmakers could take that alternate avenue to bigger-faster-more.

It’s a reminder of what gets destroyed by obsession. The central plot focuses on a power-company lineman named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who has a life-changing moment after he witnesses alien spacecraft one night. He subsequently becomes unable to focus on anything else, seeing visions of a tower-shaped structure—eventually revealed to be the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming—that he compulsively builds out of shaving cream, mashed potatoes, modeling clay and a huge mound of dirt in the middle of his living room. Not surprisingly, this behavior freaks out his wife (Teri Garr), who ultimately takes their children and leaves him. Neary’s decision to join a team of astronauts going aboard the alien mothership became the movie’s climax, but in later years Spielberg famously expressed regret that he treated Neary’s abandonment of his family so matter-of-factly. Maybe it’s worth considering that individual personal relationships can be damaged by single-minded pursuits.

It celebrates scientists doing the job of figuring things out. While Neary’s story serves as the narrative’s emotional backbone, nearly as much time in the first hour is spent on a pair of researchers—played by Bob Balaban and legendary director François Truffaut—traveling around the globe to gather evidence of unexplained phenomena possibly related to alien visitation. Several of those scenes are used to build mystery—including the arresting image of a missing Russian ship inexplicably marooned in the middle of the Gobi Desert—but others are purely about the arduous work of preparing for possible direct contact. Spielberg even devotes a scene to scientists at a conference puzzling out the significance of the movie’s iconic five-tone tune, which is later used as a method of communication. The heroes here aren’t people who are alarmed by the unknown, but by people who are curious, and they go about their work in a spirit of international cooperation. Which brings us to …

It treats the arrival of visitors not automatically as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn. Cinema history doesn’t often make visits by extra-terrestrial life forms a particularly positive experience, what with your various blobs, body-snatchers, wars of the worlds and so forth. While the military is a distinctive presence throughout the build-up to Close Encounters’s finale, Spielberg never shows us images of soldiers with weapons trained on the spacecraft as they arrive at the Devils Tower rendezvous point. There’s a remarkable optimism built into the film’s structure, with its foundation the assumption that these aliens come with no malice—and this despite full awareness of abducted humans. It feels so crucial to recognize that people can respond to the arrival of unknown visitors without fear and loathing, and that such an approach can lead to a relationship of mutual communication and trust. Let’s imagine that more of our own encounters could be this close. PJH

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