Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

close encounters of the third kind poster

Editor’s Note:  This is one of the earliest reviews I ever wrote. It is interesting (at least to me) to see how I’m trying to find my voice, trying to figure out exactly how to review a film.

This movie is pure joy to me. This makes it rather difficult for me to actually review the movie and not just give it praise. Since I have seen it numerous times, and there are then no surprises for me, so I must warn the reader that there will probably be **spoilers** in this review. So if you have not seen it and do not want any details of the film, stop reading now.

There were a few differences with this viewing than in previous viewings. First I have actually been to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Having actually seen this natural monument takes a little mystery out of it in the film. For years it seemed more like something out of the filmmaker’s imagination, something of the dreams of Hollywood, than something real. Something made of rocks and dirt. The mysterious glow that surrounded the rock in the film, and especially the first actual appearance in the film on television, has been dimmed a little. Likewise, as Richard Dreyfuss sculpts the mount in the beginning I wanted to shout at him to flatten the top.

Secondly, I am now quite familiar with a number of Francois Truffaut’s films. He plays the mysterious French scientist in the film, but is in reality, a gifted director and pioneer in the French New Wave. Being familiar with who the actor is, gave the character more depth and mystery. I wonder how Spielberg talked him into becoming an actor in his film. If he had any influence on the direction of the film.

Having learned a little French myself, and having a very good translator beside me also shed some light on what was actually being said in the French conversations. There are several moments in the film when Truffaut speaks in French and Spielberg uses no subtitles. I always felt this was intentional to give the film a little more mystery, to add the international, interwordly feel to the film. So it was interesting now to actually understand what was being said.

I have also, for the past few years, lived in Indiana. Much of the movie takes place in Muncie, Indiana and I found the same joy that I always find when a movie, book, or song takes place somewhere I know or have been to. As if it becomes more real simply because I know the places it occurs.

To me, the film is less about aliens and more about a sense of wonderment. In a famous scene, a small boy stands in front of an open door that is ablaze in a fiery glow. You cannot see what is outside, but you have spent the previous minutes watching the boy’s mother become very frightened as the aliens attempt to enter the house. Yet the boy standing close to these unseen and unknown creatures stands unafraid, even curious. There are many beautiful shots of a night sky with billions of brilliant stars sparkling. Throughout the film, Spielberg seems to be using space and aliens as a means to express wonder and amazement at the unknown.

Richard Dreyfuss’ character loses interest in his family and outside life except for the mystery of the things he saw in the night sky and the recurrent thought of the mysterious mountain. Several times as he builds the mountain out of clay, dirt, and mashed potatoes he proclaims that it must mean something, but isn’t sure of what. Even in the last scene when he boards the alien craft there is no final meaning given. It’s as if Speilberg is saying that it is the search for meaning in the universe, it is in looking with wonder at the great mysteries of the world that we in fact find some purpose, some meaning.

I was reading a review of Steven Spielberg as a director and one of the things it discussed was the director’s tendency of not moving his camera. That he tends to allow action to come to the camera’s view instead of following the action with the camera. So as I watched this film I kept a keen eye out for camera movement. I did find this to be true. That’s not to say the camera was only in one place. In fact, it often was placed in different parts of a room for a scene, but in any given shot, there was little movement. No sweeping shots, no long-tracking scenes. The biggest movement I saw was when Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon arrive at the Devil’s Tower. The camera then sweeps over the car and follows the characters up a hill to reveal, finally, the giant rock in a real shot. I’m not sure what to make of this but found it interesting.

As in many Spielberg’s films there is marital strife in this movie. Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr’s marriage literally falls apart as Dreyfuss becomes more and more obsessed with his visions. There is one scene in particular where Dreyfuss is locked in a shower crying and Terri Garr begins to scream at him and scream at the children to go to their rooms. Speilberg uses several close-up shots of the children to show how this fighting disturbs them. Spielberg has been on record saying that his own parent’s divorce disturbed him deeply. Many of his films either show the distress of an unhealthy marriage or the products of divorce.

In this film, the problems of the marriage are Richard Dreyfuss’ character’s obsession.  He is also the hero of the film and is whisked away in the wonderful alien ship. I view this not as a detraction from the film but as an artistic endeavor. Spielberg takes time out of his alien picture to show the hurt and pain Dreyfuss causes. Dreyfuss’s character also shows remorse over his actions yet cannot turn away from his obsession. As he begins to tear down his scrapbooks of alien abductions he tears the pointy top of his clay Devil’s Tower and becomes obsessed all over again. Though in reality, I would see such a person’s actions in disgust and contempt in the context of the film I see it as a broader artistic action toward the overall goal of seeking deeper meaning and wonderment. Just as I can cheer for the violent destruction of the bad guy in an action movie when the reality which is abhorrent and gruesome.

And that’s my review. I am reluctant to give any kind of official 5-star rating or whatever because that seems so arbitrary. And as happens when I begin rating anything I find trouble in giving Evil Dead II the same rating as To Kill a Mockingbird because one is a much better piece of cinema but the other is also a wonderful flick.

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