Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)



I said in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark that Lucas & Spielberg owed a lot to Harrison Ford, but they also owe a lot to John Williams. The Jaws theme, Indy’s theme, Star Wars‘ various themes, and so on. In the spoiler-y pre-show for the 40th anniversary, Spielberg said he was worried after Star Wars that Williams would have nothing left in him for another movie. Thank Jehovah, he did, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind depends on music for the plot. That could’ve turned out badly, indeed.

Yay! '70s!

Pictured: The World’s Largest “Simon”

If you don’t recall/haven’t seen it, the premise is that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is visited by aliens on an Indiana road one night and becomes increasingly obsessed in a world that’s particularly hostile to the notion of alien visitors. He loses his job, his family, and to no small degree, his sanity because he can’t stop thinking about this shape that the aliens have implanted in his mind.

I have to pause for a moment to point out that the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a hilarious episode based on the Spaghetti Sci-Fi Starcrash where the lovely Caroline Munro gets on to an unknown alien spacecraft in a sequence that takes well over a minute. (Starcrash is an extravaganza of drawn-out effects shots for not very good at all effects.) Jonah and the bots take this opportunity to sing a little Beach Boys-style song:

Surely no danger getting in a stranger’s UFO

She looks like a kitty cat but rides like an ace
Serenity and Slave One can’t keep the pace
Whitley Strieber and Roy Neary gonna join in the race
Yeah my UFO’s the coolest TTO in space

The Barbarienne and The Flower for that matter are not big MST3K fans, but they do love the songs, so they learned this one, and I tried to help them through the many references.

Check off: Roy Neary.

Fat screen TV!

Oh, like you don’t have scale model “Devil’s Tower” in YOUR living room.

I digress.

This is, quite possibly, my favorite Spielberg movie. I like movies about obsession, and I like Neary’s increasingly insane “it’s perfectly reasonable to throw trash into the living room to make a giant mountain” behavior. I didn’t know if it would hold up (and a few of the SFX are showing their seams, but not many and not too badly). In particular, this is a film about wonder, and there’s not a lot of that in cinema. (I don’t think there ever has been, because it’s just so expensive to do well, historically. And today we’ve swapped out wonder for spectacle in most cases, anyway.)

The kids really loved it, though. The Boy’s Girl had seen it—she’s probably seen more movies than they have, because she and her folks watched them on TV, which we largely did not do—but she did not get bored. I mean, that’s the real danger of this film, and I think people who don’t like it—they don’t ever buy in, so it’s just a bunch of flashing lights and people acting weird.

"Fire In The Sky" leaps to mind.

Variations on this shot have been used ever since.

Spielberg wrote the movie, which I’ll bet you can’t think of a single line of dialog from. There is some dialog here, a lot of it overlapping (and perhaps improvised), but the movie could be completely silent and work just about as well. I was glad I still could enjoy it, frankly, even while being more scrutinous now than when it came out. The ending is almost jarring in how much it delivers: Today we expect more of a tease and a promise.

Other notes: The 40th anniversary showing had tribute material up front. The Flower was ticked, because she doesn’t liked being spoiled and she actually didn’t have any idea aliens were involved. It also showed bits of scenes. Kinda annoying.

Also, kind of amusingly, right after Roy is playing with his mashed potatoes, the theater started flashing lights and booping. I thought maybe this was some kind of William Castle-style Emergo experience but, no, apparently the theater gets these sorts of false alarms pretty routinely. (It’s not a theater we go to much.) The Flower and I actually came back the next day to finish watching. (The Boy and The Boy’s Girl watched it over from the beginning, so that’s something.)

"Independence Day" beat the CRAP outta that kind of shot.

First time in a LONG time anyone had used a UFO contrasted with an earth object. It’s effective.

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