A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 504 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – July 17th, 2011

Tonight we went looking for a longer movie, something over two hours since we had the time. None of the things we hadn’t seen yet appealed but as soon as I saw this on the list I knew it was right for tonight. And so the mad search commenced! Our apartment isn’t that big and we do own a lot of movies and they’re not as organized as we’d like. And we could not find this. Andy searched every stack in every room and it was nowhere to be found. I said I’d look, moved one Simpsons box set out of the way and there it was. I’ll give Andy a pass, though, because it’s one of the ones we bought cheap and it has no actual case, just a plastic sleeve with the disc and the cover and it was stuck to another disc in another plastic sleeve. And you know, I’m really glad I found it because it was precisely what I wanted tonight and I would have been so bummed to have to pick something else.

Within science fiction there are a number of sub-genres. The “aliens come to Earth” idea is one of those sub-genres and it’s an interesting one. It can take place present-day without trying to envision a future for humanity and it provides a whole host of possibilities. Are the aliens friendly or hostile? Do they understand us and can we understand them? What do they want, if anything? What do they look like? Do we even see them? What I like about this movie is that it is so largely grounded not in space but on Earth. It’s about the reactions people have to this unexplained thing that’s happened to them and the people they know. In the end the aliens themselves aren’t so much the point. The point is in the connection and the discovery and the journey and events that lead to them.

When the movie starts strange things are happening. Fighter planes reported missing in 1945 appear in the Sonora Desert thirty years late, missing their pilots. A man nearby says the sun came out at night and sang to him. Air traffic controllers call in reports of something mysterious in the sky, then decline to make any official reports. And in Muncie, Indiana a boy wakes up when all of his toys turn on, only to find the fridge’s contents on the kitchen floor. He walks out of the house, into the night. Elsewhere in town, while the boy’s mother chases him into the woods, another family is arguing over what to do the next night. Their father heads out to help repair some power outages and finds himself having a very strange experience with bright lights and his truck going haywire. It’s all the beginning of a number of mysterious events, with electrical oddities and bright lights in the sky and the strange return of vehicles long missing.

But the bulk of the movie is spent with Roy Neary, the man who left his family to go help with the power outages, and Jillian Guiler, whose son Barry is taken by the aliens mid-movie. We see the two of them struggle with this experience they’ve both had, unable to explain what they’ve seen and unable to convince their families or the public that whatever happened actually happened. Now, in a movie made today? Roy and Jillian would end up in love and half the movie would be a romantic plotline for them. I am pleased to say that this doesn’t happen here. Not really. The two of them bond through the shared knowledge that what they saw was real, but there’s no epic love story being attempted between the two of them. Just the story of two people who’ve been separated from the norm by experiences they didn’t want in the first place.

Now, I do have some quibbles with the movie, in that we learn very little about Jillian’s life aside from that she’s a mother and apparently it’s just her and her son? And on the other hand we learn plenty about Roy’s family and they’re presented as both thoroughly annoying and completely justified in being frustrated by him. After all, he starts out as a somewhat uninvested father, spreading his stuff all over the obviously too-small house, much to the frustration of his wife. He goes out overnight for work, is unreachable all night leading to middle-of-the-night phone calls at his house, waking his wife and kids. And when he comes back he’s ranting and raving about lights in the sky and flying saucers. He becomes thoroughly obsessed and you can tell that not only is he frustrated and confused by it all, but his wife and children are all of that as well as scared. To them it probably seems as though Roy’s had a mental break of some sort. But there’s no resolution there. The wife and kids head off to the wife’s sister’s place, leaving Roy on his own to build a model of the Devil’s Tower in the middle of their kitchen. And I’m left wondering how we’re meant to feel about the family.

In the end Roy leaves with the aliens without a second thought, or so it seems. But what happens to that family? Those kids? They’re not bad people and they’re not portrayed as such, just crowded and loud. And now their father is gone. Not just absent, but off the planet. Much as I love the introduction of the alien spaceship near the end, with the iconic music playing in greeting and all, and much as I want to see the whole thing at the end where they choose Roy as a positive note, I can’t. It’s not as if his family was taken from him. It’s not as if they’re gone for good. And I can’t really see a character who’d walk away from his family after putting them through what Roy puts them through, leaving them likely never to know what happened to him, as someone to fully sympathize with. I want to! I really do! Because if you take away the family stuff Roy’s experience is amazing and wonderful. Put the family stuff in and I’m conflicted about him.

