Monday, September 4, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind rereleased

It is not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, it is one of the greatest films of all time. Period.

A digitally remastered edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is enjoying a serotinal re-release in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I went to see it today as I never had the chance to see it on the big screen when I was a kid. It's magnificent. I know there have been grumblings among techie cinephiles out there about aspect ratios or the loss of film grain. I. Don't. Care.

In the event that there is a reader who has not seen this landmark achievement yet, I will do two things. One, I will (mostly) try to avoid spoilers. Two, I will give a quick precis of the film.

Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an electrical line worker who on a call late one night, has an encounter with a UFO. From that point forward, his mind is obsessed with the image of an odd, conical formation of rock and the sensation that something momentous is about to take place.

This film is a straight masterpiece, top to bottom. Though I actively looked, I still could not find any flaws with it (except perhaps for one which I will address later). I could be here all day describing how Spielberg's genius is on full display in shot composition and a knack for terrifying suspense that rivals Hitchcock. Instead, I thought I would focus on one of his talents that seldom gets attention: writing.

How often we might forget that Steven Spielberg wrote the script for this film. And it's a corker.

The attention-grabbing opening scene, the believable dialogue, the pacing, it's all a tour-de-force example of composing narrative. As readers of ESE might imagine, I have always been drawn to how Spielberg deftly wove together so many actual facets of Ufology. Not only do they serve as "Easter eggs" for researchers both professional and armchair alike, they become seamless aspects of the narrative's fabric and not forced, winky nods as lesser writer-directors have a tendency to do. A friend of mine, as well as others I have spoken with in the past, said that CE3K probably started a lot of what we now know as the modern UFO narrative. Not at all. This film, didn't "start" anything. It simply brought what was already well-known to many researchers and UFO true-believers at the time into the consciousness of popular culture.

Here are but a few examples of which I speak:

-Flight 19, the group of Avenger bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.
-Police squad cars chasing UFOs.
-UFOs causing power outages.
-Project Serpo
-Airliner pilots and air traffic control having sightings, as well as midair near-misses, and not reporting them for fear they'd lose their careers.
-Of course, the physical appearance of what is now known as the standard "Grey" or "Gray" alien. 

What's more, the character of Lacombe (played by Francois Truffaut) is based on famous Ufologist, Jacques Vallee, who also served as a consultant on the film. Word has it that Vallee was rather disappointed in the movie's ending as the visitors turn out to be extraplanetary aliens in nuts-and-bolts spaceships and not the ethereal, "superspectrum"-styled beings that Vallee postulates. Also, watch for astronomer-turned-Ufologist J. Allen Hynek in the end sequence as he pushes his way to the front of the welcoming crowd and places his pipe in his mouth.

All of this UFO geekery is nice, but focusing on it overlooks a core component of the film. Yes, ostensibly this is about making contact with aliens. The true human story here, however, is about a family coming apart. It is regular people in ungodly strange circumstances. The strain, the emotional pain, the tragedy of once connected lives ripped apart, it hits a bit close to home. Spielberg creates utterly believable characters and then sends them through the wringer...because he has to. It's as moving as any other "mainstream" human drama. For me, it's the most poignantly written aspect of the film.

Which may make viewers sit up and go "WHAT??" the first time they see Roy make his choice at the end of the movie. How could he do that to his kids? Well, even Spielberg himself has said that jars him in later years, but as he astutely points out, he wrote it before he himself became a father. That tends to change one's perspective. Also, maybe the choice is due to the headiness of the moment and a character not thinking clearly, or even an actual character flaw. This is that one criticism I have that I mentioned previously.

Consider this as well. Up until its release in 1977, I can think of no other science fiction film that does what CE3K does. There is no combat. There is no "us vs. them" conflict between Earth and the aliens. Instead, the aliens emerge from their gorgeous, cathedral-like craft as all look on in wonder. They then greet humanity with peace and compassion. True, there is no verbal communication to express such sentiment, but Spielberg articulates it in so many other creative ways (most memorably the iconic "five tones" on the keyboard). The methods and motives of the aliens may be inscrutable and at times terrifying, but they seem to express that they have our best interests at heart. That might be just Spielberg's natural optimism at work, but there may be something else to it.

There is a nice little featurette before the re-released edition. In it, Spielberg is interviewed and he reflects on the 40th anniversary. He says, and I'm really paraphrasing it here, he never made this to be a science fiction film. It's only science fiction if you are someone who does not believe in life elsewhere. That brings new meaning to the tagline of one of CE3K's promotional posters...

"We are not alone."

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