The A-Z of Geek Cinema: C is for Close Encounters of the Third Kind
I know, I know, he makes wondrous visions for both children and adults, flights of fantasy and realistic depictions of uplifting narrative that both soothe the soul and touch the heart. He is also a manipulative bastard who delights in ruining childhoods, causing nightmares for years, and destroying the trust in authority figures. People say he’s mellowed in the years since he first came on the scene, but then he unleashes something like MunichÂ or War of the Worlds, and a whole new generation gets their minds messed with. And it was like this right out the gate! Jaws caused (and still causes) scores of people to be afraid of swimming, and that was with a shark that didn’t even work when he wanted it to! And then there’s this film, the one that caused me to stay awake for hours every night until I was in high school: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This movie scared the dickens out of me when I was a kid. Seriously, between this andÂ ET, I had nightmares for years. I already probably read way more alien abduction books when I was young than I should have, and this just gave me visuals to draw from to fuel my imagination with spindly limbed, big eyed, and EVIL aliens. And look, how wrong I was. This movie isn’t supposed to be scary (though, to be fair, when the kid gets taken is pretty frightening, but I’ll get back to that), it’s supposed to be mysterious and wondrous. And years later, I totally get it. The aliens aren’t malevolent, despite how some scenes are played, they’re curious. They’ve been studying us and getting our attention for years, gauging our reactions and our cultures. And the film depicts the final stage in their plan.
What strikes me most is howÂ differentÂ every scene with the alien craft is. Some are treated, like I said before, as wondrous sights, with people gaping in disbelief and joy, while others, like the aforementioned scene with the kid, are filled with terror. Spielberg balances everything so well in this, all the various side-plots and character beats and emotions are well-paced and structured so perfectly. And the actors in the film, especially Richard Dreyfuss, really nail the confusion, the wonder, and the terror that the aliens engender.
One thing I have to comment on is the ending. Spielberg has said recently that if he made the film today, he wouldn’t have Roy Neary go with the ship. And that, I feel, is a fundamental mistake. Neary’s story has to end with him on that ship, making that journey, because if he denies himself that, after all he goes through in the course of the film, it invalidates the entire thing. And I’m damn glad that Spielberg doesn’t go the Lucas route of wholesale reinventing his films after the fact. He’s even said recently that he regrets the change he made for the ETÂ dvd release, and changed it back to its original form for the bluray. And this is also part and parcel with what I said earlier about Spielberg’s sadism: Neary abandons his family, his planet, for the chance to travel with the aliens. Spielberg at that time was totally in Neary’s corner, but now he’s much more of a family man. It’s understandable why he’d feel that way, but it would change the film.
An actual encounter with alien life would change the world. It would create so many questions about the universe, about our place in it, and our future both on our planet and in the universe at large. Would we be frightened? Would be angry? Would we accept it in the spirit of love? In any event, it would change everything. I hope it happens in my lifetime, I really do. It’d be important. It would mean something.