Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The fortieth anniversary has arrived for my favorite film, and I am thrilled to see it in a theater again.  And not just any theater — a new Dolby-equipped auditorium with vibrating sound (just like Sensurround, if one can recall 1970s opuses Earthquake, Midway and Rollercoaster) and crystal clear picture (which does not seem to benefit a grainy film forty years old).  Still, it looks and sounds phenomenal, and it is wonderful to see it onscreen again.

Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza — which he insists during the terrific ten-minute anniversary prologue, is only a science-fiction film if one doesn’t believe in aliens at all — remains his most auteuristic work.  Fresh off the mega-success of Jaws, Spielberg was able to write and craft his story about our first meeting with otherworldly beings in his own way.  It is also the first film he felt necessary to update, re-edited for the inferior “Special Edition” in 1980, and expanded for its initial television showing in 1982 (which is the finest version, in my opinion).  This 40th anniversary is a reissue of the original 1977 version, plus the prologue.

It has a rather clunky beginning which, taken with other seemingly out-of-place sequences, are meant to pay off at the ending — but by then the sheer spectacle overshadows the mysteries of the old planes and ships that suddenly appear out of nowhere.  At 137 minutes it feels like it could be trimmed here and there — and Spielberg agreed, but the cuts that he agreed to in 1980 for the “Special Edition” chopped the guts right out of Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss’) obsession.  And the film’s greatest strength, at least to me, is how well it conveys Neary’s desperation as the implanted vision slowly drives him mad.  I cannot think of another movie that captures someone’s involuntary compulsion better than this one, ever.

The vast majority of science-fiction films which employ aliens use them as plot devices to frighten us out of our wits.  If it is different it must be scary, the thinking goes.  And Spielberg’s aliens are scary, especially when they are kidnapping young Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey).  We never really understand them, or their motives, in taking from us or returning to us.  But Spielberg’s aliens are not malevolent, and the exchange that occurs during our first arranged meeting with them reinforces his latent optimism that we can all get along.  Just five years later he would expound on this theme with his biggest hit, E. T. — The Extra-Terrestrial.

And then there is the spectacle.  Months of post-production work with models and colored lights and mattes convince audiences that aliens are indeed visiting America’s heartland.  The climactic sequence at Devil’s Tower is show-stopping — if a bit slow.  Yet beneath all the spectacle and the governmental cover-up and the rejection of ordinary suburban life lies the struggle of one soul as he begs to stop what is plaguing him and simply understand.  Watching the movie I once again empathized with him and wished that I could experience something so dramatic, so staggeringly life-changing and hopeful.  I love this movie.  ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆.  6 September 2017.

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