Cinematic Heaven: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind | Steven Spielberg, 1977

At some point or another, we have all been fascinated by the prospect of there being life outside our planet. We always wonder what would happen if we were to make contact with them. Will they harm us? Will they help advance our civilization? Or will they just come to make us aware of their existence? Steven Spielber’s first foray into movies about the living things that live outside our galax, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, gives us an answer to that question. At the same time, he gives us an insight into the impact an big event has on regular people, as well as how the government does everything in their power to get their way. It is a masterpiece.

Close Encounters opens with a group of scientists arriving in the Mexican desert. This this team is led by Mr. Lacombe (Fracois Truffaut). Here there is a person who saw beautiful lights at night, as well as the airplanes that used to belong to a Navy team that went missing more than 30 years ago. Then, in Ohio a child sees something and runs away from home, and his mother (Melinda Dillon) runs after him. At the same time, Roy (Richard Dreyfus), a worker for the electric company is on his way to fix something when he (as well as the child and his mom) sees a UFO. This encounter leads them to become obsessed with a vision of mountain and so they set out to find out the truth, although it might cost them their lives.

What made this movie great back then, and makes it even more special today, is the fact that the movie does not rely solely on visual effects, but rather on character, story, and performances. The basic plotline is simple, but the script is much more complex in its study of the different reactions the people have when they are faced with something unknown, as well as the drive people have to investigate the they feel is important to them. Also, before this, there weren’t many films where the aliens were friendly, they just kidnap people because they want to learn from them and they just want to make beautiful music, which makes this movie ever so much interesting. The character that are involved in this story, from Mr. Lacombe to Roy are so well developed that we can’t help but feel for what they are going through. We want Mr. Lacombe to communicate with the aliens because we know he is not doing it for malign reasons. We want Jilliant to reach the mountain to see if she may find what she lost. And we want Roy to find the answers the he desperately wants. Sure, his choice in the end is rather questionable, seeing how he had a family to take care of, but we like him so much that we can’t judge him.

Of course, these character would not have been as compelling if the right actors had not been behind them. Richard Dreyfus, just coming of Jaws, gives an excellent performance. There are times when his character goes over the top, but his performance never heads that way. Melida Dillon is also great the suffering mom that despite having had the thing most precious to her by the aliens, she still decides to go ahead and go to Devil’s Tower to witness whatever she is supposed to witness. And as for Monsieur Truffaut, I didn’t know he was an actor. Sure, I’ve only seen The 400 Blows from him, but I never thought I’d see him act in a Spielberg film. He is not given much to do, but he does it well.

Then there are the visual effects. To this day, they still look amazing. That is why I love it when director go for practical effects. Sure, when released today they might look a bit cheesy, especially if they are put in a sleek film like Star Trek. However, computer technology will continue to advance, and the CGI from today will look extremely dated, but something that was worked on by hand will age more slowly and will continue to impress people for many years after the release of film. Just look at the shot where the mother ship is revealed. It takes my breath away every time I see it.

The FX, as great as they are, are not the only technical bit that is amazing. The Oscar-winning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond is beautiful. The set design is one of things that has aged the most, but still works within the context of the film. And the score by John Williams is among one of his very best, and that is saying something.

They just don’t make them like they used to. Today, this movie would not have been made without at least one scene where a major landmark is blown up or a scene where airplanes chase the ship (the scene in the beginning in the air control room would be shown today). In a world where people think that movies about giant robots from outer space is more that dumb entertainment, it is always nice to watch a movie like this and remember the times when Hollywood used to love original ideas and when people were patient enough to sit through a movie with out big explosions. Watching this gave me hope that one day filmmaker and studios will have the balls to make awe-inspiring, original movies.

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