They come in peace

Hope instead of fear of first contact

Published: Oct 29 2018, 01:01:am

Saturday, December 24, 1977

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Music by John Williams. Written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Running time: 138 minutes. General entertainment.
THE SCENE IS FAMILIAR. It is an isolated farmhouse in the dead of night. Inside, a small child rises from his bed. An eerie, unearthly light shimmers through the window.
    We know who's out there. The movie, called Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about man's first contact with space beings. An intense light in the middle of
 the night? It has to be a flying saucer.
     The scene is familiar. There is something about it that seems comfortable, traditional and, yes, nostalgic. The experience is one of déjà vu.
    In 1953, director-designer William Cameron Menzies opened his film, Invaders  from Mars, with virtually the same scene. Although not an exact duplicate, the Close Encounters version has the same emotional content, the same feeling as the original.
    Steven Spielberg is a child of the 1950s. At 29, the man who made Jaws has come into his own as a director. But, in 1953, he was just another kid enjoying the fear and wonder of his first big-screen movies.
     And, in the 1950s, the kids were turning on to science-fiction films.
    There were plenty to choose from. Among the best remembered — The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), The Mysterians (1957) — were the first contact tales, thrillers involving close encounters of the third kind.
    What they all had In common, aside from their saucer-shaped space vehicles, was the idea that fear and hostility were a natural part of the process. The movies reflected the attitudes of the cold war, a time before Dr. Strangelove taught us how to stop worrying and love the bomb.
    In retrospect,  Spielberg must have been dissatisfied with what he remembered. His involving new movie attempts to re-create the 1950s wonderment in a new and better way.
    Indeed, he provides us with a concise index to his purpose in that scene "borrowed" from Menzies.
    Prompted by the powerful offscreen presence of the saucerians, things begin to come alive in three-year-old Barry Guiler's (Cary Guffey) bedroom. A mechanical monkey, an obvious reference to Stanley Kubrick's pretentious 2001: A Space Odyssey, bangs a pair of cymbals together.
        Moving about the room, the camera shows us a  record player clicking on. We listen to a children’s song explaining geometric shapes, and recall the longstanding science-fiction convention that says we will have the language of mathematics in common with the saucerians. That is how we will first communicate.
    On another shelf, a battery-powered Frankenstein's monster doll begins to move. The trouble with those 1950s movies was that they all regarded visitors from space as murderous monsters.
    On the floor, a toy police car and a tank are set in motion. The typical 1950s response to a close encounter was to call out the army: The War of the Worlds (1953), Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).
    Here the tanks and guns are toys. Spielberg uses them to remind us of where we have been, and to state the basic theme of his film. Reduced to a phrase, it is that we are all — us and them — children of technology.
    His Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a wondrous, many-layered excursion into the modern mind. It begins with the assurance that flying saucers are real and throws itself into an examination of a 1970s obsession, the search for meaning and truth.
    Here the search is undertaken by a confused Everyman named Roy Neary (played with his usual manic intensity by Richard Dreyfuss). A linesman for the Indiana power company, Neary's close encounter changes his life as drastically and as permanently as a religious conversion.
    Unbeknownst to Neary (or little Barry), the aliens have established a contact of sorts with a dedicated research team led by phenomenologist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut).
    Reading the clues, Lacombe is convinced that the spacers want a meeting, and he's determined that that meeting will be both civilized and successful.
    Spielberg's extraordinary vision contains two elements that were generally missing from the encounters of the 1950s — humour and hope.
    Humour, of course, is a characteristic of all intelligent beings. The greater our capacity for creative thought, the greater our ability to enjoy a good joke. Think about it, says Spielberg.      Now think about the saucerians. It they're so damn smart, they are probably a jolly lot to boot. One of his film's best scenes suggests that some of the spacemen’s smaller scout craft are little more than flying hotrods.
    If that’s true, then there is reason in hope that they do, indeed, come in peace. The official prearranged encounter should be friendly, if not downright cheerful. There is hope.
    These are bold, exciting ideas, ideas that are not all successfully realized on screen. Although special-effects director Douglas Trumbull moves heaven and earth to advance the drama, the movie is unexpectedly sluggish.
    With Jaws, Spielberg proved that he could grip and hold an audience. Here, though, he has set himself a far more demanding task. He wants to convey not just thrills, but thoughts.
    In Spielberg's script, Neary undergoes a near-mystic experience. What he responds to amounts to a calling. It sends him on a search for a holy mountain.
    Ultimately, he achieves assumption into heaven as a reward for his faith. The force is with him.
    It's a difficult assignment for Spielberg to carry off while maintaining the required amount of suspense, momentum and audience involvement. Nor does he.
    Cinematically, Close Encounters lacks the raw, driving power of a Jaws. Its parts, while finely crafted as individual scenes, pull in different directions, giving the film an emotional jaggedness. Spielberg's characters are nowhere near as strong as their creator's artistic convictions.
    These convictions, however, combined with Spielberg's awesome skills as a filmmaker, are enough. They make Close Encounters of the Third Kind one of the essential films of 1977.
*    *    *    
LOT'S WIFE: Spare a tear for Teri Garr. The delightful lady, who so charmed Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, has been through two remarkably similar marital crises this year.
    First there was that business with the Almighty. In Oh, God!, she was married to John Denver, a grocery store employee who claimed to be in direct contact with the Creator. She found that a little hard to believe.
    Now, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, husband Richard Dreyfuss sees flying saucers. It's enough to send a poor girl home to mother.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1977. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: When the generational shift hit Hollywood in the 1970s, Richard Dreyfuss was at ground zero. He was part of the acting ensemble in director George Lucas’s breakthrough film, 1973’s American Graffiti, and starred in Steven Spielberg’s game-changing summer blockbuster Jaws 1975). Speilberg hired Dreyfuss on the recommendation of his friend Lucas and (according to Joseph McBride’s 1999 biography of the director), he came to view the manic actor as something of an alter ego. The shoot was a difficult one and, shortly before the picture’s release, Dreyfuss went on a TV talk show where he was outspoken in his disdain for the project. Spielberg didn’t hold a grudge, though. He gave Dreyfuss the starring role in his next picture, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and cast him in his 1989 afterlife fantasy, Always.
    While hardly dominant, science fiction has been an important element in Steven Spielberg’s directorial career. He reasserted his optimism about first contact in 1982, with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a film that remains magical to this day. His collaboration with novelist Michael Crichton — on 1993’s Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World (1997) — were a return to Jaws mode, resulting in superior popcorn pictures. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), a project handed off to Spielberg by Stanley (2001: A Space Odyssey) Kubrick, turned into a chilly sci-fi take on Pinocchio. Neither 2001’s Minority Report, based on a typically paranoid Philip K. Dick short story, nor War of the Worlds (2005), an updated adaptation of the H.G. Wells first-contact novel, inspired much optimism. Another popcorn picture, Ready Player One (2018) disappointed passionate fans of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel. Spielberg, ever ready to try new/old things, is currently in preproduction for a remake of the 1961 musical West Side Story.

The Dreyfuss file: The three Richard Dreyfuss features in this package are 1975’s InsertsClose Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and The Big Fix (1978). His other films in the Reeling Back archive include: 1973’s American Graffiti; The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974); Jaws (1975); Stakeout (1987); Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990); and Another Stakeout (1993).