Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Forty years ago today, Roy Neary entered a spacecraft as a kind of interplanetary diplomat. He hasn’t been heard from since. He experienced close encounters of the first, second, and third kinds. A close encounter of the first kind is when you have a visual sighting of an unidentified flying object. The second kind is when a physical effect takes place, whether it’s strange radio transmissions, paralysis, or heat. Finally, a close encounter of the third kind is when an actual alien is present. Released in theaters on November 16, 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind traces all of these occurrences through the life of Roy Neary.
Coming two years after the huge blockbuster success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg once again teamed with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead role as Neary. Sure, there’s the typical awe and wonder associated with a Spielberg film, but the spine of the film is Neary trying to come to terms with what he’s seen. At the start of the film, his marriage is already suffering cracks, but his first and second encounters just exacerbate the problems that were there. The first half of the film is the study of a marriage in decline. Neary is trying to cope and his wife, Ronnie (Terri Garr), is trying to just bury it and move on. There’s a great scene where Neary is losing it in the bathroom, Ronnie is yelling at him, and their oldest son just can’t figure out what’s happened to his dad. There’s a quick look of devastation on Dreyfuss’ face as he sees how this is affecting his kids, but he can’t help himself.
The second half of the film deals with the inevitable close encounter of the third kind and is where most of the “action” takes place. But this isn’t a big action spectacle, it’s much more subdued awe and wonder. Even the aliens in the film are primarily only seen in glimpses and backlight. This is a far cry from five years later when Speilberg gave us E.T. and we get to see everything. This film has a lot of lights, and that’s okay. It works and lends itself very well to a more contemplative tone.
Neary is by far the main character, but there’s a few other storylines that lead to the climax of the film. One deals with researchers led by François Truffaut (in a rare English-speaking film) trying to put clues together as to how to communicate with the aliens, and one is a mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon), and her young son Barry experiencing encounters of their own. The one nit I have to pick with the plot is the aliens visiting Jillian and taking Barry away. Sure, it looks cool with the lights and sets up an eerie mood, but the aliens go to a lot of trouble to and do a lot of emotional damage to Jillian. In hindsight the aliens come across as a little dickish. Although there’s a happy ending for Jillian by the end of the film, just imagine the hell she goes through between the abduction and the end of the film. That’s just mean. Bad aliens, bad.
Overall this is an important film in the Spielberg oeuvre. It shows that the tension he created in Jaws wasn’t accidental, it added to the awe of the unknown but also showed he had a little more of a philosophical side. While still dealing with the wonder of aliens it’s surprisingly grounded, especially in the first half. It’s an interesting contrast with his 2005 film War of the Worlds. Whereas Close Encounters of the Third Kind details the dissolution of a family, War of the Worlds does everything it can to try to keep the family unit together. A forty-year-old film that can still play to a modern audience; if you haven’t seen it, the anniversary is a great excuse to try it out, and if you have, it’s a great time to re-examine this crucial film from one of America’s greatest living directors.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
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