Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

I finally got around to seeing “Close Encounters,” one of several Spielberg films I have overlooked over the years. I was surprised by how dated it felt. It is an inescapable product of its time. I would say that the two things that stand out as being transcendently great, even by today’s standards are the visual effects (even more amazing considering the technology, or maybe that is why they look so good?) and the soundtrack. It is some of Williams’ best stuff.

But two things really stood out to me as shortcomings:

First of all, the whole theme of the film feels naïve and a step backwards from Jaws a few years earlier. Both films deal a lot with the subject of truth and belief. In Jaws, a man believes there is a great danger to his community and has to stand alone in that belief—even in the face of ridicule and personal sacrifice. Reality is often only seen by those willing to believe. Here in Encounters, there is no real conflict to the truth. Sure many people including Neary’s wife think that he is crazy, and he too loses his job, but it doesn’t feel the same. Encounter after encounter is documented by the film, and the scientific community and the government are all in on the truth here. We don’t see many people who, confronted with the truth, refuse to accept.

Then there is the even more surprising aspect considering this is a Spielberg film. Neary is the worst of absentee fathers. We never see him really interact with his kids. He has his own obsessions, even before he begins to chase his alien visions. And, in the end he leaves the planet with no thought to his children. Not even a mention let alone a struggle. We are used to seeing this abandonment in Spielberg’s stories, but usually from the perspective of the children wondering why. Here we get more of a defense of dead-beat dads, but a lousy one.

Overall this isn’t the bottom of the pack of Spielberg movies (like “Hook” and “1941”), but it is down amongst the merely passable ones.

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