The Test of Time: Close Encounters of the Third Kind!

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



What’s your favorite alien abduction movie? Opinions are sure to vary, preferences are bound to clash, but if history is any indication, there’s one flick that undoubtedly towers tallest over the entire sub-generic pantheon of extraterrestrial contact. Of course, we’re referring to Steven Spielberg’s inquisitive FX driven masterstroke of sci-fi wonderment, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Seriously, who isn’t head over heels in love with this sumbitch?!

Marking its 40th anniversary this year, the residual impact of Spielberg’s landmark film is still being felt. Look no further than the Ridley Scott produced PHOENIX FORGOTTEN, which is poised to hit theaters everywhere tomorrow, April 21st. How many of you are down to see that one simply as a function of the adoration and admiration CLOSE ENCOUNTERS instilled for this kind of flick many a moon ago? I know I am!

But the more pertinent query still looms. What of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS now? Today? In 2017? Does the movie still retain its awe-inspiring splendor? Is the story as fundamentally compelling now as it was in ’77? Do the multimedia VFX still play credibly, or has there been a glaring degradation over the past 40 years that’s tarnished the films overall luster? You know what’s up. All these answers and more to come when we put CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND to the Test of Time!


THE STORY: Originally scripted by a post-TAXI DRIVER Paul Schrader, subsequently so revised that he opted to remove his name, the story eventually credited to Spielberg himself still holds as one of the movies strong suits. That is, when a skein of major power outages upset a community in Muncie, Indiana – local power line worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent to investigate. What he finds, however, is a descendent UFO with high-wattage white lights that scorch his face upon hovering over his truck at night. A similar encounter happens to nearby Jillian and her little boy Barry, with the latter eventually abducted by unseen alien beings. As the two long for answers, a subconscious fixation with a large mountainous structure begins to subsume their every waking thought. Neary in particular begins to neglect his own family unit in search for far larger, more universal answers.

Meanwhile, government officials begin investigating the recovery of two lost WWII vessels that have miraculously shown up, in pristine condition, in the Gobi and Sonora Deserts. In addition to a discordant 5-note musical tone, numerical coordinates are left behind with these relics, which ultimately lead to a sort of secularly spiritual showdown at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Roy and Jillian attend, witness, and ultimately forever alter their existence upon encountering a gargantuan mother-ship and its race of benevolent extraterrestrial beings.

WHAT HOLDS UP: As is often the case with halcyon Spielberg, CE3K still preserves most of its high quality entertainment value. Hell, Ray Bradbury has gone on record claiming the film to be the best science fiction film ever created. And while I’d still personally yield to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for that historical honor, it’s hard to deny that CE3K is just about as timeless as Kubrick’s forerunner. Many reasons account for this, no doubt, but if we had to distill it down to three distinct attributes, I’d opt for these: The Message. The Music. The Finale.

In stark contrast to most alien invasion/abduction yarns, when all is told, in the end, the message of CE3K is one of bright-eyed optimism. Sure there are few harrowing and horrifying stints along the way (that abduction scene of Barry is still deeply impressive), but most of it is born out of human hysteria. The alien beings themselves are revealed in the end to be rather benign and benevolent, not mean or malicious in the slightest. That is one part of the message: the ability for humankind to accept extraterrestrial life with open arms rather than loaded guns.

The other aspect of the movies messaging, as seen manifested through Roy Neary, is the fundamental nature of human exploration, inquisitiveness, imagination and scientific methodology. Roy’s an alienated Earthling longing for a deeper meaning. There’s a sort of elemental call in Roy’s deepest fiber to embrace the unknown, revel in it, connect with it, to become one with it. It’s a spiritually secular undertaking in that way, sans religion, that has just as profound an impact. Not quite a deity, but think about it, otherworldly beings that descend upon Earth to impart a sort of universal wisdom. What can be a more lasting message than that?

Maybe it’s the music. Paraphrasing here, but I do believe it was Stanislavski who said the most direct way to the human heart is through music. I happen to buy that assertion, and in the context of CE3K, we can read the use of music as a direct link that connects two intergalactic worlds. We unify through the music, and in the film, the human characters come in concert with the aliens through that very distinct 5-tone musical score composed by the great John Williams. Word is he and Spielberg went through hundreds of permutations to get the just the right combination of notes, ones to reflect a sound of love, peace and happiness. By the way, anyone notice at the end when the mother-ship plays its concerto that the ominous notes from JAWS play for a few measures? I love that!

Speaking of that profound, awe-inspiring 20-25 minute finale, Spielberg has too gone on record saying editing this sequence was the single most difficult task of his life. Leaning heavily on the SFX designs of the great Douglas Trumbull (SILENT RUNNING), everything from matte paintings, animated sequences, UFO miniatures, rotating turntables, 70mm lenses, composite shots, Christmas lights, mechanical puppetry (the long spindly alien), forced perspectives, Electronic Motion Control and some 200 optical FX shots were used in the making of the movie, far more than any movie had before (save for maybe 2001). All this comes to fruition in the end of the film, where dialogue is less important than the overwhelming sensory bombardment of light and sound. When the mother-ship arrives, lands, reverberates the music, releases human abductees, introduces its own alien race (played by little girls, all, by the way) and welcomes Roy into the ship – they way it’s all masterfully put together leads to a sort of spiritual enlightenment. Not just in Roy, but in us as well!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Hardly anything. Honestly, we can try to assail the VFX, but since they are so germane to the actual story, and because Spieberg and Trumbull did everything prior to the creation of CGI (Spielberg tested some but decided it was still too nascent), because the visual display was so groundbreaking and game-changing at the time, a few outmoded Atari-like shots of flying spaceships can and should be easily excused. This movie does far too much right to fall victim to a few anachronistic FX.

THE VERDICT: 40 year later and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is still a first-rate piece of sci-fi entertainment. The message is profoundly moving, the music is unforgettably lasting and the FX-laden finale is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s quintessential Spielberg, opening hearts and challenging minds everywhere!



Extra Tidbit: Which of the three cuts of CE3K is your favorite?
Source: AITH



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