The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, we’re looking back to a time when alien contact could be made in just five distinct tones, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind observes its 40th anniversary.
On a November weekend in 1977, Steven Spielberg released one of the best American science fiction films ever made. It’s not often that one can make such a definitive statement about a piece of art, subjective and ever-mutable with time as they so often are. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the rare film that warrants any and every laurel it could possibly receive, a film that was considered exceptional in its time and now, 40 years later, stands as a testament to Spielberg at the very heights of his powers as a filmmaker, and to what film as a medium can achieve at its most wide-eyed and ambitious. Today, in the Internet era of criticism, a lot of movies garner hype and acclaim and fail to stand the tests of time and memory. Close Encounters does something that’s rare even by the standards of the all-time greats: it only continues to appreciate with time.
In the tale of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a Midwestern man who experiences one of the titular bouts of alien contact, Spielberg managed to distill so many of what would become his core recurrent themes into a single character, and story. From the moment that Roy’s face is sunburnt as the result of an alien landing on a country road in Indiana, he’s crossed a rubicon. There’s no going back to his polite life with his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and their two children, a life of discussing movie times over the din of the television and the perpetually arguing kids. There’s no going back to his job as an electrical engineer. He’s experienced something that is, in the truest possible sense, beyond human comprehension, and whatever form his life takes from that moment onward will be dictated by it. And if other people are sucked into the vacuum that moment creates in his life, they’re doomed to become collateral damage.
Damage is critical to Close Encounters, which for all of its magic and mirth remains one of the more melancholic Hollywood films to ever break into the mainstream lexicon. Many recall the G, A, F, (down octave) F, C progression with ease, or the triumphant final appearance of the alien mothership, but fewer likely remember just how much of the film is devoted to Roy’s devastating spiral into obsession. This is a Spielberg movie where the happy ending is dubious at best; while there’s an argument to be made for the cathartic power of the film’s ending, and Roy’s ultimate validation, it also comes at the expense of his entire life on Earth. Ronnie is pushed so far beyond the point of any reasonable tolerance that she ultimately takes the family away, and crucially, Close Encounters ends with her never returning. Roy may be right all along, but the pursuit of that truth ultimately tears him, and his life as he’d always known it, apart.
It’s perhaps Spielberg’s best commentary on the creative process, as much as it’s a truly great film about obsessive fixation. Perhaps more than any other of the director’s protagonists, Roy functions as something of an avatar for the filmmaker, whose devotion to his craft above all things has long been a matter of Hollywood record. Roy may be in the right in the most explicit sense, as aliens do in fact exist and are exploring the backroads of middle America, but he’s also a man driven to the brink of madness by his need to have that belief validated, to justify his increasing selfishness as a matter of total necessity. He stops being a father long before his family leaves, consumed by the need to see his self-styled prophecy through to its logical conclusion. Whether the glory of Roy’s true encounter atop Devil’s Tower is worth the sacrifice is a question left to the audience, even if Spielberg would seem to concur with Dreyfuss’ existential wanderer.
The film simply observes Roy, rather than condoning or condemning, and perhaps the best illustration of how far he’s moved beyond humanity can be found in his parting farewell from Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whose son’s temporary abduction sets much of the film in motion. Where Roy will chase his obsession to anywhere it may take him, Jillian isn’t ready yet. She simply wants to take her boy home, and return to some semblance of normalcy. But not everybody can open the door and choose to close it again; Spielberg understands well that if UFOs truly existed, a fact which the film treats with absolutely no doubt, then there would invariably be people who wouldn’t be able to live beyond that truth. It would reshape lives. While much of the alien panic of the ’70s was met with the mocking derision that Roy and the other truthers encounter from the film’s government panel, Close Encounters escalates a theory into the realm of full-blown national conspiracy. Not only are Roy and Jillian correct, but the fervor to hide the truth is just as unbelievable as the presence of extraterrestrial life itself.
Spielberg directs the film with a remarkable simplicity, treating an alien invasion as less of the Independence Day-esque nightmare that so many later sci-fi movies would than as a moment of absolute majesty. Humanity receives the confirmation of alien life with fear, but also with immense curiosity, and with a kind of openness to which we might all hope to aspire. But it also poses the threat of destruction in a more internal way; it’s every bit as plausible as the reality of alien life that a man like Roy would be pushed to the brink, and would terrify his family with trembling fits in the bathtub. There’s beauty in arrival, but there’s the equivalent tragedy of what must then be abandoned to pursue it. Perhaps that’s the nature of obsession, though. The more aware you are of the truth that’s out there, the less able you are to function in the world you once knew.