Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sci-Fi September: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

If you've already seen Close Encounters Of The Third Kind then you may think that it's not a film worth revisiting every few years. I'd argue that it is. The sound and light show that makes up the final half hour will remind you of how great cinema can be when providing spectacle that comes after a steady build-up. If you haven't already seen it then do yourself a favour and get to it ASAP.

Bashing Steven Spielberg is pretty popular among many film fans nowadays, and has probably been popular for some time. Looking at even some of his best movies, and this is one of them, it's easy to see why people can pick apart his style, his flaws, that schmaltziness that he's so fond of. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind has all of his usual tricks, but it also has such a fantastic ambiguity to the whole thing, and such a big heart, that it's still able to sit astride the sci-fi genre like, well, a giant mothership overlooking many other shining lights.

Richard Dreyfuss, Cary Guffey, and a few other people all find their lives greatly changed when they witness some UFO activity. It is, unbeknownst to them, only a small sample of something that has been happening in a number of different locations. The increased activity seems to be building up to something big, something that the U.S. government needs to keep hidden from most of the public. But many of those who have already observed the extra-terrestrial visitors have an obsessive need to see them again. Where will that need take them? And are the aliens coming in peace?

Yes, you get a lot of times when the camera starts off close to a character and then pulls away as they look somewhere offscreen in amazement. You also get plenty of the lens flares that one day collided together and gave birth to J. J. Abrams. And the cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, often places people in the way of extremely bright lights - either spotlights, UFO lights, or just dazzling sunlight. All of these things are Spielberg 101. There's also a rousing score by John Williams, a cute kid (Guffey) in the middle of the action, and plenty of reverence for cinematic classics of the past.

None of these things take away from how great the movie is. With so many to choose from, saying this score is one of the best from Williams is high praise indeed, and I stand by that compliment (mainly for that brilliant 5-note motif and the audio experience of the grand finale). It's also worth noting that the subject matter lends itself perfectly to all of these Spielbergian tricks.

The performances are pretty perfect from everyone involved. Guffey doesn't say much, but he's a great child actor and reacts well to what's supposed to be happening around him. Dreyfuss is brilliant, making the most of yet another great role handed to him by Spielberg. Whether he's sculpting mashed potatoes or struggling to communicate to his wife (Teri Garr) just what he's going through, his display of conflicting emotions conveys so much more than the majority of the script. Melinda Dillon goes through a similar range, as the mother of Guffey, and her few scenes with Dreyfuss make for some of the best scenes in the film. Well, the best scenes not featuring UFOs. Francois Truffaut moves from his usual directorial role to act as Claude Lacombe, an expert in UFO activity who hopes to soon be able to prove that one or two of his theories are correct. He's a great presence whenever onscreen, quiet, graceful and intelligent, and it's easy to see why Spielberg persuaded him to take on the role. Last, but not least, Bob Balaban rounds out the core group of main players, spending a lot of time alongside Truffaut, playing a translator. He may not have as much to do, but he's a worthy addition to the cast.

If this had been made today then I think it would be a perfect film. There are hints of darkness here and there, but nowhere near the darkness that Spielberg would be able to handle so expertly in the 21st century. The special effects hold up well, for the most part, but it's hard to not see the crudity of some moments, especially in the first half of the film. And there's just too much lens flare. Yet it remains an effective, moving piece of work. It's a cinematic experience unrivalled by 95% of films released in the past three decades, and that's why I still rank it as highly as I do. As do many others.


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