While trying to decide which movie to go with next, I looked at my list and tried to juggle between Cheesy Action Sci Fi and Depressing, Dystopian Sci Fi. I ended up with Classic, Idealistic Sci Fi with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I kind of liked it. And I kind of didn’t.
A number of people (including Richard Dreyfuss) see mysterious objects and lights in the sky. While the government refuses to publicly acknowledge the existence of U.F.O.’s, Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) becomes obsessed with his close encounter and teams up with Jillian (Melinda Dillon) to figure out what’s really going on. Also, Francois Truffaut pops up to speak a lot of French.
1. I asked my friends on Facebook whether I should watch the original, special edition, or director’s cut of this film. Most people said the director’s cut, advice which I promptly ignored in favor of the original. I really did intend to go with the prevailing opinion when I asked, but the more I thought about it, the more I remembered how frustrated I usually become with special editions and director’s cuts. The one that probably annoys me the most?
I figure, I’d rather watch the theatrical version of a movie and then decide on my own if it feels incomplete. At some point, I might try out the director’s cut—but I’d rather start with what everyone else started with.
2. So, the original version of Close Encounters: one of the problems I had right from the get-go was all the damn noise. Especially in the beginning, you have people talking over each other, radio voices on top of other radio voices, foreign languages, trucks, static . . . this might just be my own issue, but I sometimes have a hard time discerning the dialogue in scenes like that, which means I kind of miss important exposition. It’s sort of like when I watch foreign language films; the first ten minutes are the hardest for me because I’m still trying to adjust to reading the subtitles and watching the picture at the same time. After the first ten minutes, I’m usually fine, but it’s really nice when those ten minutes aren’t dialogue-heavy. (So, thanks for nothing, Amelie.)
It wasn’t quite so hard later on, but I found it difficult to follow what was happening in the first twenty-five minutes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t paying attention. Although . . .
3. Parts of the movie are a little slow. I don’t think I really even got remotely interested in the story until at least, at least, an hour had gone by. It’s not coma-inducing or anything, but I do have some problems with the pacing in the first half of the film. In general, I think the parts that focus more on what the government is doing—and Truffaut, who seems like such a random, underdeveloped character—just don’t interest me as much as watching Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillion running around. And I barely even like their characters.
4. On the upside, I think Dreyfuss is really good as Roy Neary. He doesn’t hold back from Crazytown Face.
Dreyfuss makes for a really interesting study of a normal guy whose whole world is turned upside down by this one experience he’s had. He’s obsessive; he can’t let go until he knows what’s really going on and what’s happened to him. I’ll talk a little more about him in the Spoiler Section, but Dreyfuss is easily one of the better things about this movie. I’m glad he lobbied for the role as hard as he did.
5. On the other hand, Melinda Dillon . . . I didn’t really love Melinda Dillon as Jillian at all. Part of it’s the character, I suppose, but a lot of it’s the delivery. Let me explain:
Jillian is a single mother to her little boy, Barry. Barry’s about four, I guess? I actually thought he was younger when I was watching the film, but sure, let’s say four. More importantly, Barry has developed a very bad habit over the few years he’s been alive: he’s very fond of running around like a little, adorable monkey and getting into trouble. And by trouble, I mean he likes to run out of the house in the middle of the night, gallop through the woods, and try to get run over by trucks in the middle of the road. Barry might be one of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t keep him from being a handful.
Yes, you. I’m not usually a big advocate of putting literal leashes on children, but for you, I might just make the exception.
Anyway, I know it’s considered bad form to criticize other people’s parenting, particularly when you don’t have kids yourself, but I’d like to think that if I saw my child running out of the house and into the woods in the middle of the night, my reaction might not be to yell, “Bare-reeee!” in a long, wheedling manner, as if this child’s gallivanting is merely getting in the way of my fucking midnight soap opera. And when I’m running after him in the woods, there will be none of this lightly jogging bullshit. I will be sprinting after him, preferably catching him before he gets nearly creamed by a truck in the middle of the road. Seriously, lady. Move your ass. (Amusingly, she repeats this sentiment to another character later in the film, and it is easily her best line in the whole movie.)
I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that Jillian’s a bad mom. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her . . . which I do, sorta, even after she (spoiler) saves her kid from getting hit by a car, only to proceed to hold and scold in the middle of the same godamned road . . . but I never really feel Jillian’s terror like I’m supposed to. Again, more on this in the spoiler section, but I just didn’t find her very convincing as a mother in distress at all.
Which, of course, is why my jaw dropped to the desk when I saw that she got a Best Supporting Actress nod for the part. (Thankfully, my co-workers pay no attention to me.)
I mean, really? I’m not saying she’s a bad actress, honest; I just don’t think she was very good here. What, was this a lousy year for women in film or something? Were there very limited choices? In no way do I think Dillon deserved an Oscar nod for the role of Jillian. This role, however?
I’d have had no problem with her scoring a nod for this role.
