Close Encounters of the Third Kind In Theaters

This Means Something

Watching Close Encounters for the first time in years, finally on a big screen, I was taken by how that complexity does feel like subtext, if it’s meant to be there at all. Both Roy and Jillian have been touched in a sense — the random sunburn that appears on their bodies because the spacecrafts shined lights in their faces while passing by, for example. Both are left with visions of Devils Tower that manifest in artistic fashion.

Jillian has a more primal urge to get to Devils Tower, or so it would seem: her young son Barry has been abducted by the aliens for reasons unknown. Though we see Jillian after reporting the incident to the authorities — she seems reasonably shell-shocked throughout — her journey seems as much about satisfying her own curiosity as it is about collecting her son. She rarely seems bothered about having lost him, either temporarily or permanently, let alone distraught. Perhaps on an innate level, she knows he’s fine or believes that he has to be, but even that requires a leap of faith the film never quite establishes. The scene where Barry is taken is a phenomenal setpiece and seems like something that wouldn’t be out of place in Poltergeist; it’s genuinely terrifying and excellently staged, which makes it much more fascinating and inexplicable that no one seems to treat the aliens as a threat. She reunites with Barry in the coda, in a sweet moment that’s overshadowed by what happens to Roy.

Both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and AI have similarly determined protagonists; like Pinocchio, they will themselves into situations where they can get an answer, a transformative moment that will bring purpose to their lives. Roy keeps repeating that the vision of Devils Tower “means something. This is important.” But he’s saying so because it has to be, or otherwise, he’s wasting his time. AI‘s robotic boy David (Haley Joel Osment) has to meet the Blue Fairy, has to be turned into a real boy, because then he would have a true meaning in life: to be genuinely loved by the woman he calls his mother.

Both films feature scenes of abandonment; Roy is technically abandoned by his wife and kids, but it’s massively, intentionally uncomfortable to watch him push them away past the point of no return. AI smartly reframes a scene of abandonment from the perspective of the child. We barely know Roy’s kids, except for a few brief shots that try to communicate how lost they are in understanding why Mom and Dad keep yelling at each other. AI places David and his mother (Frances O’Connor) in a forest as she tries to save him from death, and he breaks down emotionally because he can’t fully grasp why she’s leaving him.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Wish Fulfillment

If there’s anything that has bothered me about Close Encounters and how it treats Roy, I was finally able to fully put my finger on this time around. It’s not that Roy hates his family — he fails to prioritize them, as demonstrated when he tries to guilt them into seeing Pinocchio because it’s what he wants. It’s not that he leaves them — his wife leaves him, and it’s hard to blame anyone for making that choice. It’s that Roy is right to be obsessed. His determination pays off. He gets what he wants, and in no uncertain terms. Roy not only gets to see the descent of an alien ship into our world; he is chosen, almost literally handpicked, to join a crew to go onto said ship and do God knows what for an indeterminate, possibly infinite period of time.

I have no cockamamie theory to throw out here about how Roy is fantasizing this, or he’s hallucinating, or he got knocked out with the gas that military planes dusted the surrounding area with. Within the framework of the film, he really gets to spend eternity with aliens. His visions did mean something, but they come at the expense of a family he’ll likely never see again, and whose absence doesn’t bother him. If the last hour felt as steeped in the messy and honest complexities of life as what precedes it, I might react differently. Instead, it’s exuberantly staged and crafted wish fulfillment.

close encounters of the third kind 3

The Boy Grows Up

There’s a lot of recognizable thematic work in Spielberg’s later films. Darker fare like Minority Report introduces familial strife before eventually building to a happy ending. Father-son issues are common in the Spielberg films without a huge following, like The Terminal. The true anomaly in his career since he became a father is AI, a complex sci-fi spectacle that starts and ends bleakly. On its face, David finally gets what he wants: he speaks to an approximation of the Blue Fairy, and he gets to spend another day with his mother. But it’s a clone of his mother, nothing close to the real, three-dimensional, spiky woman he unconditionally adored. And his “mother” is only around for a day, before her clone shuts down. The final shots of the film, as muted as the final shots of Close Encounters are bombastic and triumphant, suggest that David has come to grips with his isolated reality, and that his journey can only end when he shuts himself down.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the great spectacles of Steven Spielberg’s career. For sheer technical wizardry, visual stylization, and wonderstruck setpieces, there are few films he’s made that rival the 1977 film, whether you watch it on Blu-ray, DVD, or on the big screen. Its first two-thirds are thornier than a lot of the spectacles he would make in the years to come, even his overall best film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s complex and prickly in ways that go beyond John Williams’ incredible score, the stunning cinematography, and Richard Dreyfuss’ awestruck performance. (Dreyfuss’ work does a lot to make Roy sympathetic even in unsympathetic moments.)

But I pause at its resolution; on its face, it’s jaw-dropping filmmaking, but it validates a character whose remorse at leaving his family is absent. The complexity vanishes in favor of something more hopeful, almost inexplicably so. In the intervening years, Spielberg has gone back to the well of dark familial complexity just once, ending on a seemingly hopeful note. But the “privilege of youth” is gone from AI where it once resided in Close Encounters. The boy who made the 1977 film grew up, and the adult who made the 2001 film proves it.

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