All that being said, the ending to this movie is one of my favorite movie endings ever. After the build-up for the aliens, with the tiny ships zipping by, bright and indistinct, the huge ship coming in to blare its music at everyone is fantastic. The return of the missing pilots and Navy officers? Gets me every time. There’s a touch of this in Flight of the Navigator, which explores more about what would happen when one of those abductees returns after so long away. I love it, cheesy alien costumes and all. I love the set-up, with the government knowing that this is going on the whole time and having people trained for the eventuality of being taken by aliens. I love that Jillian decides not to go but is still clearly enthralled by it, just like her son is after he’s been returned. It’s an excellent climax to a mostly excellent movie

July 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

July 17, 2011

Close Encounter of the Third Kind

As I said to Amanda after watching this movie for our project, this ranks high amongst my favorite movies of all time. It’s intelligent, intriguing and spectacular. I couldn’t possibly have seen this when it premiered in 1977, but I definitely saw it for the first time on the theater, so it must have been for some kind of re-release. Whatever the case, I was instantly captured by this wonderfully constructed tale of first contact with benevolent aliens.

What’s truly astonishing about this movie is that it has no bad guys. There are government operatives and army officers who think they know best how to handle first contact, but they’re never depicted as evil people, just people doing their job. And their job is to initiate first contact with a race that has been buzzing around abducting people for at least the last forty years.

This movie is so expertly and perfectly put together. It has aspects of adventure and action, but it’s mostly a movie about discovery. It’s about realizing that we’re part of a larger universe and how people handle this. It follows several different people influenced by the aliens as things slowly escalate until they reach the powerful, beautiful conclusion.

The chief characters are a young mother and her son in Muncie Indiana, a utility repair man with a knack for getting lost, and a French UFO expert who travels the world trying to understand the strange phenomena that are happening with increasing frequency as the aliens reach out to the planet’s populace.

Melinda Dillon, the mother from A Christmas Story, was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Jillian Guiler, whose son is taken by the aliens in one of the few scary scenes that would have left five-year-old me with nightmares if I had seen this in 1977. (Thus my certainty that I didn’t see this until at least the eighties.) She’s fiercely protective of her son, but at the same time she’s somewhat curious about the UFOs. After one encounter with the flying objects (before her son Barry is abducted) she meets Roy Neary, who is a utility repairman out trying to figure out what is causing a mysterious blackout that has covered the entire town. Roy is chasing after a UFO that flew over his truck when he almost hits Barry, who is standing in the road seemingly waiting for the aliens. Both Roy and Jillian are infected by the encounter with an obsession. They have visions of a shape – a kind of mountain. They have a tune stuck in their heads. They don’t know what these things mean, but they are slowly being driven mad by these implanted images and ideas. (Particularly Roy who started out somewhat disconnected from his wife and children but as the movie progresses drifts farther and farther away from them.)

From the other side of things we have Francois Truffaut (yes THAT Francois Truffaut) as the French scientific expert on the phenomena of UFOs Claude Lacombe. He has been summoned by the US government to make sense of things like long lost WWII fighter planes showing up in Mexico or a missing cargo ship deposited in the desert in Africa. He and his somewhat bewildered interpreter have complete access to the whole puzzle and know exactly what is going on. Aliens have made contact with humankind and are inviting them to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

It astonishes me how little this movie has aged. The shining, tumbling, soaring spaceships are as mysterious and as beautiful now as they were thirty years ago. The special effects are totally convincing with narry a matte line to be seen. The aliens themselves still look fairly convincing (because they were filmed slightly out of focus and heavily backlit. Even the cars and wardrobes of the human characters don’t seem particularly out of date when compared with other films of that era. (Such as yesterday’s movie, Superman, which came out a year later.)

Add to all this John Williams’ absolutely perfect score. The entire notion of communicating with aliens through music is wonderful, and Williams fleshes that concept out beautifully. As this movie builds toward the encounter from which it gets its title the score also slowly builds to a dizzying crescendo that sweeps the viewer away and makes me long to encounter these brightly lit musical aliens and explore the universe with them.

I’m debating now if I should get E.T. for the project. It was a movie that touched me deeply in 1982 (I saw it eight times in the theater and I was the same age as Elliott in the movie) but the last time I tried to watch it I realized just how dated that movie has become.

July 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment