Commentary by Andy Ray
Although they are two of the greatest directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg couldn’t be more different. While Kubrick’s films make us think, Spielberg’s films make us feel. Kubrick forced us to use our brains. Spielberg forces us to “use” our hearts. Each of these directors has explored the realm of science fiction. And their results are the two greatest science fiction pictures ever made, although they are as divergent as possible – Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the greatest (just ask any critic), and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the second greatest (just ask many critics – though this one’s not a consensus).
Fortunately, we have the chance to see “Close Encounters” this week (for one week only) in a special 40th anniversary release. And this one must be seen on a big screen to experience the full effect. Television simply won’t do it justice; I don’t care how wide your screen is.
“Close Encounters” involves a mysterious UFO landing in the Wyoming desert, but that’s the climactic scene. The joy of this picture is in the lead-up stories. As he often does, Spielberg tells his story on more than one level – the way Steven Soderbergh did in 2000 with “Traffic.”
First, a team of government scientific researchers headed by French scientist Claude Lacombe (French director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter, a mapmaker played by the always exciting character actor Bob Balaban, travel the globe investigating possible UFO sightings. But we also get to experience these strange occurrences through two personal stories, both of which take place, ironically, in Muncie, Indiana.
Richard Dreyfuss plays electrical lineman Roy Neary who experiences a close encounter with a UFO while investigating a series of unexplained power outages. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) doesn’t believe him, and his kids make fun of him for his wild claim of a rendezvous with a UFO. Also in Muncie, a three-year-old boy named Barry runs away from his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) toward a bright light in the middle of the night – the same night as lineman Roy’s adventure.
Roy’s is the story we follow most closely, and Dreyfuss is the perfect actor to play this role. Yes, it’s the everyman character of the film, but Dreyfuss portrays such a sense of awe and wonder that he draws us into his very soul. We experience “Close Encounters” through Dreyfuss. 1977 was the year he won the Best Actor Oscar for Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl.” He could have just as easily won for “Close Encounters.” These rank as the two best performances of his long, distinguished career.
Roy begins seeing a strange shape, which he feels an urge to construct in his own living room, of all places. The shape turns out to be Devil’s Tower, a butte of igneous rock in the Black Hills area of Wyoming. Meanwhile, Lacombe and his cartographer/interpreter receive unfamiliar numeric sequences from outer space, which turn out to be map coordinates leading them to Devil’s Tower.
All our stories converge on this isolated area in one of the greatest third acts in motion picture history. I can’t tell you more without spoiling it for those of you who have never had the joy of experiencing this film. But suffice to say that Roy’s first meeting with the government officials does not go well, Jillian hooks up with Roy in Wyoming, the tension builds exponentially as Roy and Jillian unearth a government cover-up, and the introduction of the UFO mothership is pure Spielberg special-effects magic.
This is one of those films that will stay with you long after you’ve experienced it. You’ll want to see it again. Soon. And notice I did not say, “…long after you’ve seen it.” You don’t simply see “Close Encounters.” This is a film you truly experience. The casting of Dreyfuss (and Bob Balaban as the equally thunderstruck cartographer) is spot on. This is not a role for a passive observer type actor, like Gregory Peck or James Mason. Dreyfuss puts his all into Roy Neary, and practically has a heart attack with each new revelation.
“Close Encounters” adeptly and realistically handles the issue of communicating with alien beings. So often Hollywood assumes aliens speak English. I know this is so the filmmakers don’t have to broach a topic which would certainly be a hindrance to communication, but Spielberg does address the issue. Thanks to score composer John Williams, Lacombe and his government minions determine that it is possible to at least say “hello” via a five-note tonal phrase. Then they learn to equate that tonal phrase with a corresponding Curwen hand signal to provide a visual aid. I love how we always learn something new with each Spielberg film.
As I think back to 1977, I recall that “Close Encounters” had the greatest marketing program in motion picture history. Months before the film’s debut, Columbia Pictures ran trailers in which scientists who study UFOs explain the differences among close encounters of the first kind, the second kind, and the third kind. We don’t know what this has to do with anything, but we are intrigued. At the very end of the trailer (which showed not one single scene from the film), the title appeared with “Coming Soon.” As the release date approached, another trailer was launched. This one showed one scene (and one scene only) from the film – in which an Indianapolis air traffic controller on his two-way radio asks if lineman Roy would like to report a UFO. Roy’s silence is deafening. The man asks again. We are hooked!
My only complaint (and I know it’s minor, but as a native Hoosier it’s important to me) is that when Roy chases the UFOs around rural Muncie during his initial encounter, he passes through a tunnel, and then watches the UFOs head back to outer space at a cliff. Now Muncie may have a lot going for it (a top-notch university, a strong labor force), but tunnels and cliffs are not among them.
Still, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” ranks not only as one of the best science fiction pictures ever made, but one of the greatest films of any genre. It has been added to the National Film Registry for preservation of great motion pictures. It is one you’ll never forget, and it is the best of all the films being shown this week at your local cineplex. Don’t miss this one. It will sell out, so you might want to pre-purchase your tickets.