Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


I was really interested to see how much, if any, of the feeling of awe I had when first seeing this movie would hold up, almost forty years later. The answer, sad to say, is not much. In fact much of it looks plain silly, and I couldn’t help noticing a lot of things that I just didn’t worry about too much the first time in the manic sweep of Spielbergian technique. This time, the technique was glaringly obvious. But at least I can still fondly remember my original feelings, and it is good to recall that before this Creatures from Outer Space were almost unanimously here to do us harm. The idea of benevolent aliens was almost revolutionary. And yet, in retrospect …

Benevolent? They abducted four American pilots and held them in some sort of suspended time for thirty-two years. How about their families, wives, possibly children, who would be older than them now? They lured a little boy into their ship. Each of those dazed-looking people who stumbled off the mother ship was stolen from somewhere. Why? Experiments? The aliens are treating us like lab rats, and we are in almost worshipful awe of them? I wonder what those people felt about the anal probes. An amazing number of “alien abductees” report having something shoved up their asses.

Then there is the stuff they implanted in the minds of some of those they didn’t abduct, that makes them so obsessive they become stone stupid. I mean, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) becomes so determined to make a model of Devil’s Tower that he seems to forget his house has a front door. He insanely throws everything through the kitchen window, then steals stuff from his neighbors in broad daylight. Later he drives a big old station wagon at high speed over rough ground. Stupid! The aliens made him stupid!

And why? I understand that the motives of an alien race might be obscure or even impossible for us to understand, and Spielberg was wise not to give us too many answers. But at the end there are just too many questions. Roy was the only human I saw get aboard the mother ship. Why him? What about those steely-jawed, Foster Grant Sunglasses-wearing hopeful cosmonauts in their cool red jumpsuits? One of them is black, two of them are women, and all of them are American, wearing flag patches on their shoulders. Wouldn’t François Truffaut be a little pissed about that? And Roy … he is perfectly willing to abandon his wife and three children. Does he think this is going to be a little spin around the Solar System? For all he knows he just signed up for a one-way trip to the Andromeda Galaxy.

The music stuff doesn’t work this time around, either. What is this bullshit about signing the notes? Music for the deaf? In fact, just about all the dialogue from the point the mother ship arrives is total gobbledygook about on a par with making the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs, or the famous “molecular acid” in Alien. Not a word of it rang true.

Then there is Spielberg’s famous tendency to milk final scenes for every drop of awe or poignancy. The pace slows terribly at the end, just like it would soon do in E.T. the Extraterrestrial. And of course he goes to the other extreme in the set-up, having all the researchers running into every scene, leaping their Jeeps over dunes in the Gobi Desert, and then the swarms of Indians running, running, running, while singing that silly little five-note theme.

Sigh. I guess a lot of this is unfair. You might think I don’t like Spielberg or his films. Not true. I like him a lot. I still absolutely love Jaws, and his more weighty films like Schindler’s List. But this one just has not aged well.