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Friday, April 20, 2012


"I just want to know that it's really happening."
-- Roy Neary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a 1977 dramatic sci-fi film directed by Steven Spielberg that has become one of the more iconic films of the 1970s. After strange occurrences are reported all around the globe, a team of scientists and investigators led by Claude Lacombe (Fran├žois Truffaut) desperately attempts to discover the meaning of these seemingly supernatural events. At the same time, the audience meets Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrician who has a close encounter with "something unusual" late one night. After his meeting, however, Roy starts to see a vision that he can't quite make out, and it slowly starts to drive him mad. He becomes invested in the idea of another alien encounter, and his apparent delirium is enough to drive his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and his children out of there home. Roy keeps at it, however, and he ultimately learns that he must make his way to a remote area of Wyoming. Joined by a woman named Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose son Barry (Cary Guffey) was taken by the aliens, Roy sets out for Devil's Peak in Wyoming, only to face resistance from the United States Army and the aforementioned Lacombe.

Close Encounters was one of those films that I grew up seeing here and there, but I'm not quite sure when I actually first had the chance to sit down and watch it in its entirety. I can distinctly remember seeing the Barry abduction scene as a child because I can recall the sheer terror it made me experience. It was only recently that I was able to find a copy of the 30th Anniversary Edition DVD that I had the time to sit down and watch the film again, and boy, was it grand. I had almost forgotten just how good the movie actually was.

Let's start out with some of its accolades, shall we? For starters, the film has been recognized by audiences and critics alike as one of the better films to emerge from the 1970s. At the time, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including nominations for Spielberg's directing and Dillon's acting. It ultimately won the award for Best Cinematography. Today, the film currently holds a 95% approval rating on, which offers the following critical consensus:
Close Encounters' most iconic bits (the theme, the mashed-potato sculpture, etc.) have been so thoroughly absorbed into the culture that it's easy to forget that its treatment of aliens as peaceful beings rather than warmongering monsters was somewhat groundbreaking in 1977.
I actually hadn't thought about this point until re-watching the movie yesterday. When you take a look back at the films that dealt with extraterrestrial life before 1977, you'll find a lot of movies where the creatures from outer space are attempting to destroy the human race. I mean, take films like 1958's The Blob or the classic 1953 film The War of the Worlds. It was films like these that offered the standard idea of alien life back in the 1950s and 1960s, and although the concept of a friendly alien was not entirely unprecedented - one need only look to the brilliant 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still - it simply wasn't the idea that had forced its way into the collective public consciousness.

In a way, it's surprising that Close Encounters continues to have a staying power with audiences today, seeing as most alien-centric films in today's Hollywood are all about violence and destruction. I mean, if you take a look at 2011 alone, you'll find films like Apollo 18, Attack the Block, Battle: Los Angeles, Cowboys & Aliens, The Darkest Hour and The Thing that all follow that basic premise. And so, it's something quite refreshing to know that at one time, a cast and crew of actors and filmmakers were able to create something so special and so unique, and even thirty-five years later, the film can still have an emotional impact on an audience.

There are a number of reasons as to why Close Encounters works so well as a film. For starters, we're offered a brilliant screenplay written by Spielberg and a few other collaborators. While the film offers a relatively simple story, it manages to show that story from a number of angles, giving the audience an eclectic view of the extraterrestrial occurrences throughout the film. On one side, we're seeing Roy and Jillian's reaction to their alien encounters; on the other, we see the scientists and military. What's interesting, however, is that all parties are working toward the same goal: understanding. Often times in alien-centric films, you'll have a military force who simply wants to eliminate the alien presence, even while a few scientists and civilians want to study and learn from them. The somewhat forced collaboration between the two groups in this film makes for a bit of drama as well as a sense of unity in the face of first contact with life from another world. And, at the end of the day, the film is entirely about communication. While the central focus will always be on the way the humans first communicate with the aliens, there's a lot of room to notice the communication between the humans as well. At nearly every stage of the film, we have some sort of translator for the Lacombe character, and at times, the dialogue between he and someone else can get a little confusing and convoluted. I think that only enhances the brilliance of the film's final act, when the humans are able to make contact with the aliens in a beautifully simple fashion.

We're also getting a string of quality acting throughout the film, and the actors easily find ways to bring their characters to life. It's hard to imagine that the role of Roy Neary wasn't written with Richard Dreyfuss in mind because it fits his personality to a tee. He has the opportunity to let loose and have fun with his performance, and it ultimately proves to be a compelling one. As was previously mentioned, Dillon managed to secure an Oscar nomination for her supporting performance, and I think that says enough about how well she does in the film. I also thought that Truffaut, who perhaps may be more famous as a writer and director than as an actor, did a splendid job as well.

One of the defining parts of this film, however, has to be the musical score, which was composed by none other than the great John Williams. I grew up listening to Williams' scores as a child, and in many cases, I knew a film's music before I ever had a chance to see the film. Close Encounters was one such case, but now that I'm able to see how well the music fits into this particular film. While it may not be his most iconic score, I would argue that Williams may have created one of his most beautiful here. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, here's a little taste of what he brought to the table for Close Encounters:

At the end of the day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the more iconic films ever to grace the silver screen. I'm sure there's been a point in your life where you've seen a snippet of the film here and there, but if you haven't had a chance to take in the film in its entirety, I strongly suggest you do, and do so soon. The film is simply brilliant, and although it may have been a tad bit overshadowed in 1977 by a little film called Star Wars, there's still so much to love about Close Encounters that I'm sure you'll find a way to enjoy it.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
2 Thumbs Up

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