So with this months film in my Blind Spot list, I wanted to cover one of my favourite directors whose early work I should be more familiar with, Steven Spielberg. I’ve seen virtually all of Spielberg’s films but Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the one I’ve been kicking myself over for not having seen earlier, and it’s one that goes right up my alley. Spielberg is one of the best directors doing sci-fi and this is definitely one of his more personal films and, having finally seen it, it’s one of his best.The film focuses on the arrival of aliens to Earth, first by them depositing vehicles that they’d abducted in the past, followed by the playing of five tones to signal their arrival. As part of their arrival, the aliens give certain people subconscious messages to head towards a certain place, Devil’s Tower, as guests for the aliens, one of these being Roy Neary, an electrician in Indiana who encounters the aliens during a power outage they cause. The main thing that the film does well is create a sense of wonder for the aliens, along with a sense of mystery. There are a lot of questions raised about why the aliens are there, why they took the vehicles and people in the first place and what they would want with Earth and, wisely, the film doesn’t answer them. It creates a sense of mystery that helps make the moment when we see the alien ship in all it’s glory so wondrous. There’s a childlike nature to the aliens as well which further adds to the sense of wonder, in particular when we see the reaction children have to seeing the alien ships. The film also does a great job at showing the impact that seeing an alien ship can have on someone, the psychological damage that can be created for the person and their family, as seen with Roy and his family, the subconscious messages Roy is sent causing severe strains for his family, which makes you both sympathise with his family, as his actions do get quite dangerous, and with Roy due to his family not really doing anything to help Roy during his mental breakdown due to their lack of understanding, mainly with a scene where Roy has a breakdown in the shower and his wife doesn’t help him. There aren’t any clear cut villains in the film as well. The closest the film gets is Roy’s wife, but the way the character is framed makes you understand why she leaves Roy. Likewise, the government can be seen as a villain for limiting the access Roy and other people have to the landing site, but their concerns about creating a panic with the reveal of the existence of alien life are well founded. The way that Spielberg frames all the characters in the film makes you understand where they are coming from.
This framing is aided by strong performances throughout. As Roy, Richard Dreyfuss does a great job showing how his experiences with aliens has given his life both a renewed purpose and has caused him severe psychological damage, alienating him from his family. There’s an element of sympathy to Roy throughout that Dreyfuss delivers perfectly. As Roy’s wife Ronnie, Terri Garr does a good balancing act between being afraid of the damage that Roy is doing to himself and to his family, whilst at the same time showing her lack of understanding of the issues Roy goes through, making her both a sympathetic and antagonistic character. As Jillian, a woman who encounters the aliens through her son, Melinda Dillon does strong work showing her love for her son and how far she’ll go to protect him, whilst Cary Guffey as Barry, Jillian’s son, does great work showing the wonder that can be felt when experiencing things beyond your understanding. Francois Truffaut does strong work as Lacombe, a French scientist in charge of the encounter with the aliens, showing his fascination with the aliens and his respect for them, along with his reluctance to keep people like Roy away from the site, with Lacombe being French highlighting some of the communications issues that are present throughout the film and the language barriers that exist at all levels. There are also good performances from Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Roberts Blossom, which add to the overall environment of the film.
The technical side of the film is where this film shines though. Even with this being one of his first films, it’s easy to see why Spielberg earned the strong reputation he has with this film. The way that the aliens are framed, the use of strong orange lighting in particular, is mainly responsible for both a sense of wonder and fear of the unknown which makes the reactions different people have to the aliens believable. The use of music for communication between humans and aliens, in particular the famous five tones, feels very believable in showing the difficulties of communicating with beings with no comprehension of human language, an element that has been explored further in films like Arrival. The design of the spaceships and the effects created by Douglas Trumbull for them are incredible. The sense of scale we get for the ships and the way we gradually see the reveal of them, going from just lights in the sky at the start of the film to the full scale ship at the end is a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is easily one of Steven Spielberg’s best films. The sense of wonder that it creates is something that few films before or since have been able to capture. It’s easy to see how, between this and Jaws, even this early in his career Spielberg crafted the strong reputation he maintains to this day and this stands as one of his best films.
My Rating: 5/5