Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We Are Not Alone

Steven Spielberg has directed a lot of films, including several of the science fiction persuasion, but the only sci-fi film that he both directed and wrote himself turned out to be arguably his best of the genre. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released shortly after Star Wars in 1977. Although they were both about aliens and space, the two films could not have been more different. While Star Wars was a traditional heroes and villians adventure story set in another place and time, Encounters was a real life drama set squarely on present day planet earth. Star Wars was fun, Encounters was mysterious and awe-inspiring. Each film sought to achieve very different ends.

I consider CE3K (as it is known in some circles) to be one of the few classic sci-fi films of my own generation. There are so many good things to say about it. First, the story is introduced with an interweaving of mini-scenes that are designed primarily to feed a sense of anticipation that something amazing is happening. This is done very skillfully and its novelty at the time is less appreciated today because it has been borrowed so much since. As I recall, it was the first time I saw the use of the subtitled time and place data at the start of each scene as a dramatic mechanism. The acting is quite good, especially the interactions among Roy Neary's family members. What is striking about that thread is its depiction of a dysfunctional American family on the brink of divorce that seems so on target that it's as if Spielberg is channeling his own childhood (his own parents divorced when he was young). You rarely see that type of honesty in a major film production, but I do believe it was more common in the 60's and 70's. There is a lot of great cinematography, both in the landscapes and the glowing space ships that are placed upon them. The special effects still hold up today. And it had a great musical score as well that accented the other-worldly feel throughout. The orchestrated main title really illustrates this. And thanks to the time period, there was also a great disco version floating around, much better than the Meco track. It was hard to find but I located it here on youtube.

Close Encounters had a much deeper effect on my young imagination than any other film. Even though I don't believe we've been visited by aliens, it certainly was meant to tap into that belief held by surprisingly many people. But I was definitely caught up in the idea of it all and the "little guy caught in a big event" feeling conveyed by the film. I still remember many vivid dreams that were inspired by scenes like the gathering of witnesses on the night highway looking out over the city lights as they blacked out, while the alien lights in the sky escaped into the clouds above and then all goes quiet.
As an L.A. resident, I'd spent many weekends admiring the city lights from the mountains so that really hit home. Or the famous abduction scene of the little boy taken in the night from a little country house in the middle of a wide open farmland, or Dillon and Dreyfuss crazily trying to scale a mountain as military helicopters search them out overhead and dusk sets in.

The film is also unique in that although the government (in this case the United Nations) is involved and trying to keep it all from the public eye, you are allowed to go on the journey of discovery with the top officials in parallel with the main characters. You realize they are trying to solve the same puzzle and reacting to it with the same sense of wonder as anyone would, just with better resources at their disposal. You are at first led to believe hints that the aliens and the governments are antagonists, when in fact they are not. The only antagonist is doubt, as the characters fight all manner of obstacles trying to keep them from following their intuitions, their "faith" so to speak. As corny as that sounds, somehow the drama plays out convincingly, and I would have to say surprisingly that the climax, which amounts to revelation, is visually stunning but nowhere near as emotionally powerful as all the anticipation that led up to it. The attraction to this film for me is not so much in the story but in the child-like wonder that it is able to evoke even in the adult mind.

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