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“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is another movie with a deep history with me. Not in my childhood though, back then the UFOs scared me and the homewrecking obsession of Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary felt boring and uncomfortable, but later, in my teenage years, this became something of a cult movie for me. As I am certain it has been for a lot of people. I have held back from watching it for the past ten years or so in anticipation of watching it for the List and that pause has made it possible to watch it with new eyes. I see other and different things in it now than I did years ago.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the love child Steven Spielberg was finally able to make with all the credits he earned from the blockbuster success that was “Jaws”. It is his vision of First Contact with aliens combined with the conspiratorial wake of Watergate. Ordinary people are receiving strange visitations from aliens, in particular Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her son Barry (Cary Guffey), the latter of which gets abducted by the aliens in a memorable scene, and Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrician, who gets a very close encounter in his service car during a power outage. These people start obsessing about their experience, painting or sculpting a particular image, which turns out to be the Devils Tower in Wyoming. For Ron, this obsession costs him his job, friends and eventually his family. His wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), refuses of acknowledge his vision and eventually leaves him with their children.
Meanwhile, weird things are happening all over the world, leading E.T. expert Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) to believe something is imminent. When the aliens send a set of coordinates (for Devils Tower!) a reception committee is set up by the US government. Super top secret, but Ron and Jillian are not so easy to keep out.
The version I watched was Spielberg’s Special Edition, made 3 years later. The original version was a bit of a rush job with a number of flaws that he got a chance to fix in the special edition. I prefer this version, not for the extended finale, awesome as it is, but because it is a much tighter cut. There is quite a lot of Roy’s obsession that was ditched in this version and that was exactly what made the theatrical version drag. We still get the idea, but now we are not getting sidetracked.
Maybe because of this I took more notice of Teri Garr as Roy’s miserable wife and that was a big plus. Garr is always great, but it is rare to watch her in non-comedic roles. Maybe it was her comedic skill that made the madness of her home even crazier. She was phenomenal.
But then I could say that about everybody here. Guffey as little Barry is adorable and the abduction scene is iconic. When he opens the door with the yellow light flooding in, he is in wonder while his mother (and likely the rest of us) are horrified. That image has been used and referenced so often to exactly that effect that it is probably the most recognized scene from the movie.
What I like particularly about “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is its optimistic tone. The majority of movies involving aliens treat them as a threat and science fiction is more often dystopic than hopeful. Maybe it is the overruling dramatic need for a crisis and something fear inducing to spark interest, but there is something fantastic and beautiful about the wonder on the faces of everybody in that final meeting. This is revelation and optimism, the strange and alien as something benign and not dangerous. It is a challenge to our xenophobia and skepticism, a maybe childlike wonder, but for adults to experience.
A particular key to the movie I think is when the expert government team of military types lined up to meet the aliens is refused and instead the childlike aliens pick out Roy and lead him on board. Is it not a comforting thought that he is our ambassador and not cold, faceless government agents? Something about the preference of the best in humankind rather than the worst.
Highly recommended to anybody who still believe the unknown should be embraced with childlike wonder.