Breakout success is often subsequently followed by bewildering failure. Look through any medium and you are sure to find the latent potential of a host of one-hit-wonders. Perhaps the pressure to perform was to great, or a fluke occurred granting them unforeseen fortune. Some are able to take advantage of a solid early foundation. Steven Spielberg was in the unique situation when he came out with this third feature film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Today we can say with certainty what the outcome was. At the time many wondered if Spielberg was truly a great director, or just another flash-in-the-pan. Spielberg proved his doubters wrong by making another culturally captivating tour de force of cinema. Over thirty-five years later Close Encounters of the Third Kind still stands as a technical marvel. It’s unorthodox structure makes it a difficult film to quantify. While Jaws was focused on building suspense ‘Close Encounters’ divulged into the mystifying beauty of discovery.
One carry over from Jaws is Richard Dreyfuss who plays Roy Neary an everyday man whose life is completely altered when he encounters a UFO. The film has numerous arcs all of which are centered around an increase of extraordinary activity. Whether it is a battalion of lost World War II aircraft randomly appearing in a dessert or illuminating aircraft lighting up the Indiana night sky, strange occurrences are increasing all over the world. This multi arc structured provided the film a grand scope of intrigue. Each baffling phenomenon provided more and more questions. Having the story occur across the globe gave insight into this universal mystery, though the constant barrage of storylines could be discombobulating for some viewers. It is hard to get a handle of where the main narrative lies with all these subplots. Instead of focusing the first act on an introduction to the characters it is introducing us to the idea of extraterrestrial life.
After the stage is set we start to get a better understanding of who these characters are. Dreyfuss works well as our main protagonist. Neary becomes infatuated with discovering more about what exactly he saw that night, and more importantly what it meant. Meaning is a big theme throughout this movie, like how the need for it can consume you to the point of a mental breakdown. Unlike many Spielberg films where being full of wonderment has no negative consequences Neary’s obsession breaks his life apart. His family leaves him as he turns his back on his past life for this one sheer purpose. Though their leaving is treated like happenstance. If anything his family is depicted like a barrier between Neary and finding purpose. Considerable time was devoted to developing Neary’s relationship with his family early on in the film so it was an odd choice to abandon it so quickly. Many of the subplots like Neary’s family are not fully explored. They are left lingering in the background with no place to go.
Once the film kicks into the final act the storyline does become streamlined, and many of the more vital story elements mesh together nicely. The buildup of enigmatic intricacy is paid of beautifully in one of the greatest climaxes in any Spielberg film. For a man who has filmed dinosaur attacks, World Wars, and futuristic battles it is quite a feat to say one of the most exciting moments he crafted involved flashing lights and a keyboard synthesizer. It is a moment of pure celebration of human nature’s inherit need to invest in something larger than itself. Spielberg is often blamed for simplifying the complexities of life. Treating moral quandaries with a black and white regard—never minding to divulge into the more compounded gray areas. Often he deserves that criticism, but his lack of cynicism here is completely warranted. Obviously we have no idea what it would look like if the human species came in direct contact with an alien species, but it is not outlandish to think it could resemble something similar to Close Encounters. Life and many of its principles would be forever change. Some may treat that moment with a reluctant panic, others would embrace the surreal knowledge of life outside our world like Spielberg.
On the other hand to give Spielberg all the credit would be doing disservice to many fine people who helped make this move such an impressive achievement. Douglas Trumbull who was the Special Effects Supervisors made some groundbreaking advancements with his use of motion control photography. The ability to keep the camera moving while these enormous spaceships roared onto the screen allowed the movie to immerse you into this breathtaking feat of moving making. Every special effect had physicality to its design. Nothing felt artificially produced or manufactured. Even to this day it is hard to comprehend just how they pulled it off. Modern computer graphics are still trying to catch up with what they perfected over thirty-five years ago. Clearly it was not only the work of the special effects department that made it such a gorgeous film. Pitch perfect sound design combined with magnificent cinematography help craft a fertile atmosphere of anthropological perplexity. With technical aptitude at such a high level Spielberg could pay off the ultimate form of bewilderment the narrative promised.
Also aiding Spielberg is another masterful score by John Williams. Personally of all the great Williams scores this goes down as my favorite. Picking the best Williams is like trying to pick the cutest puppy. No matter what your choice you are guaranteed to go home happy. The reason this score stands above the others for me is due to how intricate it is to the actual film. Unlike most films the score was created before the film was edited. After the score was made it was then edited to match the flow of the music. It is evident as the music is consistently the driving force. Whether it is a beautiful flowing melody or brooding harmony it exemplified everything that was on screen. Of all of Williams’s scores this is arguably the one that is most effective in augmenting the themes of the plot.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the follow-up Spielberg needed to lament his place among the Hollywood elite. Looking back in retrospect it is hard to understand just how impressive it is to make such elite films in such a short time span. Very few directors today have come close to such repeat success. Sure we have directors who can jump onto franchises to propel their careers, but the idea of constructing two pieces of high-class cinema from two completely different genres is unfathomable in today’s market. Close Encounters may not be as flawless as Jaws—due to some structural issues—it still remains a feat of movie making. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a technical masterpiece combined with the engulfing consequence of pure awe.