I figure after week after week discussing campy B-movies, I’d switch my focus over to a film that is arguably the greatest science fiction film of all time: ‘Battlefield Earth’. I’m just kidding. Alas, for today’s Throwback Thursday (the column when ScienceFiction.com looks at sci-fi classics of the past and explains why they are still important today), I’d like to prove, mainly to myself, that I still have an inkling of taste and would like to talk about ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’.
After the financial and critical success of ‘Jaws’, Colombia Pictures had given Steven Spielberg an amount of creative freedom that would help him create ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Though he is credited as the sole writer of the film, numerous writers and creators aided Spielberg in the writing process including Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins and Jerry Belson. The film stars Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon and Teri Garr. The film won Best Cinematography at the 50th Annual Academy Awards and was also nominated for Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Dillon). It was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry in December 2007, with the United States Library of Congress characterizing the movie as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The film opens in the Sonoran desert where Claude Lacombe (Truffaut) and his cartographer-interpreter David Laughlin (the fabulous Bob Balaban) find Grumman TBM Avengers that had gone missing 30 years ago. The planes are still intact but the passengers remain missing. We then cut to Muncie, Indiana where 3-year-old Barry Guiler (a scrumptious little Cary Guffey) wakes up to find that all of his toys have come to life. (Even watching this scene as an adult, it’s still pretty traumatizing, but not as traumatizing as, let’s say, ‘Return to Oz’.) Barry notices something off screen and runs off into the woods, with his mother, Jillian (Dillon), chasing after him.
We then meet our protagonist, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) who has, indeed, a close encounter of the third kind while on the job. As a result of his experience, Neary becomes obsessed with UFOs and keeps having visions of a mountain-like shape that he proceeds to sculpt out of shaving cream, mashed potatoes and eventually dirt from the garden. Jillian has the same visions after Barry is abducted by what can be assumed is a UFO. As Lacombe and the United Nations seek to find answers about the UFOs through musical sound frequencies, hand motions and coordinates, everyman Neary and Jillian seek answers of their own.
In the wake of the technological innovations of movies like ‘The Matrix’, the creation and replication of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and digital entertainment aiming to create content on every device ever, I can’t help but wonder, is a movie like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ still relevant today?
Storytelling has changed (nay evolved) so much since the slow-paced, thought-provoking films of the 1970’s. As a society, we are like Neary, obsessed with knowing more, trying to find answers proving that we’re not alone in the universe. After all, all of our ears perk up every time we hear NASA has discovered a habitable planet. But in a world where I’m told that audiences seem to gravitate toward Hugh Jackman puncturing a rogue mutant, is there room on the queue for films with gradual developments, giving us an ability to question our own existence?
What do you think?