With the interweaving of locations; creeping, eerily slow-paced storytelling and clinically precise modelling and special effects, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is by no-means a standard release 1970 sci-fi film. Playing with humankind’s curiosity of the unknown, we watch a number of individuals as they are confronted with visitors from beyond the stars.
The film is mainly set in a familiar suburban environment – a far cry from the sandy planets normally depicted in science fiction of the time. Then, like an artist blending paints at his easel, Spielberg merges the comfort of family living with the fantasy of the unknown. In certain night scenes, stars appear to shift unnaturally in the sky and strange lights appear in the background of shots. With silky camera work, we are drawn into this world of misty forests and dark corridors, waiting for the UFO to drop from the sky in a streak of neon light.
However, the score, written by the prolific John Williams, is the pillar that keeps this cinematic sculpture tall. The majestic brass sections perfectly add to the grandeur of what we see, from the twisting flight of space crafts to the simplistic beauty of a summer sky. The music even becomes a form of communication with our intergalactic visitors; the mothership blasts thundering tuba, while humanity replies with the faint toot of a trumpet. The resulting symphony is magical.
The characters, on the other hand, are not so magical; mostly uncharismatic and often soporific. Too many scenes are just filler. Most notably, a 15 minute scene of our main character moulding sculptures out of dirt (it’s hard to explain). This is just one example of the skewed character focus mid-way through the film, which just takes away from the celestial hook keeping everyone engaged.
Despite this flaw, Close Encounters endures as one of the sci-fi greats; it has changed the way we view the genre – as contrived as that may sound. But the thing which makes this stand out is the hopeful way it deals with the subject matter; there’s no warfare among races, just hope and excitement of experiencing new worlds. This 40th anniversary re-release is a perfect opportunity to experience this staple of cinema with a large audience – expect a lot of oohs, ahs and gasps.
Image: Gage Skidmore