It’s over 40 years since film audiences were struck by the childlike wonder of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
In 1977, Steven Spielberg is only just 30. He is already an experienced television director – his TV horror trucker movie “Duel” has made a big impact – and he has two significant films to his credit, “The Sugarland Express”, and “Jaws”.
Then comes “Close Encounters of a Third Kind”. This is something else altogether. A science fiction film that maybe is not science fiction. As Spielberg has later explained in interviews, if you believe that there may be life somewhere else out there, then the film is not science fiction.
There is optimism in that claim, and irrepressible optimism in how Spielberg imagines humanity’s first encounter with non-Earthlings. Why of the third kind? Because the third kind is where contact is established, person to person – so to speak.
The sense of wonder sets in early. In the midst of a sandstorm, in the Mexican desert, something most unlikely appears. US military and scientific personnel are puzzled. They learn just one thing from their sole witness, an old man sitting in front of his shack. He says dreamily, ‘El sol salió anoche y me cantó’: ‘The sun came out last night and sang to me’.
Meanwhile, in a lower-middle-class suburb of Muncie, Indiana, in a phenomenally cluttered home, overwhelmed by the sounds of family life and argumentative children, a telephone lineman, Roy Neary (Robert Dreyfus) is soon to experience the most extraordinary revelation of his life.
Strange events multiply, all over the world. One of the scientists involved with the US military is Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) – a scientist who works for an international research body. He has a remarkable sensibility and the openness of a happy child. He is assisted by an American cartographer, a friendly bearded man, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban).
The cartographer has a gift for languages; he becomes Lacombe’s interpreter. He too has a scientific bent, yet just like Lacombe, he is open to wonder. This duo is in stark contrast to the military and government personnel around them. However, they all work together. The officials listen to the experts, and respect them.
It is odd of course that a French academic, specialised in science and communications, would not be fluent in English. Laughlin, as interpreter, adds a gentle touch, a buffer. The language barrier, the need for an interpreter, allows the audience to look at Lacombe’s face, without being distracted by his speech – the cues to his character here are non-verbal and the emotions are more direct.
It’s a great portrayal of the archetypal expert of old, the scientist figure as dreamer, good-hearted, moral – maybe an echo of the qualities embodied by the astronomer Carl Sagan. Science for the good, a belief in humanity’s progress. When a group of seemingly random civilians converge, a US official tells Lacombe ‘It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific’. Lacombe gently disputes that assertion. He explains that it is ‘An event sociological’.
This is an interesting comment, echoed by Spielberg back in 1977, in a conversation with Interview Magazine: ‘It is a sociological study about people who are dislocated by extraordinary events they can’t possibly cope with or understand, based on the way they’ve been brought up and what they’ve been taught about life science.’
It is those qualities, that openness to something wonderful and new, which anchors Close Encounters as a memorable film. Lacombe’s counterpart in this story is Roy Neary, the lineman lost in the clutter of his home-life. Neary’s character is as light as it can be dark; he yearns for something he cannot understand, which he pursues at almost any cost, losing interest in his wife and children.
Throughout the film, Lacombe and Neary are on their way to the same rendez-vous. Lacombe knows where he is going; Neary finds his way almost blindly. Each of them has a side-kick. Lacombe has Laughlin; Neary has Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon).
Guiler is the mother of a little boy, Barry (Cary Guffey). He has disappeared, running away towards an alien spaceship, much like a small child would run away with a travelling circus. She is looking for him, and she, like many others, is following a sort of vision, which will lead her too, to the same rendez-vous as Lacombe, Neary, Laughlin, NASA, and assembled US military and officials.
The build-up to the big showdown – a communion of sorts – meanders somewhat slowly through Neary’s family and mental breakdown. There are striking scenes of personal chaos.
What is also striking is that despite their common cause, and common humanity, most, perhaps all characters in the story fail to interact meaningfully with each other. Solidarity is fleeting. One family breaks up, and there is a casual acceptance of this. Some search for knowledge, for the future – others are waiting to be saved.
Past the initial shared sense of wonder, when Neary has his first fleeting encounter with the unknown, it becomes difficult to empathise with him – he is yearning for something but entirely lacks insight – or empathy.
Eventually, none of this matters, because all of it leads up to one of the grandest and most optimistic conclusions in the history of science-fiction films. The last forty minutes are deeply moving, wondrous. And it is that which remains in filmgoers’ minds, decades later. It’s a rare film, that evokes something like reaching a sense of rapture.
40th Anniversary 4K edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – now available from Amazon.
Director Steven Spielberg
Writers Steven Spielberg, Jerry Belson
Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond
Music John Williams
With Richard Dreyfus, Terri Garr, Melinda Dillon, François Truffaut, Cary Guffey, Bob Balaban
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