Monday, August 22, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a film of visual awe and spectacular imagination, but it's not much of a human story.

Watching it for perhaps the first time in a decade, I was struck by how much the childlike wonderment and special effects stand the test of time. "Close Encounters" is less a movie about aliens from outer space than about humans, what motivates and frightens us, and how we can reach the best inside ourselves despite our many weaknesses and failings.

But the narrative is surprisingly straightforward and spare, and the characterizations are even skimpier. Roy Neary, the Muncie electric company lineman played by Richard Dreyfuss, is the only character with any kind of depth. And even that is subservient to the plot rather than springing from within.

Roy goes through a dark-and-dreary phase, epitomized by the now-iconic mashed potatoes scene, but it doesn't last very long or linger on the impact of his alien obsession on his emotions. Or those of his family, for that matter.

Consider this movie told from the perspective of Roy's wife Ronnie, played by Teri Garr. In that sense, it's the story of a guy who abandons his wife and kids to go wandering after lights in the sky, even making out with some other alien-chasing hussy before fleeing to a black hole in space from whence no child support payments ever returned.

Or from the perspective of the red jumpsuit-wearing team members who are potential pilgrims to go aboard the aliens' ship and learn their ways. They've spent years training for a totally out-there scenario, probably sidelined lucrative careers to study in a field that garners only mockery from their peers, and when the big moment finally arrives some guy who wanders in from out of the rocky hillside gets picked by the little critters instead. Bummer.

I was surprised by how much the 34-year-old special effects still resonate. The spaceships remain indistinct and alien-looking, even at the end when we get to see the mother ship full-on. They seem to have been created without regard to human concepts of physics and morphology, which is at it should be.

In general, I like the way Spielberg (in one of his rare screenwriting credits) conceives of how the first encounter between humans and aliens would happen. There's lots of secretiveness and shenanigans by the government, but their approach is passive and peaceful rather than the usual warlike way they're depicted -- firing tank guns at flying saucers, etc.

One new observation: I would like to solve the mystery of Lance Henriksen's participation in the film. He is glimpsed ever so briefly in the final moments of the film, as the mother ship is lifting off. But he's just one of dozens of extras/minor players who are seen lifting their faces to the sky. And yet he is credited (as "Robert") among the principle cast.

Is this another example of a major character reduced to a few blips of screen time via clever editing, a la Peter Coyote in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"? I did a Google search to see if I could find out anything more about Henriksen's role in "Close Encounters," but could find nothing.

Did Lance Henriksen get body-snatched in post-production?

This film was a big deal at the time it came out, but I think the fact that the reputation of "Close Encounters" has faded considerably with the passage of time is no accident. It's a terrific bit of imagineering, but it's ultimately a minor work in the Spielberg filmography.

3 stars out of four

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