Sunday, October 7, 2012

Close Encounters of a Heretical Kind

What can you say about a classic science fiction movie, one that’s so classic it’s become practically iconic.

Turner Classic Movies featured Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) last night. I’d seen it a few times before, when it first came out, when Spielberg issued the special edition three years later, and when it was on TV before. My wife Marcia had never seen it, although she had seen Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).

Film historian and TCM host Robert Osborne and Drew (“Alligators in the sewer” in E.T.) Barrymore were there to introduce the movie and comment on it afterwards, and they made some obvious points: that it told an intimately human story which wasn’t overwhelmed by the special effects (spectacular as they were), and that it showed the aliens as benevolent – nothing like the death-ray armed invaders of The War of the Worlds. True, sort of, as far as it goes, but how far does it really go?

From Wikipedia, we get this basic background:

Close Encounters was a long-cherished project for Spielberg. In late 1973, he developed a deal with Columbia Pictures for a science fiction film. Though Spielberg receives sole credit for the script, he was assisted by Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, all of whom contributed to the screenplay in varying degrees. The title is derived from ufologist J. Allen Hynek's classification of close encounters with aliens, in which the third kind denotes human observations of actual aliens or "animate beings." Douglas Trumbull served as the visual effects supervisor, while Carlo Rambaldi designed the aliens.

Spielberg had actually been obsessed with the idea since childhood; Wikipedia relates that he had made a film called Firelight as a teenager in 1964, and incorporated some of its scenes shot-for-shot into Close Encounters. He was clearly enchanted with UFO mythology, even though he was never a Believer, and that mythology is at the heart of his big screen version, which made it into the National Film Registry 30 years after it was a blockbuster hit.

You all know the basic story. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) works for the power company in Muncie, Indiana, when there’s a mysterious blackout associated with UFOs. He and other locals see them; the cops even give chase to them. Not only that, but the aliens terrorize a single mother, Jillian Guller, in her home – and make off with her four-year old son Barry. Meanwhile, we have already learned that a French scientist, Claude Lacombe (Fran├žois Truffaut) has been investigating mysteries like the return of World War II-era planes that had vanished with their pilots, and a musical phrase shouted from the sky to a crowd in India. Lacombe persuades the U.S. government to broadcast those notes into space, and the aliens respond with the latitude and longitude for the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Roy and others in Muncie become obsessed with drawing or modeling the Devil’s Tower, and when the government orders the area around the landmark cleared on the basis of an imaginary nerve gas link, Roy and a few others see the Devil’s Tower on TV and realize that they have been Summoned. Roy and Jillian make it to the site (though Roy seems to get there in record time by car and we never learn how Jillian manages it) where the alien Mother Ship is scheduled to touch down. The aliens return Barry, and all those missing pilots from decades-past abductions, who haven’t aged at all. And Roy gets to join the pilgrims the government has recruited for a journey to the alien homeworld.

None of this hangs together.

In the first place, those “benevolent” aliens start by playing what can be called, in the most charitable terms, a series of malicious practical jokes. They don’t make an open landing and open appeal to humanity, as Klaatu did when he landed his flying saucer in Washington, D.C., in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950). While Klaatu was a nice guy, his basic message was, “Support peace or we’ll kill you.” But what’s the basic message of the aliens in Close Encounters – “We want to get acquainted?” How does throwing  scares into people and even abducting them square with that? Yeah, Jillian does get her son back (miraculously not traumatized by his abduction) – but what about all those pilots, who were torn from their loved ones, from the world they held dear and everyone they knew there? And just what’s the aliens’ game now – they’re dealing officially with the government, but first they were planting dreams about the Devil’s Tower in people who have encountered their scout craft, disrupting the lives of those people without giving them any help in reaching the landing site in Wyoming.

Osborne and Barrymore conceded that Roy’s wife Veronica and their children disappear from the screen after they leave the Neary home to live with Ronnie’s sister (Roy is really crazy now, modeling a huge Devil’s Tower in their living room.). They just aren’t part of the “human” story any more. We aren’t supposed to care what happens to them. Roy’s already lost his job, and Ronnie doesn’t have one – not likely to get one, either; this is 1977, and she was a stay-at-home mom. Well, she’s got excellent grounds for divorce (desertion), but are the aliens going to have Roy send alimony and child support? Does Roy even give a shit about that? He’s involved in what may be a budding romance with Jillian, but at the end he doesn’t give a shit about that, either. And there’s no rational reason for adding Roy, who’s had no preparation or special qualifications, to the group of pilgrims at the very last minute.

There are all sorts of other anomalies. Like, the first full communication with the aliens involves the Mother Ship at the end – there wasn’t any conversation before that about the logistics of the meeting, or protocol for choosing the pilgrims? And what was that religious rigmarole for the pilgrims at the end? Is the tall thin alien an adult and the rest children, or are they really different species? When they interfere with electricity and electrical appliances in Muncie, they also get non-electric things like mailboxes to jump about – how does that compute? And what purpose does the little red dot that follows the scout craft serve, besides just looking cute? Was there any reason to cast Truffaut, other than to look cool by having a famous French film director on board? Translation in his scenes slows up the story. And is he really running things in Wyoming, as he leads Roy to believe? If not, who is? And after all the effort to keep them away, nobody even appears to be startled when he and Jillian join the crowd awaiting the mother ship.

Spielberg was doubtless trying to be true to UFO mythology, and to childhood fantasies of alien contact. One could defend Close Encounters as being metaphorical or as an exercise in surrealism – two popular dodges in cultural criticism. Wikipedia also cites heavy Judeo-Christian symbolism. But symbolism alone can’t carry what is put before the public as a realistic but fantastic story. Science fiction writers do this kind of thing all the time, but they know something Spielberg doesn’t get, or at least didn’t in 1977: when you set up a fantastic situation, you have to think things through, you have to give your sf scenario an internal logic.

While Close Encounters may still be a classic as purely a visual spectacle and an exercise in suspense, and for a stellar performance by Dreyfus, it isn’t any better as an sf film than klutzy efforts like J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek. In a more pretentiously blatant example James Cameron, whose name is almost as big as Spielberg’s, showed in Avatar that he simply doesn’t understand that terrific special effects and an Uplifting Message should be part of a story that actually makes sense. 

Thanks to Marcia for raising new points and commenting on others for this post!

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