Wishing on a Starship
Eric Hynes on Close Encounters of the Third Kind

For a filmmaker best known for grand gestures—bringing dinosaurs back to life, orchestrating a bicycle ride across the moon, exhuming Kubrick, monumentalizing D-Day, the Holocaust, and the slave trade, even making the hair on Robin Williams’s back disappear—Steven Spielberg might be at his best when illuminating errant details. A dedicated symbolist, he can’t help but bestow import on whatever he captures (the more obvious his object, the more blunt the effect, whether it’s an American flag, a dark face, or a red coat in a black-and-white world.) His cinema telescopes and microscopes, making big what’s small, and near what’s far, and always making you feel—both physically and emotionally—the ingenious contraption at work. Rarely has his marriage of form and feeling worked as fluidly and guilelessly as it did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film of colossal ambition that plays as intimate, of heart-thumping sensations that register as cosmic, of wondrous spectacle that in the end just sings.

Coming just two year’s after the director’s own Jaws jump-started the blockbuster era, and a mere six months after Star Wars raised the bar, Close Encounters still exceeded all expectations, raking in over $300 million and furthering the culture’s science-fiction craze. Yet even with its big budget and mass-cult appeal, it still managed to feel like a film of the American maverick era, with one foot in the future, and the other in the dusty, post-hippie, faux-wood-on-a-station-wagon present. While Lucas blasted us into a galaxy far, far away, Spielberg brought the galaxy home, shining its brilliance right through the kitchen door. A large thanks for this belongs to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance), who won an Oscar for visualizing a world in which spaceships and bellbottoms share the frame. He films a cluttered suburban living room with the same sensuousness as the Gobi Desert, a little boy with the same majesty as he does unlikely costar François Truffaut. The blockbuster era was at hand, but so was a global recession, so were fresh memories of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Forget the special effects: Spielberg’s most impressive trick was producing a seventies-set drama so devoid of cynicism.

It’s the small things you notice first. A blip on the radar screen; a toy robot buzzing to life; lights in the rearview; Johnny Mathis spookily summoned on the turntable; a little boy’s frown turned upside down by an off-screen marvel. These initial signs of alien life are negligible phenomenon, but they register as profound. And since they take place in private spaces—in the home, in the car—they also feel personal. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary acquires an asymmetrically sunburned face from his first unidentified encounter, it’s more than proof of alien life—he’s been tangibly altered. Vital to the construction of the larger story, the sunburn detail is even more crucial to the development of the personal one. Whereas his wife wants to cover up or explain the burn away, Roy wears it like a badge. After all, the phenomenon happened to him.

Roy struggles to make sense of what he’s seen, and with the fact that he has no control over how he’s changed. He’s lost his job, alienated his wife, and spooked his kids, yet he can’t bring himself to care about any of it—not since the universe slipped in through the car window. While the film’s protracted middle section is its most forgettable, here Spielberg’s at least striving to ground his fantasy in everyday life (something he’d nail in E.T. ). Essential as these scenes are, Dreyfuss and Teri Garr chew more scenery than they should (watching a Cassavetian domestic meltdown in the middle of a science fiction flick isn’t as fun as it sounds), and a lot of screen time is burned without a whole lot of character development (we get it: he’s obsessed, and she’s had it up to here). Spielberg also gets a little too cute with the Devil’s Tower compulsion, belaboring Roy’s unconscious noodling, drawing, sculpting and construction of flat top mountains before he finally notices that his inspiration is right there on the TV! Then it’s a cross-country scamper to Wyoming with fellow traveler Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon, who’s marvelous but underexploited emotionally, especially since she plays the mom of a toddler who’s been abducted by aliens), a sit-down with fellow wide-eyed obsessive, the French scientist Claude Lacombe (Truffaut), and finally the mounting of the Tower. But the Tower is merely a location, not the destination. Not exactly a red herring, the land mass is more like a knowable entity in the midst of the unknowable, a tangible goal as the unfathomable waits right around the corner.

