Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
Writer-director Steven Spielberg has struck a chord with many a filmgoer. He’s taught us to dream big, to tap into our childlike wonder, to embrace our imagination – no matter the age or who we are. Perhaps the film that’s inspired the most people in its decades long existence is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Some movies are just meant to be seen on the big screen. 40 years later, the legendary filmmaker’s magnificent, epic adventure remains one of those movies.
French scientist Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his cartographer-turned-interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) have been called to investigate strange things happening across the globe – like the re-appearance of a thirty-year-old squadron of planes plopped in Mexico, a lost cargo ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and a gaggle of religious zealots in India all singing the same five notes repeatedly. Meanwhile in Muncie, Indiana, family man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is out on a late night call to service some wonky power lines when he encounters a mysterious spacecraft. Not far away, single mom Jillian (Melinda Dillon) races to retrieve her three-year-old son Barry (Cary Guffey), who’s wandered off, beguiled by alien beings who visited his home. As these civilians and specialists try to make sense of the haunting visions and sounds plaguing their thoughts, the government is posed to cover this up, shielding the public from discovery.
On the whole, CLOSE remains one of Spielberg’s best works. Through the gifted modern lens of hindsight, you’ll be able to see how the auteur takes many bold risks – those surprisingly lacking from his current works. Not only is he able to mash together the grand scale of a sci-fi mystery with a government conspiracy and familial dramedy, but he also ups the gripping tension in daring ways. Visually, Roy’s initial visit with the spaceship is entrancing. You feel like you’re in the car. The chaos and anxieties of Roy’s world – set in a hectic soundscape of rambunctious kids, a concerned wife and the white noise of the TV set – seeps through the screen. This goes for scientists’ world too – made most evident in their makeshift office as they figure out the alien language. Overlapping dialogue feels like a nightmare for the editor, but also crucial for the narrative’s build towards peace.
It’s amazing how stakes are created without any convolution. Barry’s “cosmic kidnapping” sequence is layered filmmaking. It’s a lesson on how to build terror using simple tricks of the trade – mainly not showing “the creature” until absolutely necessary (a successful technique birthed on JAWS). It’s also terrifying, identifying with a mom whose child is ripped from her grasp. Even if you’re a kid watching, I’d imagine they’d be gob-smacked putting themselves in Barry’s position.
That’s not to say there are some missteps too. It’s just that we’re totally entertained we don’t give problematic areas much weight. There’s parts where the audience is ahead of the main characters – a conundrum some modern filmmakers continue to make emulating this film’s semi-unconventional structure (cough, cough. STRANGER THINGS). Roy makes a controversial choice at the end of the movie, one I personally don’t agree with and Spielberg himself has said he would do differently if he made the movie today.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s gorgeous cinematography coupled with John Williams’ iconic score solidify this as a cinematic experience. It’s one you simply must see in its best format – on the biggest screen possible. Better yet if it’s with a like-minded community searching for a renewal of faith in humanity and the power of cinema.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND 40th Anniversary Engagement opens on September 1.