Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Flick of The Day: Close Encounters of The Third Kind

Steven Spielberg followed up the success of Jaws with this sprawling epic picture. A classic of the science fiction genre  and a massive hit on its release in 1977, the same year as George Lucas first Star Wars picture. In my humble opinion, Close Encounters is the far superior of the two though in truth they are not aimed at the same audience. Close Encounters is much more adult in tone and asks the viewer to engage more with the material.
The film opens in the Mexican desert, a French scientis named Lacombe and a team of American Army personnel discover a squadron of WW2 planes missing since the 1940's. In the heart of the Gobi desert, they find a missing ship. Later an airline pilot reports a near collision with an unidentified flying object to air traffic controllers in Indiana.  That night in Indiana, a young boy named Barry awakes to find his toys operating automatically, he follows some unseen figures into the fields near his house. Separately, a electricity lineman named Roy Neary, brilliantly played by Richard Dreyfuss, is trying to fix a fault on a lonely country road when he a close encounter with a UFO. Roy gives chase along with the police. Thereafter, nobody is the same again. Roy becomes obsessed with the UFO's, obsessed with a shape in his head that he can't leave behind. His marriage begins to disintegrate around him. Barry's mother becomes equally involved, particularly after her son is abducted by forces unknown.  Elsewhere, the UFO activity is increasing and as Lacombe and his team move from site to site, they become aware that the witnesses all report the UFO's making a distinctive five tone sound. They are trying to make contact. All of the characters stories then converge in a thrilling finale at the Devils Tower in Wyoming.
In an intereview given in 1990, when asked to choose an image to summarise his career, Spielberg chose the above. It is a striking image as the young Barry opens the door of his house in a brilliant orange light. It is just an example of a film brilliantly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. The special effects were ground breaking for their day and unlike so many sci-films, it doesn't attempt to re-invent the wheel. It is the ordinariness of the various locations that makes it so compelling: the small town, lonely rural locales. As with Spielberg's later work E.T, there is the theme of  a broken family. Roy's wife leaves him and takes the children, unable to deal with his obsession. The children unable to understand what has happened to their hard working father. Barry's mother, a single mother it should be noted has her child abducted. It is this sadness, this sense of family that endears Spielberg as a film-maker so much. He has often been criticised for being overly sentimental but this sentimentality is at the core of his talent. He makes the audience empathise. Who can ever forget the little girl in red in Schindler's List
This is a great film, one of Spielberg's best with a towering performance of depth from Richard Dreyfuss, fine cinematography and an engaging tale that deals with the psychological impact of those who claim to experience encounters with alien life. A must see.

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