Monday, August 8, 2011
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind perfectly captures the fear and the fascination that the unknown holds for humanity. The film focuses on the utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who's sent out into a remote country area to investigate a rash of mysterious power outages and instead comes into close contact with inexplicable sights that seemingly could only be alien ships. From that point on, Roy becomes obsessed with what he saw and felt, obsessed with getting answers, some explanation for his bizarre experience. The film is about the possibility of alien life coming to Earth, but more than that it's about the larger search for meaning, for understanding, the desire to make some sense of life, the universe and everything.
Spielberg is well-suited to capturing the mingled wonder, fear and confusion that characterize the film's complex mix of emotions and tones. Although Spielberg opens with a scene in which the French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tracks the signs of the aliens' arrival on Earth, and returns to Lacombe at intervals throughout the film, the real substance of this movie is the effect of such unusual events on ordinary people. When Roy first encounters the alien ships, he's driving along on a deserted, pitch-black country road, lost and struggling with maps to try to find out where he is. Behind him, a set of lights pulls up in the window behind his head, and he gestures for them to pass by; they do, as a car impatiently goes around his truck. The next time some lights pull up behind him, Roy similarly waves them on and returns to his maps, so that only the audience sees that the lights go up, revealing a distinctly un-car-like shape hovering behind Roy. Spielberg's visual playfulness makes moments like this even more potent: witty, awe-inspiring, surreal and yet also somehow ordinary, the extraordinary seeping into the prosaic without warning, upturning all expectations and altering even one's basic presumptions about the way things work.
Roy's experience is indirect — mailboxes vibrate, all the metal in his truck is pulled momentarily up into the air by an electromagnetic force, and a bright light shines down on him, burning his face as he cranes his neck out of the truck's window to bask in its blistering beauty — but he'll soon see even more startling sights. Spielberg's presentation of the alien spacecraft is just as casually awesome, showing these hovering ships surrounded by halos of light, speeding down highways in convoys, turning whimsical circles in the air, trailed by a small ball of red light that seems to be scurrying to keep up with the larger ships. The imagery is spectacular but also grounded, suggesting that there's some kind of order and purpose to the ships' configurations and actions, even if it's a purpose that's obscure to those who witness these events.
Roy, along with fellow witness Jillian (Melinda Dillon), begins to get visions of a mountain that seems to have some importance to the aliens, but his family, especially his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), is unsympathetic to his increasing obsession. Roy loses his job and begins spending his nights with fellow obsessives and curiosity-seekers, hoping to see something again, to get some confirmation that he wasn't just crazy. Nevertheless, there's more than a little humor in Spielberg's portrayal of Roy, who totally loses touch with ordinary day-to-day life in the aftermath of his "close encounter." At one point, Roy, finally having a clear vision of the mountain image he's been trying to capture, begins gathering plants and dirt and bricks from his yard, throwing them through the window into his house, as his distraught wife tries to stop him. He's oblivious, so caught up in his own excitement that he can't understand why no one else shares his thirst for answers. Later, after he's constructed a massive sculpture of the mountain in his living room, he looks out the window, his face covered in clay and grime, the mountain towering over his shoulder, and looks around at the beautiful sunny day outside. His wife and kids are gone, and his neighbors are playing and enjoying the day, puttering around in their gardens and playing with their children, and the contrast between inside the house and outside emphasizes the total disconnection that Roy feels. He's seen something he doesn't understand, and now he only wants, or needs, to know more, to make sense of it all.
At other times, Spielberg plays this confrontation between humanity and the aliens as a horror movie, as when the ships surround Jillian's house. She struggles to close everything off, to keep the aliens out, and Spielberg shoots the sequence as horror, emphasizing Jillian's fear, even while her son Barry is as excited and curious as Roy is. The boy opens the front door as his mother desperately struggles to close off the house, and outside the open field around their home has been transformed into a glowing orange landscape, alien and strange, infused with the light of the ships hovering above. In another shot, Spielberg shoots down a chimney as Jillian fumbles around inside, trying to close the flue; the point-of-view shot suggests that an alien is scurrying down the chimney towards her as her hand blindly flails about for the lever. Perhaps the most chilling image, though, is the shot of screws turning themselves, rising out of a floor grating and falling out to loosen the grate.
The film does such a good job of evoking complicated, contradictory emotions about the aliens that the ending, in which Spielberg finally reveals the aliens as a benevolent presence (one even smiles at Lacombe), can only be a disappointment. The film is about the unknown, about mystery and awe and the struggle to understand, and the final confrontation between the humans and the aliens preserves this sense of wonder and uncertainty right up until the moment when the aliens are revealed as the typical large-headed humanoid creatures that we've so often imagined them to be in popular representations. When the humans try to communicate with the aliens by using a musical language — not fully understanding what's being said except that some kind of back-and-forth communication is happening — that's beautiful and mysterious. The aliens, in their rubber costumes, obviously fake even when they're shot through a haze of light obviously intended to maintain some distance and mystery, are a bit of a letdown in comparison to the unsettling, wondrous effects that came before. Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a powerful, deeply affecting film that shares its protagonist's sense of gape-mouthed fascination with the prospect of life beyond Earth.