With the knowledge that I'll now regard such stories with a big shaker of salt comes a sense of mild disappointment: yes, the concept scared me a little--a mixture of wonder and the uncanny and heavily fueled by the works of H.R. Giger--but I enjoy being scared. Quite frankly, it's an incredibly sensous feeling, and a sudden injection of fear does a fine job of keeping my ego in check. And nothing quite compares to walking back home alone in the wee hours in the morning, constantly checking over one's shoulder, wary of a flicker in the shadows or a spine-chilling sound or, most of all, an ethereal glow on the horizon.
Strangely enough, my increased scepticism coincides with ever-ascending appreciation for a certain film that, considering its subject matter, I should probably appreciate less: Steven Spielberg's 1977 epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A conclusion (not the conclusion--I'll save that for the end): I find it very unlikely that aliens from outer space have visited Earth, at least during recorded human history. I don't doubt that hundreds if not thousands of bizarre sightings have occurred, especially in the last half century, but I simply can't chalk them up to visitors from another world. Where UFOs haven't been explained as terrestrial-if-nonetheless-strange phenomena they simply don't make sense. Ignoring that Einstein's theories of relativity discount the faster-than-light travel that would actually enable spaceships to move from one star to the next, most UFO encounters make these enigmatic visitors out to be passive-aggressive, socially anxious jerks. As a far more articulate person once said, stop flashing the landing lights out in flyover country and say "hello."
But I digress. In spite of the film's more credulous approach I adore Close Encounters more and more with each passing viewing. When not dazzling the viewer with groundbreaking special effects or exploring the human capacity for fear, curiosity and obsession, it's just a very engrossing movie that manages to bypass my newfound cocked eyebrow--and in a very profound manner.
After making the world pants-shittingly scared of sharks in 1975 with Jaws, Spielberg could be seen as being idiosyncratically progressive in directing and co-writing Close Encounters. It's rare to find a film prior to this that depicts aliens in such a positive or at least benign light (The Day the Earth Stood Still being a major exception). It was pretty much Hollywood tradition: if your character was an ET in the 50s and 60s, you were ripe picking for cinematic villainry. With Close Encounters and later the overly-sentimental E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Spielberg made those who lived beyond the stars seem almost preferable to the human race.
There is a sense of overwhelming terror throughout the film up until its final minutes, though it's more of an irrational phobia based on naturally-occurring prejudice and fear of the unknown--one that I've long associated with all things ET. Along with Ridley Scott's magnificent Alien it's one of the only films that manages to make its ET characters feel, well, alien. The story is told entirely from the human perspective and even as the alien mothership (the mind-blowing work of VFX artist Douglas Trumbull) lifts off into the starry sky over the end credits there's no evidence that we as the viewer have learned anything tangible from these visitors. Yet we come away feeling a little less wary of the night sky and even a little fulfilled.
While the film is a string of great moments from start to finish, let's be honest: the climactic display of light and sound at Devils Tower in Wyoming is incomparable. When I'm feeling a little more whimsical I like to think of this sequence as the main reason the motion picture medium was invented. It's the concept of climax distilled to its purest elements: the senses bombarded with A/V stimuli, the rising tension unbearable, and spiked with sublime wonder to taste. Hell, even just thinking about the lone, bewildered keyboard technician performing that epic duet with the mothership is enough to make me feel giddy.
But what continually draws me back to this film is its two key performances: Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary and François Truffaut as Claude Lacombe. For all the big budget glamour his films are usually associated with, I think Spielberg truly is in touch with the human element, albeit with his aforementioned sentimentality. The final act of Jaws is essentially a male-bonding flick, Jurassic Park and The Lost World are about human pride and fallibility, and I don't think I need to point out how deeply rooted in the human condition Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are. With Close Encounters, I think Spielberg touches on themes of shifting paradigms and, as previously mentioned, curiosity and obsession.
I like Richard Dreyfuss a lot. When not doing a scarily accurate impression of Dick Cheney, Dreyfuss is one of the quintessential cinematic everyguys (not to be confused Robert Shaw, who was just Quint). He's not leading man handsome, meaning he can play a wide variety of roles with some measure of credibility, but he's not too blue collar either. Whether a marine biologist (as in Jaws) or a telephone lineman (as in this film), he always comes off as being smarter than the average bear. Case in point, Neary's darkly humorous explanation of his son's fraction problem using a model train collision. And these two factors really make the character of Roy Neary work: a little less smart and he'd seem like a regular nutjob; a little more handsome and we just wouldn't buy him as a father and working joe. The same formula applies with nearly every character in Alien and in Brad Anderson's overlooked Session 9.
Fuck it, I'll take it a step further: I honestly think Dreyfuss should have been nominated for an Academy Award for this performance. Where he isn't immediately likeable he's a sympathetic portrait of a man gripped with obsession but unable to even figure out what his obsession is. What truly seals the deal is the iconic dinner table scene, wherein Dreyfuss as Neary absentmindedly shapes what is eventually revealed to be Devils Tower out of a lump of mashed potatoes. He stops himself partway, realizing his own children are regarding him with sadness and even fear. But don't let me speak for you. Here's the clip:
On the flip side there's Truffaut's Lacombe. Truffaut, more well known for his work in the French New Wave, acts as a more in-the-know parallel to Neary, and while he can put a name to his obsession it is still an obsession. Lacombe is not a cliched, shadowy government figure but a scientist, naturally curious and still maintaining a sense of wonder in his years. I'm reminded of a French version of Richard Feynman, a man who in spite of his undeniable brilliance maintained intense, even childlike fascination for something as rudimentary as how a train stays on the tracks. He remarks with disappointment and pity that the army uses scare tactics (namely a fake nerve gas panic) to keep the populace away from Devils Tower in preparation for the climactic contact.
While the film's title implies contact with extraterrestrials, part of me wonders if it also refers to the two men and their eventual, understated meeting--understated especially in comparison to the staggering mothership. Standing next to each other, Neary having snuck onto the landing site, they bask in the glow of the hovering ship as recently-released abductees make their way down the ramp in front of them. "Monsieur Neary," Lacombe says, "I envy you." Envying him, presumably, not only for the unprecedented journey he is about to take but for a new sense of certainty and justification. Lacombe gets his cake and eats it too, specifically in a touching sequence wherein he uses hand signals to communicate a single yet powerful greeting with the childlike alien emissary. It's enough to send tingles up one's spine and in not nearly as preachy a fashion as with E.T.
The (actual) conclusion: I don't know if Close Encounters of the Third Kind falls into my top ten favourite films. With the exception of The Sweet Hereafter, every movie in said list made it there after repeated viewings and analysis (listen to me, making my favourite flicks out to be so important), and to truly ascertain Close Encounters' position on the scale I'll probably need to watch it another couple of times from opening titles to end credits. But it's an immensely powerful and moving film for believer and sceptic alike and contains effects that even 33 years on continue to boggle the mind.