After much suspense searching for a sponsor, Screen on the Green, the annual series of movies on the National Mall made its grand return. To debut this season, they harkened back to Steven Spielberg’s 1978/1980 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Given the ubiquity of Spielberg, some of the more purely commercial movies of the earlier age tend to get lost – I mean everyone knows Jaws but how many free associate that with Spielberg. I remember seeing it on the old ABC Saturday Night Movie when I was something like 8 years old – frankly I barely remember, so I was approaching it fresh. We know the film was made in 1978 and then re-issued in 1980 with some changes – and it is the 1980 “Special Edition” that is the film of today. What I did not know was whether the film, effects and all, still worked nearly thirty years.
But work it does, and the sense of wonder and awe associated with the sheer notion of an alien race contacting us is latent. Along with Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the rare film that has the sort of academic fascination with extra-terrestrials that frankly, you’d expect in real life from actual scientists. The most amazing thing about something like Independence Day is the unusual lack of “holy crap!” sentiment coming from the characters – the most earth shattering site you’ll ever see, and yet it is played as if it is equivalent to a deer crossing (not that that is not exciting – hey, my life is boring too) Here, when the characters (most notably the family man played by Richard Dreyfus) see the UFO and are implanted with the image, they are awestruck and cannot shake what they have seen. Spielberg augments the acting with symbols everywhere – a sound pattern, a ship in the Gobi desert … like M Night Shymalan did in Signs (almost undoubtedly influenced by this film), the resolution of the signs are not important, but they evoke wonder and curiosity.
In fact, the Dreyfus obsession ends up causing his wife and children to leave, and this is where the film is very weak. Like many of the animated Disney fare, our hero needs to ford ahead with their quest (which this kind of is), but how do you get rid of the inconvenient family. The reactions of Dreyfus’ wife and children to his changed mood seems kind of ham handed and is thoroughly unconvincing. It was as if Spielberg did not how to get rid of the family and just picked any ol’ method. However, thankfully, this is just a small quibble, and it does set up Dreyfus’ journey to the site of his vision and the inevitable alien encounter, which is appropriately awesome, even thirty years later.
The site of the UFO is pretty convincing by 1980 standards, much more so than the effects of Superman for instance, which looks quite dated. The aliens when depicted, do work, and when we go inside the UFO, the columns of light and machinery are both amazing, implausible (in a good way) and mysterious. The road to the end is a little rocky, but the payoff is brilliant.
P.S. Yay, if you google “incest, olive garden”, look what you find!