(Dir. Steven Spielberg, United States, 1977)
In Pursuit of Meaning
If ever there were a bid for big-budget, Spielbergian entertainment as art-house artifact, I’d put my money on Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Very few doubt the renowned director’s filmmaking skills (he’s arguably created a cinematic sub-genre of his own), but many push back against Spielberg as auteur, an artist to be considered amongst the greats. The common thought says that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jaws are fun to watch, but due to their audience pandering, there’s little to no depth upon penetrating the surface of overwhelming spectacle. That I happen to disagree with the Godards of the film community on this point, I do see the basis for it. Spielberg hasn’t earned the moniker of cinema’s sentimentalist for no reason. Not to mention, his most “serious” films – Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan – are arguably far from his best work.
But, as a casual fan of Spielberg himself, an admirer of all he’s accomplished, and an ardent supporter of a few of his greatest films, I’d submit the sci-fi pair of Close Encounters and A.I. Artificial Intelligence as proof that the man is indeed capable of achieving legitimate and, at times, awe-inspiring art. If A.I. is his most thought-provoking – what with its Blade Runner-esque exploration of what it means to be human paired with a turn of the century paranoia regarding technological progress – then Close Encounters is his most visually stunning and likely most rewarding work to date.
In opposition to the gold standard of cinematic sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey before it and the contemporaneous game-changer Star Wars released only a few months prior, Close Encounters concerns humankind untouched by futuristic intergalactic space travel or everyday brushes with extra-terrestrial beings. After a series of tension-building incidents hinting at what’s to come, the narrative begins in Muncie, Indiana (read: Anywheresville, USA) with two ordinary families whose lives are about to change forever. Single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) runs after her 3-year-old son Barry (Cary Guffey) who’s been lured out of bed by the sight of his battery-operated toys coming to life and an ominous glow from the window. Spielberg furthers his mastery of suspense and anticipation when Barry discovers a being wisely left off-screen rummaging through the refrigerator. After Jillian chases Barry into the field outside their home, Spielberg cuts to his second family again offering no resolve as to what’s out there.
Spielberg introduces us to Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) – the film’s primary protagonist – by way of his chaotic household with three attention-seeking children and a dissatisfied wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). This introductory sequence is quite humorous as the three kids vie for their father’s attention, and their mother scrambles around the living room picking up after them. If we’re tempted to see his children as obnoxious or his wife as a nag, Spielberg suggests it may be Roy who’s to blame for these interactions. He ignores both his wife and children and reveals early on in the film that his interests will take precedence over theirs.
When a large-scale power outage affects nearly the entire city, Roy is called upon to investigate as his job as a low-level electrical lineman demands. Stopped at train tracks, Roy unexpectedly has what will later be dubbed a close encounter with a UFO. To mirror the fury of enlivened toys in Barry’s room, the car radio and railway crossing lights go haywire, the glove box’s contents flail about the vehicle’s interior, and the unidentified craft hovering above violently shakes the truck with Roy stuck inside. It’s one of Close Encounters best and most exhilarating scenes. Spielberg again chooses delayed gratification and gives us no easing glimpse of the spacecraft that disappears and leaves Roy shaken in the dark.
The bulk of the film – chronicling the slow unhinging of Roy, Jillian, and others who’ve experienced these behavior-altering encounters as well as the predictably slapdash efforts of the U.S. government to quell certain widespread panic – unfolds in this way. Spielberg crafts sequences of rhapsodic entertainment (the first sighting of the three wandering alien spaceships), heart-pounding terror (the abduction of Barry), and the damaging effects of his characters’ growing neurosis (the truly heart-wrenching sight of Roy building a small-scale model from images in his head with mashed potatoes as his horrified family looks on) with ease. Scene after scene Spielberg withholds clearly defined images of the imposing presence (audience pandering or the complete opposite?) in favor of one visually explosive and wholly rewarding finale.
After Roy and Jillian resist the authorities’ insistence on civilian evacuation, the pair treks up Devils Tower in Wyoming – the site where both scientists and those marked by visions of the monument believe the third kind will make contact. The tactical team expends some effort trying to catch the two (and does thwart a third expendable character and brief accomplice), but they reach their destination nonetheless. Spielberg forgoes this cat-and-mouse chase in preparation for what we’re all about to witness.
Here, in the film’s lengthy final moments, Spielberg earns another title often attributed to him: master of spectacle. Roy and Jillian peer over the rocks that conceal them and see a multitude of government specialists scurrying about a presumable landing zone complete with advanced technological instruments, white-washed stations and suits, and one giant light-up billboard. No sooner, the three previously seen UFOs whiz through the area as if in preparation for something much grander. Alas, one gargantuan mother ship lands at the site. The spectacle is overwhelming. The ship engulfs much of the frame, as Spielberg intends. It dwarfs anything and everything in sight. The scientists begin attempting to make contact using lights and sounds emanating from the billboard. When the ship responds with a replicated tune, Spielberg finally quells audience fears of some unknown dread. These aliens aren’t here to destroy.
In one of cinematic sci-fi’s greatest scenes, the bay doors open and missing people from history emerge unchanged. The mysteries of abandoned WWII planes and a ship stranded in the Gobi Desert are solved. In true Spielbergian fashion, Jillian is reunited with her son Barry. It’s a sentimental ending for her character, but this story demands as such, especially given Roy’s sharp break with his own family. The alien beings descend, strike awe in all who look on, and ultimately choose Roy to accompany them on some unknown voyage. He consents willingly and wholeheartedly.
Before Roy boards the mother ship, Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) – a French scientist overseeing the film’s highly classified, globe-trotting search – quietly comments, “I envy you.” Throughout the film, Spielberg splices in the grander story of Lacombe’s investigation and findings with Roy’s comparably humbler narrative. Lacombe’s scientific leanings compel him to discover, to test, to know. He’s always only one step behind the imminent contact that these extra-terrestrial plan for humankind. In contrast, Roy journeys to Wyoming for answers too, but his quest is fueled by images implanted in his mind and a once-in-a-lifetime brush with the celestial. He’s enslaved to his sense of wonder. In Spielberg’s decision to allow Roy aboard and keep Lacombe on the ground, he touches on a theme he has revisited since Close Encounters. The sterile precision and at times shortsightedness of science oftentimes clashes with those enthralled by the sheer wonder of any given spectacle – see the late-film team from NASA versus the neighborhood boys with regards to their treatment of E.T. in his next science fiction outing. Spielberg, of all storytellers, has the sensibility to make us pause and gawk at the grandiose despite the cold, hard facts of science.
If there’s a quality within Close Encounters that brings this far-fetched story closer to home, it’s found in Roy’s – and therefore Spielberg’s – pursuit of meaning. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we not alone? These existential questions plague every one of us at least at some point in our lives. The best cinema seeks not to answer these complex questions, but humanizes the quest nonetheless. “This means something. This is important.” Roy utters this at least twice during the film, but he says it with less conviction of something absolute and more than likely attempting to convince himself of this truth. Spielberg has since famously denounced the film’s ending declaring that if he had made Close Encounters later in his career, he would not have let Roy abandon his family. But, I disagree with this reassessment. Roy’s choice sheds light on his humanity; he’s fallible just like us. It’s a quality that marks many of Spielberg’s best “heroes.” That same imperfection propels us to root for Indiana Jones – ever prone to error and misjudgment – or the motley crew comprised of Brody, Hooper, and Quint sent to hunt down the murderous shark. Roy may not have all the answers, but his actions are commendable because his willingness to go forth reveals that he’s ready to find them.