Yet outside of three year-old Barry’s chillingly voluntary abduction, there are scarcely any frights in the film. That the aliens are friendly and not to be feared is hardly even questioned. There’s no panic, no warmongering militants awaiting their arrival. Not quite suspense, the tone is more of childish anticipation. What’s behind that curtain? Unlike contemporary films in its thrall, such as Cloverfield and Super 8, Close Encounters doesn’t stake it all on a delayed reveal. We know that UFOs have touched ground—quadruple headlights rubberneck Neary’s jeep just 20 minutes into the film, and a fleet of them come tearing round the mountain, bright and clear, mere five minutes later—leaving us to wonder what else we’ll be shown. (Jurassic Park doesn’t hold back either, giving us grazing dinosaurs at around the same mark; Jaws, on the other hand, is a classic monster-movie tease.) Rather than pin things on a big bang boo!, the film unfurls a series of legitimate revelations. You’re not made to feel relieved when the colossal mothership arrives, but spoiled. Especially in that last act, the wonders never cease.

Roy claims he just wants an answer to what’s overtaken him, and what emerges from the skies well exceeds what he could have ever imagined. First, UFOs land in Moorcroft, Wyoming, desert home of the Devil’s Tower land formation, flashing their lights and tooting their horns. After the spaceships zoom away, a team of white-coated technicians burst into applause and cheers; this is already the greatest day in their professional lives, if not the most important day in recordable human history. But wait, there’s more: a mothership so massive it dwarfs the Devil’s Tower, decorated with so many colored lights that it appears to be its own mobile solar system, somersaults out of the sky and hovers before the gathered group. But wait, there’s even more: baffled World War II fighter pilots debark from the ship, followed by civilians from various eras, none having aged since the date of their abduction. But wait, there’s still more: supercute aliens emerge, swarm around an orange jump-suited Dreyfuss, wave to the director of Fahrenheit 451, and smile. The scene is like Oprah giveaway day for anyone interested in movies, wonder or the Other. It unfolds in real time, lasts an outrageous 30 minutes, and never stops exceeding expectations. It’s an endless catharsis, a rolling orgasm, unhurried, exhilarating, and conflict-free.

Amidst all this, there is one element that unites the big with the small, friends with strangers, the filmmaker with his audience: music. The film is fascinated with abstract sound as communication, from Barry giggling out purposeful but largely impenetrable baby talk, to Lacombe vacillating between his translator and broken English, neither keeping pace with his racing brain. How to articulate the unutterable, particularly when encountered by an intergalactic species? Make notes, construct a melody, sing out. Aliens float a five-note phrase, and humans parrot it back. Out in the Wyoming desert, an alien mothership makes like a tuba, and we respond with a synthesized clarinet. Something like music, something like communication, it’s definitely a start (and in a film otherwise premised on wild scientific speculation, this might be its most plausible idea). “What are we saying to each other?” a technician asks. “Seems they're trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,” is the response, followed by a killer kicker: “It's the first day of school, fellas.” The stars may be out, but this here’s the dawn. The sequence glows with optimism, with images of uncertainty and promise—observers step back and then forward, the mothership’s footlights blind and then entice—but none can match the singing brightness of that simple phrase. Composer John Williams would eventually become a poster boy for bullying, movie score overstatement, but his work here is indispensible and inspired. Instead of telling us what and when to feel, his score is an expression, and at times even a source, of wonder.

As everything ramps toward the end, with our hero marching into the ship’s blinding white light, with picture and sound gone gargantuan, Williams, and I’m guessing Spielberg, sneak a small detour into the melody that makes the epic into something more precious and personal. Just once, the familiar theme opens up into an altered seven-note phrase, reciting the syllabic progression of “When You Wish Upon Star.” Suddenly you recall Disney, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket, and even as the melody gets back on its own track, you complete the phrase on your own, and contemplate how such a crazy dream could feel so true.