RogerBW's Blog

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 16 August 2021

1977 science fiction, dir. Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon: IMDb / allmovie. The aliens are coming! The aliens are coming!

I saw this on first run in the cinema, and hadn't thought much about it since until it came up in our consideration of influential films. What struck me most – after those two utterly gorgeous opening sequences, an expedition finding the perfectly-preserved planes of Flight 19 in the Mexican desert, and an object sighting from some airliners where neither pilot wants to file a report, shown entirely from the perspective of the air traffic controllers – is that, in his next film after Jaws, we're diving straight into what would become a Spielberg cliché, his fascination with childhood and children as the most important people in a film.

I find small children boring, and I find most child actors unconvincing, and the degree to which we dwell on them was one of my problems with the film.

At the same time I see Roy Neary as the prototype of the manchild hero: even before his Encounter, he's playing with his train set rather than helping his kid with homework, and he's clearly doing as little parenting as possible while leaving all the hard work to his wife. I couldn't help noticing that after he's had his scary experience he barely answers a thing that his wife or children say to him: it's all about me me me what I want. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen; some reviewers found his wife Ronnie, played by Teri Garr, "shrill", but I found myself entirely in favour of her taking the children and going elsewhere, as she finally does when she's exhausted all possible ways of getting him to engage with any of them as people rather than obstructions on his holy mission. Who's to say he won't escalate from breaking up the house to a more personal level of violence?

(The same year, Teri Garr played another wife-and-mother whose husband had a sudden life-changing obsession, in the George Burns vehicle Oh, God!. Something in the air, I suppose.)

But of course it's a cheat. In the real world, we don't see the uncanny bright light and get the sunburn; we hear some unconvincing guy saying "no, really, this happened to me, and when I talk about the probing I'm not in any way sublimating my fear of and attraction to homosexuality". But because the film has shown us all that proof, we're forced to be on the side of believing, within the film's world, that the aliens are real; and therefore that the people who don't believe are simply wrong or bad, mere obstacles to be brushed aside.

Filmically it's great. The five-tone sequence (which means, in the end, nothing more than "I am able to repeat the thing I've heard"). The effects, done by Douglas Trumbull after he'd turned down the chance to head up Industrial Light and Magic, of the various small craft and the mother ship. The way all Roy's sequences are indoors or in the dark, until Ronnie leaves him, and suddenly it's daylight. The way we see the "dead" animals as "proof" of the nerve gas leak, and the way that's explained in a line that defuses this tension but also advances the plot.

But I don't ever come to like these people, and they don't do a whole lot. One lot follow the voices in their heads and arrive just in time to take advantage of all the hard work the other lot were doing off-camera. The man gets to go and see the universe; the woman gets her kid back. And it's over two hours to get there.

It was, of course, hugely successful, and while not directly imitated I think it's been in the back of people's minds any time they make a film about aliens coming to Earth.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by dp at 09:28am on 16 August 2021

    A well-made film, that made an impression on me when I saw it as a child, although I was already well-versed in UFO lore at the time (I'd read a few nonfiction books on it and watched lots of Gerry Anderson...). For me, the most interesting question is how much CE3K's existence shaped "real-life" UFO sighting/alien abduction experiences in the years that followed, and what the "UFO culture" would have been like had it never been made...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:44am on 16 August 2021

    Indeed. I'd read popularisations of Hynek and Vallée, and the basic ideas were already in my mind, as I think they were for many of the audience. Nobody needs to explain the basics, and that helps make it both a better and a more accessible film.

    Certain authors are famously litigious if you suggest that anything they wrote wasn't strictly what happened, but I think that without naming names one can point to UFO sightings as a large-scale psychological experiment: a small anomaly becomes in one era a vision of angels and heaven, in another the technocratic aliens taking you aboard their ship. On that basis it would be amazing if the ideas here hadn't moved from popular culture into people's testimonies, because the testimony always filters through the subconscious.

    On the other hand a lot of what's here was already in the lore so perhaps it just pushed some things forward in popular consciousness, and of course it gave a visual memory that will have struck home with some people who weren't impressed with words or grainy photographs. I don't think there's a single specific idea in UFOlogy that originated in this film; it's not trying to be original, it's saying "yeah, lights in the sky, electrical anomalies, missing people, you know how this goes".

    While we're thinking of alternates, I wonder about the world in which Star Wars was a flop but this film kicked off the sci-fi film boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  3. Posted by dp at 04:33pm on 19 August 2021

    CE3K setting off the SF film boom is an interesting idea; I agree with you about the importance of visual memory. I was thinking of Vallée when I did the bit with the faeries in Technomancer. (I suppose X-Files and the various fake alien autopsy films also provided significant visual imagery for popular culture.)

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 04:38pm on 19 August 2021

    Heh. Because I was watching The X-Files when it was broadcast (at least for the first season) I thought at the time that it was (deliberately) very derivative of existing lore that I already knew about – but of course it brought it to a much wider audience. (Like this film, really.)

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