Sunday, 27 March 2016

Cutting Edges- Film Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Fig 1: Poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Starting life as a meteor shower that Speilburg saw with his father when he was a child, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a Sci-Fi film written and directed by Speilburg in 1977. While the first 100 minutes of the film might drag on according to some audiences, the final minutes is a spectacular feat, showcasing some of the greatest special effects of the 70's along with Star Wars which debut in the same year.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a daring film concept which in its special and technical effects has been superbly realized." (A.D. Murphy, Variety 4/11/1977)
It delves into the unknown realm of space as UFOs start to be spotted across the middle of America, including the abduction of an entire crew of a ship. These sightings start off a high scale investigation as to find out the cause of these encounters.
An expert scientist involved in the project, David Laughlin, recognises that the musical scale that the UFO produces as it travels along is actually a co-ordinate on the Earth which lead to the Devil's Tower in Wyoming.
As these events occur, father of three Roy Neary becomes obsessed with the alien objects after he comes into a close encounter of his own with them while out driving. The obsession leads to him leaving his family behind as he goes to Devil's Tower with Jillian, a young mother whose son Barry is abducted by the UFOs. Here they lay witness to something completely otherworldly, that will change how both they and audiences alike will think of other life out there.

Fig 2: The Stranded Ship in the Desert
Speilburg was able to create a Sci-fi film completely different from others in the genre. The alien creatures aren't there is kill and exploit humans and the humans don't want to harm the aliens. The two species just want contact with each other. The escape from this formula, from the usual violence between the two races, is refreshing to see; even if it can be seen as boring or underwhelming for all of the build up to that point where the aliens finally reveal themselves. The film leads into the idea of what the unknown could be, with the aliens never being seen for the majority of the film, they are only hinted at through the shape of their ships and the 5 note melody that they play.

Fig 3: Barry and the UFO
Close Encounters isn't a film to focus on this encounter of unknown creatures, it's focus is more around family and a man's dream to be something different than being a generic man stuck in a family life style. Roy Neary leaves his family behind in pursuit of the dream of returning to the single life where no one depends on him for support or look to him as a paternal role model. His pursuit for this life leads him to leave his family to go to the Devil's Tower. His goals aren't as concrete when compared to Jillian and her plot point of trying to find her abducted son. While he is willing to assist her in her quest, he has no real reason to go, other than because he wants to meet an alien. His goal and reasons for his goal can just be simplified to "I want to see these alien creatures", he doesn't learn or grow through the film, in fact he seems to diminish at the end from the ordinary family man that he was at the start of the film. He becomes a dishevelled, driven entity who is solely obsessed with the idea of meeting these creatures. He has no plan as to how he wants to achieve this goal other then the noises in his head.
On the other hand however, Jillian's storyline is much more serious then Roy's, her only son Barry is abducted by these aliens, from her own home. She's a single mother, on her own in a secluded place in a field in the middle of no where. She lives for her son, so the abduction is a traumatic experience for her, especially with the way that they took him. The film seems to change genre,  from sci-fi to horror, filled with the right amount of suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock beam with pride. This scene is terrifying, especially for young single parents, as the thought of losing a child, in their own house, to an unknown, unseen force is a very scary thought.
Speilburg implemented the elements of tension and fear of the unknown as seen in his previous film "Jaws" but adds to it with spectacular visual effects and a better understanding of his own style of directing and writing, adding in humour even in the most terrifying scenes, such as Roy's first viewing of the UFOs and the abduction of Barry from his own home. "The most amusing and likable specialist in terror since Alfred Hitchcock in his prime, Spielberg knows instinctively how humor and reassurance may simultaneously relieve and intensify apprehension." (Washington Post, Gary Arnold, 14/12/1997)
Fig 4: The Greys emerge from the white abyss of their Mother Ship

The ending of the film is left ambiguous, while the aliens aren't there as a violent force against humanity they did abduct members of our species and subjected them to who knows what on the ship. Due to this, who knows if the aliens were just trying to gain information for a potential invasion in a later date and the way the movie ended, with a hint of maybe there being a sequel, who knows what these space creatures actual goal is. The way that they only take Roy when they could of taken all of the scientists and used there knowledge to gain more information on the planet, yet instead they take a man who left his old life behind him to pursue this new one amongst the cosmos.
Overall its better to not overthink the ending of "Close Encounters", as while it is very questionable and weak compared to the rest of the film, it is excellently well executed. The way that ending segment was filmed, full of suspense and tension, the way that the first elongated alien beckons the abducted humans off the ship, descending from the white light back to their home planet, and how the grey aliens look and act with as much intrigue as the scientists. While the film is mainly lead by the build up of going to the Devil's Tower, the pay off of finally seeing the creatures the characters have been chasing all this time is a very welcome pay off.

Fig 5: Inside the Ship as shown from the Special Edition of Close Encounters

To wrap things up, Spielburg has shown yet again that he is a formidable director and script writing in his own right. While there are some aspects to the film that are problematic, like Roy leaving his family behind, a decision that even Spielburg himself dislikes looking back on it. So he came back to the film and edited it to change and removed scenes, changing these things helped the special edition of the film in tightening up the story, tying up loose plot points and enhancing the finale by showing the inside of the ship to the joy or dismay of fans who either preferred the mystery of whats inside the mother ship and others who think that it helps in the enjoyment of that segment, praising the special effects of that final scene.
Even without these changes, Close Encounters is a film displaying how good a director and writer Speilburg is. The film showcases common tropes featured in the majority of his movies, from character types (every-day man as the hero, a single mother, an innocent young boy and an organisation that is portrayed as untrustworthy), a sense of journey that changes the hero in a phenomenal way and the mystery and tension that Speilburg is able to create, something that has been on par with the king of suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock
"Watching Close Encounters is like an entertaining study guide to the filmmaker and his body of work. Not just a signature film, Close Encounters — the only one of his movies before A.I. written as well as directed by him — encompasses all the major themes, concerns and elements that recur throughout Spielberg's career."(Angie Errigo, Empire Magazine, 1/1/2000)
Close Encounters is a very influential film, airing on scene at the same time a George Lucas' Star Wars, it was not overshadowed and is classed as a classic sci-fi film on its own merit, exploring the excitement of discovery rather then the fear of invasion or war in space that other films of the type are known for. The pacing of the film slows at parts that lead to potentially boring scenes but the visual effects and the spectacular ending scene would make you want to continue watching and the 5 note theme will be stuck in your head for weeks after watching.


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A.D. Murphy from Variety:
Gary Arnold from the Washington Post:
Angie Errigo from the Empire Magazine:

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