It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I may have even written about CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before, but I just got a chance to see it again last night during the 40th Anniversary release, and I just wanted to write a bit about it.
It’s hard to explain why, but this has become one of my favorite films.
I love the pacing of the scenes and sequences, the way Spielberg starts a scene on an intriguing image and ends it as such. The small character touches like Balaban’s interpreter, in the opening scene, declaring that he was a cartographer before interpreting French, and how that smoothly comes into play when the coordinates come in the picture. And then the scientists, in an era before Google Maps and iPhones, grab a globe, roll it through the facility to look up coordinates.
Also, this movie is remembered as the story of Richard Dreyfuss’s “Roy”, basically, yet as the protagonist he’s about the last major character introduced. We get the mysterious opening and meet Lacombe (Francois Truffaut, perfectly cast), then we meet Jillian and her son, Barry, when the mystery of the opening now touches home and becoming real to an outsider. Then, finally, we meet Roy, our “main character”, at home with is family, perhaps in their happiest moment that we see them during the film.
When I watch older movies, I often wonder what they would look like if made today, what kinds of studio notes would come into play, and then I get kind of sad that we don’t see many movies like these any more. Wide shots displaying a grand location, or even the layout of a house so that we understand where everyone is, where they’re going, and what they can do in their environments. The measured, sparse use of a closeup to really convey emotional beats and character moments. The use of music to build tension and expose character struggles, rather than telling an audience how to feel. Even characters talking over each other, the realistic nature of a chaotic house with kids reflecting the confusion that’s setting in with the scientists as they figure out where the signals are coming from.
And what I really like is that, other than a big moment in the middle when Roy breaks down in his shower, his family the next day leaving him to his madness, there are no huge, melodramatic character revelations or extreme arcs. They just ARE who they are.
Lacombe is fascinated by the discovery, looking to find a way to communicate, even if he doesn’t understand what is being said. He has a soft spot for Roy, for the drive of a person to find purpose just as much as he has or has wanted to.
And Jillian has her son — she lives alone in a rural farmhouse – and when her son is taken, she has to get him back. That’s her mission, to get her son back, to protect him. He is the meaning she is searching for, and becomes a simple A- to – B plot, in the end.
And for Roy, whose family he is disconnected from, he is searching for that connection. His wife seems on a different wavelength, can’t understand his job (she passes him the phone when the boss tries to tell her what’s going on), his kids want Goofy Golf rather than see PINOCCHIO, a childhood favorite of Roy’s that stokes his inner kid, the curiosity that’s been buried in years of “living and working” and that is restless to come out, and does so when he’s been “encountered.”
I love this film, encourage you to watch it again if you haven’t seen it in a while, and fill your imagination with possibilities.