Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind (dir. Stephen Spielberg, 1977) last week in a local theater—it was playing in commemoration of its 40th anniversary and had been “restored” and enhanced to 4K clarity so that it could be shown in digital form.  Two other people were in the theatre with me: a woman about my age and a man in his 30s who came in late and chose to sit directly behind me and who breathed and moaned heavily throughout the film, expressing his approval and disapproval as things progressed.  He tried to start a conversation afterwards: he had the appearance of an aging and overweight hardcore video game enthusiast.

I liked Close Encounters a great deal when I first saw it in 1977, but over the years I’ve come to feel that it was (and is) mostly spectacle.  There is nothing wrong with spectacle, to a point. I love how the film riffs on American popular culture obsessions with UFOs (and Bigfoot), but the domestic scenes involving Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family are almost unwatchable—is this because they were poorly filmed, or because the sight of a man and his family falling apart is too painful?—probably both.  Spielberg must have thought the domestic scenes were a necessary way of grounding the film and giving a personal dimension to the prospect of UFOs and alien visitors, but they didn’t work for me.  On the other hand, the film builds great excitement around the UFOs and Neary’s obsession with making his way to Devils Tower.  The end of the film is genuinely moving—almost a religious experience.  In this new edition of the film, Spielberg removed the final scenes (added to earlier versions) of Neary entering the spaceship and beholding its internal wonders—that’s better left to the imagination.  The film is basically a fairy tale.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” is an underlying musical theme.  Close Encounters expresses the characteristic optimism of Spielberg’s early films.  He liked to tell stories through the eyes and experiences of everyday people, the common citizens of America. There was a Norman Rockwell element to these early films, a Capraesque optimism.

If and when aliens arrive, I’m not sure there will be such a love fest.  For years SETI scientists have been probing the cosmos with radio telescopes, trying to identify radio signals from other worlds. So far, they have not heard anything. Paul Davies’ book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (2010) suggests reasons for this failure. This year a group of scientists began sending messages out into space, seeking to contact alien civilizations.  I don’t believe this is a good idea.

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