Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes place primarily in familiar suburban United States where the response to alien contact is enmeshed in the mundane. Classic everyman Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy, a likable schlubby middle-class dad who spends his evenings working on an elaborate train model while his young kids climb all over him. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) is predictably harried in the role of the typical American housewife, beleaguered by the mundane nature of her existence. (Garr’s performance is the film’s salvation as her natural charm, humor, and, most importantly, relatability transform a stock character into an earthy vision of motherhood.) And though their marriage isn’t idyllic to begin with, it becomes particularly strained when Roy has a close encounter with some unusual flashing lights in the night sky
Roy is undeniably the center of Close Encounters, but there are other orbiting storylines that add to the mystery. There’s the government-led operation featuring French UFO researcher Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his de-facto translator (Bob Balaban). Together they traverse the globe, chasing inexplicable events (i.e.WWII planes in the middle of the desert, in perfect working order). Their visits to exotic locales with unusual cultures provide some light adventure and throw the tedium of Roy’s life into stark perspective. Either way, their research all adds up to aliens and the logical next step is a government cover-up operation. Conversely, a little blonde boy sends his single mom Jillian into a panic when he runs off after the lights in the cornfield and happily gets sucked up into a saucer. She ends up being Roy’s only ally, but while he looks to the glowing lights to escape his drab existence, she needs them to return her son and restore her life to normalcy. Together with Roy’s traditional All-American nuclear family, these two B-stories complete our perception of the nuclear world – simultaneously intrigued and terrified of the alien.
The mundane is the appeal here; you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appealing set-up. The world of Close Encounters continues the seduction with loving attention to detail. Houses are messy, people get weird tan-lines (moonburns in this case), no one is movie-star good-looking. Even the UFO fly-bys are represented initially by flashing lights in the night sky and referred to as flying saucers (that most culturally appropriated term of the extra-terrestrial). Was it just a helicopter or was it truly something extraordinary?
As Roy’s obsession grows, he develops unusual repetitive behavior. Making the same shape over and over with his shaving cream, his mashed potatoes, and eventually abandoning any pretense of normality, he is too distracted by his obsession and when his packs up to find some sanity elsewhere, he is to his own preoccupied devices to care. The mashed potato scene is a turning point for Roy and it also marks the moment our opinions of the film begin to differ. As Roy becomes more obsessed and the aliens take over from his family at the center of the film, each of us experience varying levels of satisfaction, frustration, and boredom. While this certainly says a lot about Spielberg’s successes and failures, it probably says more about each of us individually and what we are looking for from movies. The following is where we agree to disagree.
SARAH: Close Encounters belongs less to the sci-fi genre than it does to Spielberg. A movie ostensibly about aliens (or sharks or The Holocaust) is actually just an excuse to consider the traditional family unit and absentee fathers. The elements of adventure are weak, verging on racist, and the science of the aliens is left very vague. But the story of a man leaving his family in search of something more, well that’s the meat of the film.
When Roy gives up on living in the status quo, alienating his family by creating a scale model of the mountain in his mind where his trains used to be, this is when the film really hits its stride. A few times, Roy repeats the oddly resonant and existential refrain “this means something. this is important.” The problem is universal: what is it? Many people in suburbia, living cookie cutter lives struggle with wanting something else, looking for the undefinable More. In Roy’s case, when the ship and the creatures are finally revealed, the sight is breathtaking in its simple strangeness. It is the answer he is looking for. He is lucky, because for most people struggling with the sense that there is Something Important out there, they usually end up with nothing. For Roy, there is an answer that allows the ‘something else’ to be tangible. And yes, it happens to take the form of funny little green men arriving in a flying saucer, but so what. At least they can give him what he needs: an escape route to a more meaningful existence. It’s just too bad that part of the adventure takes place off screen.
JULIA: Thus the question becomes: how far does goodwill towards a recognizable world impact us in our final valuation of the film as a whole? Close Encounters is a film that enjoys a reputation as an entertaining mainstream film, a well-made family-friendly flick from a master of that very particular form. As a result, it’s one of those movies that you grow up on, a piece of work so suffused with childhood nostalgia that it often escapes analysis and rests on good vibes. If we wipe the fuzzy glow of yesteryear off the lens, what we have is a film that is just generally unfocused. It’s not sci-fi, it’s not an adventure, it’s not a family drama, though elements of each are present. Despite the big effects-laden set-pieces, it’s not a proper blockbuster. After the tight intrigue of the set-up, this genreless approach makes the narrative lose its course. After Roy loses his family to his extra-terrestrial obsession, he flounders for a minute, then takes the easy way out (of this world) as does the film. The last hour of the film discards any narrative threads with emotional impact in favor of getting the disparate groups of characters together for an overly-machinated, underwhelming climax. Spielberg, in his aspiring auteurship, has landed his ship in a mudbank.
But perhaps we’re dealing with a film that shouldn’t be judged truthfully. Nostalgia is powerful and essential. Close Encounters, while not quite at the same cultural saturation point as it’s successor E.T., is full of iconic moments that warm the cockles of many otherwise cold souls. Jumping into the dialog from an (admittedly cynical) adult perspective might not be useful, or fair. It’s for sure an uphill battle, and not one I recommend picking. There’s a huge cover-up operation underway.