#25 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Sometimes I think Close Encounters gets short shrift because Steven Spielberg has made too many great movies. When movie talk turns to Sci-Fi (which Harlan Ellison famously pronounces “skiffy”), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial usually dominates the conversation. Action-Adventure fans turn toward Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Fans of thrillers hold Munich and Bridge of Spies close to their hearts. Film buffs looking for probing drama need only turn to Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Amistad, or Lincoln. Spielberg’s Jaws is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Close Encounters, though nominally a science-fiction film, combines pieces of all of these genres into a unique whole. It is at once chase film, domestic drama, thoughtful rumination on our place in the universe, alien invasion film, horror movie, and sly comedy. If you question the assertion that Close Encounters contains horror elements, look at Spielberg’s masterful use of lighting, editing, and sound effects in the scene where little Barry is abducted. The sheer ambition behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind puts many modern movies to shame.
The new BFI monograph on Chaplin’s The Gold Rush focuses on the different existing versions of that film, because Chaplin prepared a sound version in 1942 that replaced some footage and removed the title cards and added his fulsome narration… and then he failed to renew the copyright on his 1925 original, thus making it the stuff of public-domain-eyesore videotapes and discs. Just as I was thinking while reading the book, “Thank God we have no problem discerning the OFFICIAL VERSION for scholarship purposes regarding more modern films”, I instantly realized that many modern films—Welles’s Touch of Evil, Close Encounters, and Blade Runner, to name but a few—share the same problem of provenance.
Many years ago, I was in charge of an annual “Film Day” event in my school district. Film Day is a daylong celebration of the movies, attended by hundreds of the district’s film students (if your school district doesn’t already have a Film Day, write your congressman.) The theme for the day was “Sci-Fi.” In those days, if I wanted to screen a film I had to rent it on good old 16mm; this would have been 1988 or ’89, and by then Spielberg’s “Special Edition” had all but replaced his original cut for reparatory screenings and 16mm rentals. I was so overjoyed when the rental company sent me a pristine copy of the original version, which I always preferred. I prefaced the screening by telling all the kiddies in attendance just why they were in for a special treat!
I am also an unapologetic fan of practical effects, and Close Encounters is a textbook of what can be accomplished with miniatures, forced perspective, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, smoke, mirrors, editing, music, and performance. Good Lord—one of the best special effects in the film is the truckload of dirt in front of Neary’s TV. When Douglas Trumbull started the project, he joked that the film’s $3.7 million special effects budgets could be used instead to make a whole other film. Columbia’s original budget for Close Encounters was $7 million; the final cost was closer to $20 million—and them’s 1977 dollars!
Close Encounter of the Third Kind’s Three Miracles: An American science-fiction film that takes its own themes seriously, is neither jokey nor crass, and respects its own audience’s intelligence; special effects that both awe and delight; and another in a series of iconic scores by John Williams—five simple notes that have become synonymous with the film itself.
“In nomine Dreyfuss, et Truffaut, y spiritu Spielberg, Amen.”
Interesting follow-up to Pinocchio from a few weeks ago. Actually, I think the Special Edition’s underwhelming ending had turned me off of Pinocchio for years. Close Encounters always had a precarious ending, with the conflict coming to a halt for a 30 minute light show. But Douglas Trumbull’s effects photography of Greg Jein’s models was so perfect that it actually worked.ReplyDelete
Digital effects have come a long way. And I tend to give them a pass at this point as long as they are good enough to be coherent. But I don’t think they ever produce the same awe, that real photography of physical models can generate. Close Encounters is not a film that could be made today because it would not be able to stick the landing.
in the podcast, sombody once said E.T. was the best spielberg movie. while it very a very, very good movie, i say Close Encounter is the best spielberg movie.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this column! This will always be one my favorite movies, and I'll watch it whenever it's on. I think you're exactly right that Neary is one of the best audience surrogates ever; he's smart, funny, empathetic, and just plain human and it's a joy to follow him through the film. And I always thought it was interesting that Spielberg would follow up Jaws with a film about a man ultimately being rewarded for pursuing a vision (in this case, a literal vision) through an endless series of obstacles.ReplyDelete
For me, my favorite Spielberg movie is generally a rotation between E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters. For Spielberg's best movie, though, I have absolutely no idea. I think this movie might have some (not all, but some) of my favorite practical effects.ReplyDelete
This comment has been removed by the author.ReplyDelete
Weird, I randomly put this on this week end and watch it a few times. Cool!ReplyDelete
I also feel the child's sense of Awe, it is that magic and wonder done very sincerely and believing in the existence of other beings in this galaxy, when a movie like this is made from the heart its hard for me to not enjoy itReplyDelete
Close Encounters is a brilliant film. Spielberg found a way to tell a compelling story about revelation and faith by wrapping it in a science-fiction package. When I was a kid, the middle section was a chore you had to get through before "the good stuff" in the finale. Now as an adult, the middle section (where Roy is struggling with his visions and what they might mean) is to me the heart and soul of the film.ReplyDelete
Then there's E.T., which to me is an unofficial sequel to Close Encounters. Note how Elliot's family has the same composition as Roy's family - two older brothers, a younger sister, and an absent father. I think Spielberg used E.T. as a way for our alien friends to make amends to the family that lay broken at the end of Close Encounters.ReplyDelete
Great post...I need to give this film a revisit! It's been decades since I've seen it :OReplyDelete