6. While we’re clearly supposed to have sympathy for Jillian, I don’t think we’re supposed to have any for Dreyfuss’s wife, Ronnie, who’s sort of portrayed as a trashy, lazy shrew (particularly when Dreyfuss gets fired, and she’s bitching about the fact that she won’t get a job, like, that’s swell, lady, thanks for your contribution to the woman’s equal opportunity movement). Still, I think making her a quasi-villain is a little cheap, and I’ll discuss that more in the spoiler section as well.
7. Close Encounters is one of many films that has a Helpful News Broadcast. You know the kind. It’s the type of news segment that, one, gives exposition to the clueless audience or, two, gives that vital piece of information to the character who sorely needs to know it. (In this case, it’s also a great, “Look behind you, Jamie” moment. Ooh, another list to make.)
I don’t really mind the cliche—I mean, sometimes, you just gotta have them—but I just figured I’d throw this out there: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a news broadcast that’s ever been particularly relevant to the exact current circumstances of my life. Ever.
Although, now that I’ve typed that, it probably means that my neighbors are watching a breaking news clip warning people about an escaped mental patient heading our way, while I’m just sitting here being snarky. Oh, the price of sarcasm.
8. One of my favorite bits of dialogue:
“I wanna speak to the man in charge.”
“Mr. Lancombe is the highest authority.”
“He isn’t even American.”
Heh. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about our cultural perception, doesn’t it?
9. Also, apropos of nothing, but in this film, Richard Dreyfuss can’t drive for shit. Seriously. He’s reading a fucking map while driving. I don’t just mean glancing down at a little map on his passenger side seat occasionally; I mean, reading a huge ass map that covers up his whole windshield while driving. Roy Neary, you are kind of a fuck up.
10. Finally, I feel a little sorry for people who believe in Big Foot. I mean, even conspiracy theorists who think that Stephen King assassinated John Lennon (true story, saw it on the side of a van once) probably look at Big Foot Enthusiasts and think, What a bunch of fucking nutters. Having the Big Foot Expert back you up can have absolutely no positive effect on your credibility whatsoever.
Everything else I want to talk about—and there is quite a bit—has to go below the spoiler line. Which is unfortunate, since a lot of the positive things I have to say (as well as some more negative things) are spoilerific. Close Encounters is definitely one of those “neat idea, not crazy about the execution” kind of movies for me.
Want more details on that? Continue below.
Okay, so first the alien light snatches up little Barry and disappears, leaving a shell-shocked Jillian. (Well. She’s shell-shocked for a scene. Then she just seems to get over it. That can’t be put entirely on Melinda Dillon, though. I blame the writers more for that one . . . and for letting Barry crawl out of Jillian’s arms in the first place and out the doggie door. I mean, seriously? Have we not established that this kid would probably wander happily off a cliff if someone wasn’t watching him every second? Hold on to your child, woman!)
Anyway, Dreyfuss isn’t having a great time at home, either. He’s obsessed with this shape that he keeps seeing everywhere (and I mean, everywhere; even his mashed potatoes are not immune, like, is nothing sacred anymore) and after a truly excellent freakout where he decides to shovel their front yard into their kitchen window, Ronnie has had enough and she takes her kids and gets the hell out of there. And, frankly, as she should. There’s supporting your husband, and there’s keeping your children around an unstable father. The fact that she’s a total shrew does not negate the fact that she shows more parental responsibility in this scene than he does in the entire film, including the ending (we’ll get to that).
Anyway, so Dreyfuss makes a mud sculpture of the shape that he’s been seeing in his head, which just happens to be Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. And I know these were the days before Google and all, Dreyfuss, but what you’re seeing is clearly some kind of mountain or rock formation, so why you don’t try going to the library and opening a freaking atlas or something? I mean, it’s just a thought. But does Neary do this? No. Instead, he only finds out about Devil’s Tower after watching the Helpful News Broadcast on TV. And perhaps this is a touch unfair, since I’d already heard of Devil’s Tower long before I saw this movie, but when Dreyfuss sees the thing with his own eyes, he’s all like, “It’s real!” and I’m like, “Of course it’s real! It’s a fucking national monument, you asshat!”
On the positive side, I do like that all of these people are being drawn to the same place with the same vision haunting them all. Mass clairvoyance is interesting. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a little more time on that aspect of the story, actually.
Anyway, so Dreyfuss ignores the government’s bogus story about toxic whatever around Devil’s Tower, meets up with Jillian, and tries to figure out what the hell is going. They’re eventually taken by the government, where he finally meets Truffaut, but he and Jillian quickly escape again. (There’s another dude there, too, but he’s totally not important.) When they hike up the monolith, they see that the government has cleared out a space to make contact with the aliens, and when I say contact, I mean they play a keyboard and show off their awesome Lite Brite skills. The aliens play music back at us, and for at least seven minutes it’s like the largest scale version of Simon Says, ever.
