Friday 7 June 2013

Movie Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

A superlative science fiction drama, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind re-imagines in peaceful terms how the first physical contact with an alien race may unfold. Steven Spielberg's vision is grand, ground-breaking and uplifting.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) works for the electric utility company in Indiana. While on an emergency service call, he has an encounter with several alien spacecraft. Subsequently, Roy starts to behave erratically, obsessed with visions of an imposing monument-like mountain, and he alienates his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). Meanwhile, single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) is terrified that her young son Barry appears to be continuously attracting the attention of light-emitting alien spaceships. Jillian also starts to uncontrollably draw sketches of an imposing mountain.

French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), working with a team of U.S. scientists including David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), starts connecting a series of strange global events: a long-lost squadron of World War Two-era fighter planes is found in pristine condition in the Sonoran desert, and the SS Cotopaxi, lost in the Bermuda triangle since 1925, turns up in the Gobi desert. Civilian aircraft flying over Indiana report near-misses with unidentified aircraft. Eventually, Lacombe and his team determine that aliens are making contact through actions, signals and sounds to plan a rendezvous on earth. Roy and Jillian are separately drawn by their visions to the time and place where arrangements are being made for a possible historical encounter with alien beings.

One of the great science fiction movies, on-par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in powerfully redefining what the genre could offer, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is science fiction without laser weapons, violence, threats, or even any political posturing. Fuelled by hope, Spielberg announces the maturing of humanity to the point of pursuing peaceful contact with advanced aliens.

Stylistically, the film is a simple chronicle of events. There are no attempts to spoon-feed tidy explanations or narrate the seemingly disparate episodes taking place around the world. The cameras of Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond capture with dispassionate curiosity the encounters with aliens and their aftermath, riding on the same tide of hypnotic fascination, confusion, and elation besetting the likes of Roy, Jillian and Claude.

Gradually all the threads of the film come together to create a cohesive whole, Spielberg deftly side-stepping the need to over-explain the details. Whether willingly or not, humanity will need to come together to resolve future challenges, and in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind individuals become a group to harness the talent of many and communicate with superior alien beings.

It is no accident that the lead scientist trying to make sense of the global incidents is a Frenchman working with Americans, Francois Truffaut an inspired choice to emphasize the internationalization of efforts to better understand what lies beyond Earth's limits.

By 1977 standards, the special effects are a marvel. The team of Douglas Turmbull (visual effects), Carlo Rambaldi (aliens), and Ralph McQuarrie (mother ship) create a spectacle of shapes, lights, speed and sound, culminating in a breathtaking finale, the mother ship finally appearing and landing to start the process of aliens constructively interacting with humans. The encounters are close and personal, but the vision is audaciously monumental.

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