Monday, April 18, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There are tons of science fiction movies about aliens, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind really changed the genre.  When I think of alien movies, I think of alien invasion movies because, let's face it, that's pretty much the only type of alien movie that gets made.  Sure, you might get a comedy like *batteries not included or Paul, but those are the exceptions to the rule.  Alien movies typically feature fearsome enemies, hell-bent on destroying mankind or, at the very least, Danny Glover.
Everyone is too old for that shit.
Close Encounters takes a different approach, and I found my love for the sci-fi genre refreshed by that approach, especially after some of the crappy post-apocalyptic flicks I've reviewed recently.  It's also a plus to watch just about any movie scored by John Williams.

I normally like to take the time to explain the plot a bit in my reviews, but I'm going to skip that step today.  I tried to summarize the movie, but I never really did it any justice.  That could certainly be interpreted as incompetence on my part, but I feel that this is a film that focuses on a sense of discovery and wonder.  Explaining the movie undermines it.  But, briefly, I can say this: a "close encounter" is an alien sighting.  The first kind are UFO sightings, the second kind leave behind physical evidence, and the third kind involve actually meeting aliens.  Average joe Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter of the first (and second) kind, and the largest part of this movie focuses on his struggles in the aftermath of his encounter.

The acting in this film is very solid all around, but Richard Dreyfuss's surprisingly understated performance is what drives the movie.  I'm not a big fan of Dreyfuss, mostly because of his string of hammy roles in the late 90s, but he's actually really, really good here.  He shows great comedic timing, but is able to balance that with some very good dramatic acting, as well.  My favorite example of this is in the scene where he scares himself after his UFO sighting; it isn't funny because of the words in the script, but because his performance is so natural that you laugh because you can imagine doing the exact same thing.  Melinda Dillon doesn't get the chance to showcase as much range as Dreyfuss, but she plays a very good mom character (as evidenced by A Christmas Story) and her panic is surprisingly raw at times.  I also liked Teri Garr as Roy Neary's wife; most films would make her a supportive character, someone who believes her husband's crazy alien theories when no one else will.  Instead, her character did the all-too-believable thing and refused to believe in Neary's X-Files-worthy tale.  What's most impressive, though, is that she doesn't come off as a villain.  Francois Tuffaut makes a rare acting appearance here (he is a famous French director) as the French scientist studying the uptick in UFO activity, and he's perfectly serviceable in his role.  He doesn't really have much of an emotional stake in the story, but I thought he did a decent job.  His interpreter, played by Bob Balaban, is more well known for his straight-faced comedic roles, but he apparently can play it straight, too.

Director Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters right after Jaws, and it really shows his versatility.  Sure, he could make a scary monster movie, but what can he do with a concept picture?  Quite a bit, it turns out.  A lot of the discussions on Close Encounters focus on the special effects, and for good reason.  The different ways Spielberg indicates the presence of aliens without actually showing them are all pretty impressive.  I'm not exactly sure why all electrical devices turn on around aliens, but they make for some very memorable scenes.  And yes, the alien ships look pretty cool, especially for a movie made in 1977.  Focusing on that stuff misses the point of the movie, though.  This is an unusual story.  It's presented as a kind of mystery --- exactly what did they see? --- but, as an audience, we assume that we know the answer (hint: it rhymes with "baliens").  And since we know the answer, there really isn't a sense of revelation in the film.  And yet, it is a compelling movie.  Maybe it is the way Spielberg assembled the film, splicing the big picture involving the French scientist and his discoveries within the narrative of Dreyfuss's character, that makes the movie work.  Maybe it was the way that that "big picture" came together; the scenes in India were pretty cool.  Or maybe it is just the simplicity of the story: aliens want to meet us.  I'm not exactly sure what Spielberg does that captures so much innocent wonder about the unknown, but it is definitely what makes this film so impressive.
"The unknown" is apparently mashed potatoes.

I have to note that I watched the original theatrical version.  There are three versions of the movie available (all of which are in the new Blu Ray package): the original theatrical version, the Special Edition, and the Collector's Edition.  The Special Edition re-edits the movie, removing some scenes and adding a new ending, where we get to see inside the spaceship.  The Collector's Edition includes some of the edits of the Special Edition, but cuts the spaceship interior shots, leaving it to your imagination.  The original theatrical version features Carl Weathers in a small part that was cut in the subsequent versions, as well as a few other scenes that don't really add much to the overall story.
An actual screen shot of Weathers in Close Encounters.  He was easy to miss, I know.

Obviously, I really like this movie, but I am not blind to its flaws.  Its pace can seem glacial if you are not in the right mood to sit and watch it.  The laser light show at the end probably should have Pink Floyd playing instead of John Williams's five-note theme.  I'm not quite sure why electrical devices turn on around our little visitors, but I'm downright confused as to why mailboxes rock back and forth in their presence.  And why is there so much goodwill toward these aliens?  They kidnap people.  They implant images in our brains that compel us into certain actions.  They force creepy, hillbilly-esque people to whistle "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."  And there's no R. Lee Ermey-type character in this film that wants to blow the little green men back to (space) hell?  That seems very unlikely.  And what about Richard Dreyfuss's character?  His life was ruined by the effects of his encounter, and yet he is enamored with the aliens.  That just doesn't make sense.

See?  I can critique the movie, even if I have trouble summarizing it.  Even with those problems, I still think it is great.  Science fiction is the result of our fascination with the unknown, but the genre rarely conveys that wonder on the big screen.  It's really nice to see a movie that celebrates that joy without being manipulative.

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