Dreyfuss gets his ass back down there, while Jillian hesitates for reasons that are frankly too dumb to bother writing down. Eventually, though, they’re both back on level ground with everyone else after the Big Flying Saucer has landed. When the Big Flying Saucer opens, a shitload of people start walking out of it—mostly soldiers (who they referred to in the beginning of the movie) from the 1940’s. They haven’t aged a day. Barry also comes running out, seemingly no worse for wear, and Jillian scoops him up. (I’ll admit, their reunion scene is kind of nice. She isn’t letting go of that kid now, I can tell you.)
Dreyfuss quickly joins a group of people hoping to board the spaceship, and the aliens personally select him to hop aboard and fly off into the end credits. Thus, Close Encounters of The Third Kind ends.
Leaving me with even more thoughts:
1. On one hand, it’s sort of a refreshing change of pace to see the “nice military” for once because in Close Encounters, the military is apparently run by a bunch of music-loving hippies. They don’t greet the aliens with a bunch of guns, after all; they greet them with some shiny colors and some pretty music. (Also, sunglasses; almost every single person in this scene is wearing them. Are those standard issue? Best reason to join the military, ever.)
The hippie military is a departure from most “good alien” movies out there, and frankly not what I was expecting to see when I started the film. Not that I knew much about the movie going in—a truck has a seizure; aliens are somehow involved—but I had this vague idea that Close Encounters might be another “Humans, don’t be such giant douchebags” film, like the new, “improved” The Abyss or the original The Day The Earth Stood Still.
On the other hand, while, cinematically, this is an interesting turn of events . . . I think I’d actually prefer it if the military had at least a couple of guns nearby for the day that aliens actually make contact. Because, honestly . . .
2. . . . these aliens abduct people. Yeah, yeah, they return them in good condition and all that, but this doesn’t negate the fact that they still abduct people. The pilots that went missing in the 1940’s . . . you don’t think that maybe they had wives that missed them, or mothers, or brothers, or fathers, or children that might have grieved for them for, oh, the last thirty fucking years? How well do you think they’re going to adjust to a world that’s completely and utterly foreign to them?
And what about little, adorable Barry? Sure, he’s only been gone for a few days, but it’s generally considered bad form to kidnap small children, even if you give them back afterward. I’m pretty sure we still shake our heads at that kind of behavior (and, you know, arrest the abductors).
For that matter, why was Barry, or anybody else for that matter, abducted? Does the movie ever explain this in some scene of exposition that I had trouble hearing? Honestly, if this was explained, I sure missed it. Even if there was some noble reason given during the film, should we really trust it with absolutely no questions asked? Seriously, we’re not even going to quarantine these guys that have been flying around on a spaceship for thirty years, I mean, not even for a couple of hours to do some basic tests, like, are you an evil clone or a cylon or possibly infected with some alien disease that’s going to be the end of the human race? And then we’re just going to send some more of our people onto their space ship, like this is some bizarre foreign exchange program in a country that’s known for occasionally kidnapping toddlers for the weekend? WTF?
The other thing that I find interesting about this ending is that Dreyfuss takes off with the aliens on the spaceship while Jillian stays on Earth with her son. I like that, for Dreyfuss, it’s all about figuring out what’s going on, understanding the mystery, learning everything he can, while for Jillian, it’s just about getting her son back and that’s it. (It would be more awesome if I found Jillian to be a convincing mother, but I’ve already bitched about that. Moving on.)
That being said, Dreyfuss has his own kids here on Earth. Sure, he’s not a single parent, and his children aren’t as cute as Barry is, but is that really justification for abandoning them? He doesn’t even seem to give them a second thought before he hops on the spaceship for God knows how long—I mean, this could be a quick joyride around the galaxy, or he, too could be gone for thirty years, and I, for one, was certainly under the impression that he wouldn’t be back for awhile, if ever. I’m not saying Dreyfuss is a horrible person or father in this movie necessarily, just that the issue almost isn’t even dealt with, like he has nothing left to live for down here. And I would argue that. I get that he lost his job, but he can also get a new job. I get that he and his wife are probably getting a divorce, but he can just move in with Jillian (cause that’s so what would happen if he stayed) and if he stops throwing the neighbor’s fence through his kitchen window, he can probably still see his own children, have them for weekends and afternoons and whatnot. (And if he gets that job, maybe full custody, since we already know what shrew-wife thinks about working. The horror.)
I’m just saying, Neary’s our protagonist, but I’m not exactly sold on him being the everyman hero that I think we’re supposed to take him for.
I like a lot of the ideas in this film, and I certainly like the last thirty minutes—you’re waiting pretty much the whole movie to get to those last thirty minutes. Even in 2011, that giant UFO landing is kind of a moment. I like Richard Dreyfuss’s performance—especially in his crazy scenes—and I like that the movie wasn’t overtly preachy, just idealistic. That being said, I do think the movie’s a little unbalanced. It’s slow in parts, and I think there should be more time spent on character development. I’m also just not crazy about Jillian, and I think her character (and the acting behind it) could have been a lot of stronger.
Harmonious, intergalactic friendships are possible. Such is the power of music.
Also, hold on to your freaking child.