Steven Spielberg is, according to Watson, is the greatest director of all time. My own tastes suggest I’m more inclined towards the work of Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese, but there is something to Watson’s claim. It is a very legitimate idea that Spielberg is, if not the greatest director of all time, then at least the greatest living director working in the English language (for all I know, some German guy out there is better). As such, it makes sense that Spielberg would be represented multiple times on the AFI list (as will Scorsese and Kubrick).
Our first look at Spielberg’s work, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is a movie that is both classic Spielberg and yet, the least Spielbergian due to one crucial detail.
What makes this a Spielberg film? Well, it’s about the spectacle, the sense of awe and wonder that there’s a big world out there, and the main characters (or sometimes the audience) are only just encountering it for the first time. That could be E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Ready Player One. All of these films seem to posit a world where a man or woman sees how small he or she is while dealing with something beyond them, and the response, whether it is ultimately terror or glee, shows these characters dealing with whatever it is they are dealing with. Close Encounters of the Third Kind shows that on both the micro and macro level. On one level, the arrival of friendly aliens on Earth is dealt with globally as weird stuff happens around the world. Long lost American military aircraft appear in a Mexican desert without showing a sign of aging as expected since they were lost for decades. Crowds see mysterious lights. Airplanes report colorfully lighted things buzzing them as they attempt to land. The power goes out and the skies above the earth glow at night in colors they probably shouldn’t even during the day.
On the micro level, this is the story of how electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) deals with learning we aren’t alone in the universe. Out looking into a mysterious power outage one night, he’s struck by a bright light that rocks his truck around and gives his face a sunburn on one side. And from there, Roy is utterly fascinated by all things alien. It ruins his marriage and makes him look insane, but he’s fascinated by what he experienced and compelled to build monoliths out of whatever material is at hand because somehow a message was transmitted to him.
Roy’s situation for this film shows a world that may be a little nervous about impending alien visitation, but not hostile. No one seems inclined to consider the aliens a threat. Some of their actions are scary, but mostly due to a lack of knowledge of what they are rather than because the aliens are looking to hurt people. The world seems largely amazed by the prospect of alien life coming to Earth with the closest there is to hostility coming from Roy’s wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). Does she hate or fear the aliens? Not really. She wants her life to go back to normal when her husband wasn’t making sculptures out of his mashed potatoes or clumping dirt through the house. When she takes the kids and leaves him, Roy seems barely perturbed once she pulls out of their driveway.
And that’s why Spielberg made his least Spielbergian movie. The man is known for being family friendly if not in content, than at least in story. Family matters to Spielberg’s heroes except for Roy. Granted, Ronnie doesn’t support him and his kids are rather bratty, but that doesn’t change the fact that Roy is essentially a deadbeat dad at the end of the film for going away in the mothership, a decision Spielberg has said he wouldn’t make today and both he and Dreyfuss agree that should they ever revisit that character, he would have to be the villain for abandoning his kids.
Which makes it especially odd as this is a movie without any real villains. Even the government isn’t necessarily evil in trying to cover up the alien visitation site. They want control, and the military men who order a knock-out gas attack clearly regret doing so. Heck, when Roy somehow manages to get through, there’s a general shrug and they not only let him stay, they offer him a chance to travel with the beings from beyond the stars as part of a delegation for some sort of other worldly cultural exchange. As the operation is international, the government response is largely symbolized by a French scientist (Francois Truffaut, a man more known for his work as a director than as an actor) and his map-making translator (Bob Balaban). These men share the awe of the alien visit as much as Roy does. The only real difference is, through that odd sunburn, Roy was actually invited to see the aliens. The government just more or less showed up.
On a final note, Spielberg (who also got the writing credit for this movie) worked again with frequent collaborator John Williams on the musical score. The biggest difference here is given the nature of how the aliens communicate with humanity, Williams’ musical score is actually instrumental (no pun intended) to the plot. Whatever language the aliens speak, they choose music to communicate with humanity, leading to a concert conversation between some humans playing an electronic keyboard and a mothership that seems to run on tuba power. Does the conversation make sense? No, but it’s still friendly.
And there is a part of me tickled just a little bit when the aliens deposit all the people they’ve apparently been picking up for thirty or so years and you can clearly see a dog come down the ramp.
It’s hard to say much about any Spielberg movie without feeling like it’s been said many times over and far better than I ever shall, so I think I’ll just say that we have hear one of the director’s first truly great films, and perhaps the one that proved his earlier work wasn’t just some popcorn movie flukes. He had real talent, and he was going to be a force in Hollywood for years to come.
NEXT UP: How about a nice Western? Let’s go look at 1939’s Stagecoach.