Many people would agree that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a straight-up masterpiece. That’s not some wild stretch. And yet, ask those same people what the best Steven Spielberg movies are and there’s a very good chance it barely makes the top five. (Seriously. I ran a poll to check this. It’s true.) To make a movie this incredible and it not automatically, without a doubt, be your best film is quite the achievement.
And yet, it’s Steven Spielberg so…duh. E.T., Jurassic Park, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the list goes on and on and on. As I sat down to rewatch Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time in probably five years (it’s now streaming on Amazon), I did so with that thought in mind. First, why is Close Encounters so good, and also, why do people, myself initially included, not consider it the best of the best? The answer starts with emotion.
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Spielberg’s movies are known for being emotional roller coasters. Some of those are adventures, some are thrillers, others are harrowing dramas. But all of them have huge spikes of emotion throughout. Close Encounters really doesn’t do that, it’s much more even-keeled. Throughout the film, when Spielberg (who both wrote and directed) hits the audience with a jolt of emotion, it’s not just shock and awe, he lets it play out over a longer period of time. For example, when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) first sees the alien ships flying across town, you really get to see them. It’s not just a quick reveal; they are there, on-screen, for much longer than they need to be. When they go away, it doesn’t take half the movie to see them again, they’re back just a few scenes later.
This level of consistency is seen throughout the film partially because never for a second is there a question if aliens exist. Another movie might tease that: “Are they real? Are they in his head?” Not Close Encounters. The only real question in the story is how do these characters, especially Roy, fit into the aliens’ plan. The film is not a traditional mystery — it’s not traditional at all. It’s about personal discovery, finding out what a person was meant for and how deeply they believe.
That’s also evidenced by the divisive ending of the film. When I first saw it decades ago I thought, “Wow, it’s pretty shitty that Roy leaves his family to go with the aliens.” That’s a fairly common conclusion thought among film fans. However, what I realised this time through is it’s not entirely accurate. By that point in the movie, Roy has already left his family. In fact, they left him. After seeing the spacecraft, Roy becomes obsessive about what turns out to be Devil’s Tower, and his wife Ronnie, played by Teri Garr, takes the kids and leaves. He even tries to get her back to no avail. He pushed her away, she left, and now he’s off on his own. All of this happens way before the end of the movie, and in the end he’s not really Roy the dad or husband any more.
Roy rejects a normal life because his close encounters have led him to believe in something bigger. That his purpose is greater than the things most people cherish. It’s not an easy concept to comprehend but in Spielberg’s hands, it’s somewhat digestible because Roy is our hero. We are rooting for him to achieve his dreams and become more than what he is, for his purpose to be tied into whatever else the aliens want, and in the end, that happens.
I jumped ahead there but it’s all part of the same argument. Close Encounters is simply untraditional compared to most other movies, including Spielberg movies. There aren’t many other movies from the director where the self is put ahead of the family. Here it works because the self is in service of a larger truth, and when a film is about more than something simple and understandable, even when nothing is happening, everything is happening. The most mundane pointless thing, like playing with mashed potatoes or driving across a field, gets turned into a wondrous occasion. The result is pure joy.
The easiest way to describe the emotion of the entire story is perhaps by tying it to other Spielberg movies. Close Encounters feels like the moment where Alan Grant first sees the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park stretched into two hours. It’s as if E.T. was solely scenes that show bikes flying across the moon. If Jaws was revealed in the first 10 minutes and we got to see him the entire movie, that’s Close Encounters.
Now, frankly, none of those ideas sound very good. There’s no drama there. No conflict. That’s basically the case with Close Encounters, too; the biggest traditional conflict in the film comes when Roy and Jillian (Melinda Dillon) go to the government-restricted section of Wyoming and have to break through all the security. Even the government characters aren’t evil, per se. They just know for a fact (as we do) that the aliens are coming to this spot, and they’re unsure of their intentions. So they lie about a virus and get everyone to leave. It’s not honorable but it’s not antagonistic. It’s careful. Cautious.
One might think all of those bets are off when the giant alien mothership comes down at the end. That hugely imposing, multicoloured sphere descending into the military base and ostensibly dueling pianos with the government became an iconic scene long ago. It’s technically the big climax of the movie, but Spielberg has done such a good job of setting all of this up, watching it feels more cathartic than surprising. We knew the aliens were coming. We knew they were friendly — now we finally get to see them.
The scene is both a culmination of the story as well as a payoff to the consistent tone and expectations the film has set up. It looks big and bombastic, but in execution is smooth and inevitable. When the scene is over and the ship slowly ascends to the heavens, the credits roll, and Spielberg has brought everything together. He’s made a melancholy, but inspiring, sci-fi masterpiece.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn’t a movie that can be wrapped up in a single snippet. Oh sure, there’s the shot with the boy in the door. The mothership. Roy and his potatoes. All of which are memorable — but none on their own wholly encapsulate the film, as single images from other Spielberg works can. This is a film you need to watch in its entirety to appreciate. To think about. To bask in. It fits more into the later, mature work of the director than his popular blockbusters — it just also happens to have aliens and spaceships, with a release date years before most of those other classics. So it makes sense that Close Encounters doesn’t get the same type of credit. But make no mistake, the film absolutely deserves it.
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