October 28, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind many times, but it was the last Steven Spielberg film I loved that I had never seen on the big screen. Especially over the last ten years, I've become a big believer in re-watching my favorite movies on the silver screen, so I made a point of catching it at the late show, as part of the Brattle Theatre's celebration of Stranger Things, the Strange Inspirations series.

Parental Perspective

The movie is very different for me as an adult. Spielberg has gone on the record that he would not make the movie the same way today, because he could not let his protagonist abandon his family as Roy Neary does, and I have to say the manic, neurotic household scenes were hard to watch.
I also found it very tough to watch Barry get sucked out the doggie door. I have a two year old right now, and watching those little legs fly out the door was hard work.
I really appreciated the post-Watergate coverup conspiracy that the government stages: The secret base, the "Piggly Wiggly" trucks full of scientific equipment, the phony poisonous gas leak, the unmarked green vans full of faceless men in hazmat suits. Contrast this with the movie Contact, where the aliens also send messages to Earth, but in that story, the whole world finds out about it. There's no attempt to cover it up or keep it secret. That story could easily have been written where the NSA keeps the Alpha Centauri radio signal a secret, they build the giant Machine at Area 51 instead of Cape Canaveral, and no one but the Men In Black ever know it happened.

Already Crazy

I'm not happy with Roy Neary abandoning his family, but my primary complaint about Close Encounters of the Third Kind is casting Richard Dreyfuss to play him. On paper, Neary is an Indiana Water & Power lineman, a perfectly ordinary guy who becomes obsessed with the alien rendezvous after his close encounter. He becomes increasingly distracted and manic as the visions of Devil's Tower dominate his thoughts.
As played by Richard Dreyfuss, Neary seems pretty manic and neurotic before he even meets the aliens. By the third act, when he finally has a chance to vent at the government authorities, he says
"Is that it? Is that all you're gonna ask me? Well I got a couple of thousand goddamn questions, you know. I want to speak to someone in charge. I want to lodge a complaint. You have no right to make people crazy! You think I investigate every Walter Cronkite story there is? Huh? If this is just nerve gas, how come I know everything in such detail? I've never been here before. How come I know so much? What the hell is going on around here? Who the hell are you people?"
Neary's transformation and obsession would feel more powerful if he started out as a mild-mannered, Midwest gentleman, instead of Dreyfuss' brand of New York ball of nerves. Imagine Jon Voight or Steve McQueen in the role and it's easy to appreciate how an ordinary guy could become a seemingly paranoid conspiracy theorist- except in this movie they're right.

Latitude and Longitude

One plot element stuck out for me this time around- the UFOs are buzzing around America zapping ordinary people with the vision of Devil's Tower. Presumably their goal is to gather people to that spot for a visit, right? In addition, the government also receives a radio signal with the latitude and longitude coordinates of the meeting. WHY? It's lame that the aliens teach us to communicate beginning with the five musical tones, but they also send us numbers that correspond with our completely arbitrary map coordinate system. Why is this in the movie? Because the government has no way of knowing where to roll out their high-tech welcome mat because none of them have a close encounter or get the Devil's Tower mental implant. The only people who know where the meetup will happen are the civilians getting zapped by the UFOs. In order for the screenplay to work, they had to add this latitude-longitude nonsense so the government got invited too.
IF the government had not received that radio signal, only the civilians who made the connection with Devil's Tower would have been there when the aliens arrived, returned all their abductees, and picked Neary to go on the trip. Maybe the Air Force would have spotted the Mothership on radar, but it would have been all over before the government had a chance to arrive.


The UFO effects and the cloud effects are underrated. I think we take for granted how perfect and seamless the UFO visuals look. Spielberg is the master at hiding the seams- the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park is a master class in hiding the limitations of CGI and puppets, but the UFO scenes in Close Encounters cleverly demonstrate the strengths of the effects while camouflaging the weaknesses. The moving, growing, travelling clouds were also spectacular. I could not tell how the effect is done- even better- even knowing how they did it, I could not reconcile the reality with the visuals. Most impressive.

Ha Ha

I laughed out loud twice: the Brattle showed a brief making-of featurette, including behind-the-scenes footage of the alien POV shot descending down Gillian's chimney. It's a tense moment, as Gillian paws around inside the chimney to close the flue- can she find the handle before the aliens grab her? I was so excited to see how they did it- they mounted bright lights directly next to the camera, built an enormous chimney prop (oversized to fit the camera) then lowered the camera + lights down the chimney while dropping ash/leaves/debris around the camera. At the appropriate moment, Spielberg calls out to Melinda Dillon "find it!" and she grabs the flue handle just in time to close it.
The second time I laughed is when little Barry finds his way to the bend in the roadway in the middle of the night. Veteran character actor Roberts Blossom (Christine, Home Alone) is sitting by the side of the road, waiting, whistling "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" in anticipation.
Another minor gripe is that hillside turn-in-the-road set. So much of this movie is beautifully shot on location, it's a shame this key scene is shot on a bad-looking set. The fake shrubbery looks especially bad.

Close Encounters of the Television Kind

I've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind many times since I was a kid - I remember watching it on TV, watching all the scenes on the "dark side of the moon" broken up by many commercial breaks. I think that was when I learned how movies on TV work- they insert few commercials at the beginning of the movie, to entice you to engage with the film, but once you're committed, they slather on the advertising. From the moment Roy and Gillian climb around the side of Devil's Tower, until Roy goes on his trip to the stars, it felt like there were breaks for ads every five minutes.