Weekend Retrospective - They're here...

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Recently revisiting the 'Berg's first venture into alien visitor stories, I found this is still a great release even if it's not one of my personal favourites from his filmography and I think that E.T. is the better movie and Jaws is a better character piece. The pros and cons are marginal though, and the final version keeps enough of the interesting character moments and thankfully avoids the unnecessary scenes added for the finale in the 1980 re-release. Looking at this era the genre would soon be in for a change, but I think it's still safe to consider it a pre-Skywalker film; after all they released around the same time and would have been in pre-production without any real kind of cross pollination. It's interesting that this is something of an anomaly for the period - this time alien life isn't out to kill a group of isolated people or invade the planet. I often wonder how Steven Spielberg's original version of War of the Worlds might have turned out in the '90s if Roland Emmerich hadn't beaten him to the punch, it's interesting to consider how malevolent he could have made a new, invasive batch of visitors.


"CE3K" as it's often contracted, is still really well done. My favourite scene has always been the first spaceship moment where the headlights in an approaching car pull up behind the lead character's truck only to go into the air and blast him with super hot light. It's a subtle, masterful touch which carries through to the rest of the movie, which has a lot more great moments. After all this is the one where Richard Dreyfuss loses his marbles and plays with his food - it's another pop culture smash (no pun intended). The nightmarish abduction sequence is another high point with it's hellish orange light and otherworldly weather effects. John Williams adds a lot to this as ever and gets a few good melodies in thanks to both the alien signal he devised and some quiet references to the Pinocchio 'wish upon a star' tune which was denied for official use in the end credits. I am pretty sure the mothership had seen Jaws too...

It also has a few great pieces of model wizardly from Doug Trumbull. Breaking away from the usual grey, sterile space vehicles, these are dazzling, multicoloured and very unsymmetrical objects. This extra touch adds to what is already a great thriller. The cast is incredibly naturalistic, and while a lot has been said of the young boy who gets taken from his mother, the other kids in the story seem to be doing improvised things in the background of some scenes that adds to this vibe; check out that piano player. You can hear one of them declaring that there's a "fly in my potatoes" off camera during that famous dinner scene, which was apparently left in after the crew thought it was so funny. These aren't exactly rounded characters but they do feel realistic a lot of the time.


The plot itself mostly works, although I have often said the apparent good nature of the visitors is a little puzzling, they come off as too sweet and benevolent by the end. But I feel that the vague hints at their motivation works... mostly in the film's favour. After all it's good to see a finale with some mystery left in it. Are the people who made it to the mountain the worthy ones, with more willpower or stronger minds? Is Ned ever going to be returned to make up with his family? I never noticed until now that they return a lot of military personnel but the government astronauts are left behind! Mechanical effects artist Carlo Rambaldi worked on the aliens here, and would go in to work with a certain mister Giger on another, altogether more sinister form of life which would bring the decade to a close with not so much a bang, more of a screeching, blood splattered mess...