A Look at “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
During my childhood, there were four soundtracks that I listened to. A lot. Two of whom have nothing to do with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. [For the record, they were Disney’s The Jungle Book and Grease.]
Of those four, two were written and conducted by the same man, John Williams. Mr. Williams gave us the iconic Star Wars theme. But he also gave us “Wild Signals,” a piece of music that I don’t think is spoken of when people think of John Williams. But for me, I know it like the back of my hand, as I learned when I re-watched Close Encounters for the first time in probably about three decades (even though I’ve had the blu-ray edition of it for quite a while). It’s an amazing piece between an piccolo (?)* and a tuba.
Close Encounters also has, at least for me, an opening that stands out amongst almost all other openings to a film. The sudden change from black to bright white light in the middle of a desert storm has stayed with me since I first saw the film in 1977.
One of the great things about watching this film again, as can be seen in the complementary video piece, was watching it with my 12 year old son. He sat quiet through most of it, which had me wondering if he was enjoying it. When it was over, his enthusiastic “It was awesome” reassured me a little that he liked it.
While watching it with him, and not having seen it for so many years, I realised that it is definitely not the same film I saw when I was 9 years old — yet it’s heart is exactly the same. It’s like coming across an old friend you haven’t seen in forever, who’s gone through a lot of life changes, but they’re still that same person you knew. I mean let’s get to the heart of this difference – Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). And let’s admit it, he’s kind of a big man-child, which ties into the overall theme of the film
The thematic heart of the film is laced through the soundtrack: “When You Wish Upon a Star” is interlaced with Williams’ own original compositions throughout the film, and it’s this dream chasing that Roy Neary does that leads him on the greatest of adventures, and on the path of a dad who abandons his family. It’s a catch-22 with Roy, because when you view the film you can also see that Roy’s family doesn’t treat him very well, really. His wife, played by the amazing Teri Garr, might love him but at the same time she doesn’t get him and tries to control him. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And Roy’s kids don’t give him much respect. Roy comes across as competent in his job, though he’s the go-with-the-flow type and doesn’t seem ambitious at all: he does his job, does it well, but that’s it. Even his supervisors tend to treat him a bit like his family does. So when Roy’s visions start, we have already seen that he’s a creative dreamer, but whose dreams are based in reality (as can be seen with his train track and models). Roy’s bundled up his creativity, and when it’s time to get the visions out, he goes for broke. Although I’m still at a loss as to why he needed to put everything *into* the kitchen sink and not go through the back patio door with all his building materials where he grabbed everything *but* the kitchen sink to put in it. I’m also not sure why the neighbour didn’t call the police for his stealing her chicken wire, but hey, this was the 70’s – they were probably dealing with people complaining about communist Russians.
The film won an academy award for Best Cinematography, thanks to the late Vilmos Zsigmond, and a special achievement oscar for sound effects editing. It was also nominated for seven other Academy Awards, inluding best director, best supporting actress (Melinda Dillon as Jillian), and best original score. Steven Spielberg manages to bring sense of thrilling urgency to the movements as well as the story which he helped craft.
There’s much more to this film in themes and actions (such as a possible romance between Roy and Jillian, a woman whose son was taken by aliens) than I’m covering in this look, but it’s definitely a film that fits in both the 1970s and now. It’s a nearly timeless story that holds up well, especially in the visual effects.
Have to give it a rating? A-. Have to give it a star rating? 4.3 stars. It’s not a perfect film. It does have flaws within the character arcs that I don’t feel are fleshed out enough to be a welcome dynamic to their growth, especially with Roy’s arc of abandoning his family.
Reasons to see this movie? Many. Mostly, though, because of how the film leaves you at the end … wanting your own dreams to be able to come true simply by wishing hard enough (which, oddly enough, is a theme in a lot of films that I tend to really like). There’s a tremendous amount of wonderment that the film revels in.
*I don’t feel like researching it at the moment, so I’m just going off of memory.