All images and videos posted on this blog are for promotional and evaluation purposes only.
No copyright infringement is intended.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Title: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Year of Release: 1977

Date Viewed: September 21st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

It should be easy for schoolteachers to predict which of their students would become the most creative and open-minded adults. They're the ones that spend the most time daydreaming during class sessions. It's not always because of boredom or rebelliousness. Sometimes the mind demands more knowledge than an average school day can satisfy. The funny thing is how the questions that don't have definitive answers also happen to be the most important ones. How did the universe and life begin? How big is the universe? Does it contain living things yet undiscovered? What is morally right? A daydreamer can spend an afternoon pondering these things without reaching conclusions and will enjoy every minute of it. We never learn if Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) was ever a young daydreamer. But a single incident from a single night turns him into the most obsessive kind. The worlds of the known and the unknown cross over and nothing is ever the same again.

Although Close Encounters of the Third Kind keeps the main focus on Neary's quest for answers, we see how visiting alien life forms or the "third kind" are affecting areas and cultures from all around Earth. Military vehicles that disappeared reappear years later with no sign of age or even use. Residents of India begin chanting a cryptic five-note melody that they believe originated from "somewhere above." There could very well have been hundreds of similar non-explainable incidents across the globe but to show them all would require a tenth X-files season.

Director and main writer Steven Spielberg begins Roy Neary's story with his trademark dysfunctional family plot device. Roy barely gives his wife and children any time of day and is unconventionally eager to accept an emergency call-in from the electric company that employs him.

En route to the supposed origin of his town's blackout, a direct encounter with an unidentified flying object leaves Roy with a physical mark and a psychological mark. The physical mark is a sunburn caused by the aircraft's blinding lights. Even though the incident took place at night and left Roy looking like Two-Face, the family responds with mild fascination but mostly skepticism. The psychological mark is a mental image subliminally branded into the brain: the oddly-shaped mountain mountain known as Devil's Tower. Roy sees it as a recurring vision ever since that fateful night. The luring power is so strong that glimpses of the mountain appear everywhere from dreams to a plate of mashed potatoes. When Roy's resistance and sanity finally breaks, he leaves behind and bets everything for the chance to see Devil's Tower in person and learn its significance.

His traveling companion is fellow UFO witness Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). After the third kind visitors abduct her son, she joins Roy in demanding answers from the national leaders. As typical with pictures about extra-terrestrials, the government denies having anything to hide despite the film's early sequences allowing us to know better. But the greatest thing about Close Encounters is that neither the audience nor any characters ever learn answers to the big questions. At least not until after the credits start rolling. It doesn't result in frustration. It's rather a stimulant for the imagination.

Knowing that curiosity and obsession are often interrelated, the film's second act explores the latter theme in both tragic and humorous fashion. At one point, Roy commits a bizarre act of transferring seemingly random objects from the backyard into the house. The scene plays out for a longer time than expected which makes for an amusing depiction of his declining sanity. But it also creates sympathy for Roy's family who does not share his curse (or is it a gift?) and can only stand by in disbelief. It all becomes too much for them to bare and there's no blaming them. Roy is left alone with confusion until he meets the equally confused Julian again. From there it's a quest of self-fulfillment and a journey to locate the real Devil's Tower.

Although never truly tested, patience is a true virtue when watching Close Encounters. There's an early whetting of the appetite for answers that's often satisfied but always leads to more questions. Roy's declining sanity is eventually revealed to actually be an enlightenment. It's a long running time and long road for the spectator but the payoff is more than worthwhile.

Roy and Julian's journey to the real Devil's Tower leads to the film's climax and the closest thing to a definitive answer that's ever offered. And it's undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sequences of Spielberg's career. Earth's residents attempt to directly communicate with the third kind for the first time. The only common ground between the two races is a limited set of musical notes. Likely a variation of Morse code. It's simple to describe on paper but virtually impossible for me to explain why there is such joy here. But I'll try anyway. There are several gradual shifts as far as how we're expected to respond during the scene. Genuine fear, cautious fear, confusion and then finally there's no fear at all. The reason for fear disappears despite no obvious reasons. There's the feeling of witnessing history despite it being a work of pure fiction. In a way, that's exactly what it is. After a long cinematic and illustrated history of humans doing battle against aliens from outer space that they don't understand, here is a moment where both sides make a conscious effort to understand everything possible to know about each other before skipping to conclusions. It's the way real world history should have been had there been enough rational people around to make it happen. A much needed glimmer of hope within a gloomy world track record. By the film's final moments, there is not a single soul to feel sorrow for except maybe Roy's family who will probably forever wonder exactly what made him jump into the deep end.

A perfectionist after my own heart, Spielberg never seems one hundred percent satisfied with Close Encounters despite having every reason to be. He expressed regret over having Roy leave his family behind but I would argue that reversing that direction would retract everything the movie stands for; notably the theme of answering the ultimate calling. Some editions offer an expanded ending with bigger clues about what awaits Roy at the end of his journey. I hope that never gets stretched out any further because Close Encounters is one of the best representations of a rare cinematic experience: witnessing the unknown happen before one's eyes without the lingering sense of restlessness. It won't however quell the urge to daydream.

Rating: 8

No comments:

Post a Comment