Spielberg At His Highest Peak: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I hate to repeat myself, but Spielberg is a unique and captivating director, a figure who manages to balance his films with crowd-pleasing moments and dramatic depth, cohesively held by his ability to evoke sincere and penetrating sentimentality. Close Encounter of the Third Kind is without a doubt his most prestigious feature, one that displays his pure passion of wonder and magic within a genre that has longed antagonised its subjects. Writing and directing the film, this is him at his most personal, one who has poured his heart and soul into every frame that never finds itself wandering through self-indulgence; this is Spielberg at his most auteur, a genuine approach that never appears again in his upcoming works, continuing to stand proudly above his most financially and critically successful of features.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a personal film for me; it marks as the first film I have ever seen from the director during my humble and desperate beginnings as a film enthusiast, enticed by its collector’s packaging and an endearing and nostalgic nudge from my mother, has led me to immediately purchase it; immediately putting it on at home as soon as the dawn has faded. The experience was not the gripping and emotionally rich experience that I have had in recent years, as the whole process left me confused and unstimulated due to its far too mature and dramatically held storyline; but its final 40 minutes, as ambiguous as it might have all been at the time, has remained with me ever since, like as if I myself have just had close encounter of the third kind, finding obsession with its five note tune and brightly coloured flashing lights. Multiple visits have allowed me to gain a personal sense of nostalgia over it, accumulating more knowledge and emotions as I sift through the multiple cuts the disc had to offer; as I have view more and more of Spielberg’s works after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the further the film grows in me, at times even feeling underwhelmed by his other features when compared side by side.

The film carries two storylines that eventually converge in its conclusion. The first follows the governmental pursuit of the mysterious appearances of ships and planes all across the globe, things that have been considered as lost have returned in the condition that they were in at the time of disappearance. It primarily follows two figures, Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his translator, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), as they lead the research team in unlocking the clues of its newly arrived mysteries, travelling from Mongolia to India to North America; with each piece accumulated, along with the recent sightings of unidentified flying objects hovering closely through the Indiana streets, they suspect extra-terrestrials are responsible for these new findings and further dives into the research that would lead them to identifying their source of communication and a meeting at Wyoming’s Devils Tower.

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However, the film’s core and personal narrative is carried by an electrical lineman in Indiana, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), living a regular life with a wife and three children. In the occurrence of a blackout, he is called into the field and hopes to remedy the situation, only to find himself something more than he imagined; coming into contact with a large extra-terrestrial ship that leaves a sunburn like mark on his face and deeply-seeded vision that compels him to undertake strange acts that would ultimately lead him to the Devils Tower. Sharing in this experience is a woman named Jillian (Melinda Dillon), a mother who has lost her child through abduction by the extra-terrestrials; much like Roy, she cannot escape the vision and effects of her close encounter, whilst attempting to balance her grief and mourning over her child. Both Roy and Jillian undertake such a difficult task to Devils Tower in search for concrete resolutions.

Much like in Jaws and The Sugarland Express, it is in the subtle details, the moments in between its plot motivators that prove that Spielberg deeply cares about his characters; here we see the struggles of humanity’s ability to remain sane after witnessing such an event, the fragility of marriage and family through one’s obsession, the feeling of alienation from a society that they once belonged in; these are all carried by our humble protagonist Roy Neary, who no through fault of his own has found obsession in his recent experience and the desperation to uncrack the ambiguous meaning behind the images that plague his mind. It is heartbreaking to see his unfortunate condition slowly tear his family apart, through compulsion abandoning every responsibility and principle he had as a father. In his heart, however, has always contained a sense of wonder and hope, it was those elements in his persona that drove him to follow the hovering crafts, and subsequently to Devils Tower, hoping to ease his agonising curiosity and hunger, with the possibility to find resolution of this newly formed illness and reassemble his family.

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The film’s highlight is of course the final half an hour of the film when the stories have converged into a singular experience, and leads to the glorious and formal meeting of the aliens themselves. It was during this scene that my hair on my neck was raised at its peak, with shivers that parallels the iconic five note tune, almost welling my eyes from its glowing and flashing lights, absorbing the experience as if I was a participating member of the research team, or as if I was one of the aliens’ invited guests; and much of this is due to the powerful and emotionally gripping direction from Steven Spielberg, a deep personal connection is found in his screenplay and through his amazing skill, he was able to transmit his own personal views and emotions to his audience; an epic singular moment that requires little to capture the attention of his viewers, simply requiring the colourful and playful communication between species and the constant cutting to humanity’s sincere gestures. It was in this portion of the film that John William’s music shines, blending his score with the transmitted sounds between species, hitting captivating peaks even at its credit sequence as the mothership floats away into deep space; supporting its powerful score and sound design is the special effects by Douglas Trumbull and the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond; ultimately providing a wonderful blend that treats our eyes, ears, and heart.

I have always associated Richard Dreyfuss with a grounded and often good-natured persona, I have yet to see a film from the actor that is antagonistic, aside from Robert Schwentke’s Red but I wouldn’t really count that since I barely remember him in it. Spielberg has stated that the casting of Dreyfuss was critical, and Dreyfuss himself truly wanted the role, since he was able to evoke this childish attitude in his overall outlook and facial gestures that make the film’s most intimate moments carry with such a heavy weight. If it wasn’t Dreyfuss’ ability to convey his role’s sense of wonder and curiosity, then his abandonment of his family in the final act would have felt antagonistic, but his performance remained emotionally resonating and empathetic throughout that it is impossible to view the character in any other way. The film also features strong supporting performances from the likes of Terri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), and Bob Balaban (David Laughlin); each one aside from Terri Garr, carry a similar outlook as Dreyfuss’ role and manages to hold their own in their smaller moments. Garr as Roy’s wife was equally powerful as Dreyfuss in the scenes they share together, a polarising force that battles one another that has led to their separation; the frustrations that Garr provides in her role during this event appear in both intrinsic and extrinsic ways, driven to keep her family intact, instead of immediately abandoning in the sight of danger. If it wasn’t for Dreyfuss, Garr’s performance would have been the film’s strongest performance.

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Spielberg has in most cases have been an uplifting and optimistic filmmaker, who injects his films with a sense of hope and wonder like very few filmmakers can. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an eye-opener of the science fiction genre, acting as almost a chapter into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, but instead with a monolith, the beings themselves are revealed. Unlike 2001, the film is optimistic with its portrayal of humanity, seeing them as not a doomed species, cynicism has not entered into the souls of its figures and remains hopeful in the established relationship between humans and aliens; exchanging members of their own kind, passing on knowledge that would no doubt evolve our species, developing a sense of grand partnership that most filmmakers would deem as impossible due to our flawed and threatened nature. So far no other filmmaker has attempted to replicate the ideas that Spielberg has pushed in this film, at least from what I have seen, and through this and along with his other masterpieces, he remains a true gem of cinema.

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