At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Close Encounters of the Third Kind “77”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Close Encounters of the Third Kind “77”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Sci-Fi Drama/Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Warren Kemmerling, Roberts Blossom, Philip Dodds, Cary Guffey, Lance Henriksen, Merrill Connally, George DiCenzo, Gene Dynarski, Josef Sommer, Carl Weathers, David Abraham Cheulkar/Runtime: 137 minutes

If there is one thing which I have learned after a solid 3 decades of life it’s that we as human beings might all have our distinct differences, but there are still nevertheless things that can be considered universal to the human condition. Yet besides the fact that we can (I am optimistically speculating here) all agree that taxes are a nuisance, the DMV is the worst test of one’s patience possible, Mondays are absolutely agonizing, and lawyers are just great white sharks or a pack of piranha in human form there is also a question that I think is part of this group too. That question being “are we alone in the universe?” Of course, is it really all that surprising dear reader? I mean not only does such a question pose quite the intriguing challenge to our point of view in terms of where we as a species fit into the grand scheme of things should it ever be answered, but it also could help us discover how we were created, promote (one can hope) healthy and productive discussion on how we as a planet should respond if we were reached out to by visitors from another planet, and (most important of all) maybe provide all of us with the opportunity to trade our Earth cars in for a brand new UFO to fly around in thus saving us time on our way to work and not having to deal with everyone down below who’s still stuck in traffic (ability to abduct cows and other animals/fire on other people with a laser not included incidentally, but I am told that either or can be installed for the low price of $125,555.00). All jokes aside though dear reader, there’s no denying that this question has also been the subject of quite a few stories of the printed variety, video games, and *surprise surprise* movies. Yet whereas the fair majority of those aforementioned movies have chosen to focus on what would happen if us discovering we were not alone ended in nothing short than the vast majority of both the world’s landmarks to say nothing of the population being utterly annihilated there is another avenue that not as many have chosen to pursue. That being if it was rooted more so in peace, tranquility, awe, and genuine wonder. It is among the select few slices of cinema that make up that list incidentally that one can find a slice of cinema from 1977, and film I happen to be reviewing for you today incidentally, known as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film that not only happens to be among those that were not only inspiring/influential to a younger Alan when he was growing up and/or bedridden in the hospital at one time or another, but which I also consider to be nothing short of a reminder of just how powerful an art form cinema can be. Indeed I say that because, with the aid of excellent work on both sides of the camera, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, soul-stirring, and just plain magical film that is an absolute delight from beginning to end and every minute in between.

The plot is as follows: Close Encounters gets its intriguing story underway in no less a locale than the Sonoran Desert where we, along with a group of researchers led by an enigmatic French scientist named Claude Lacombe, find ourselves making an incredible discovery. That being of an entire squad of United States Navy planes that mysteriously vanished while flying over the infamous Bermuda Triangle back in early December 1945. Even more mysterious for our team of researchers however is the fact that not only are the planes in perfect shape, but that there is no one onboard. From there, the story shifts over first to Indianapolis where a group of air traffic controllers witness an almost horrific mid-air impact between a pair of planes and….something, and then eventually to the small town of Muncie, Indiana. A picturesque little community to be sure, but one that is about to become known for a little bit more than just being the home to the Muncie Central High Bearcats to say nothing of the Ball State Cardinals. This is because not only do we soon witness as a little boy named Barry Guiler and his mother Jillian have their own experience with something unusual, but so too does an electrical lineman named Roy Neary who is sent out to look into a series of mass blackouts that start popping up. Unlike Barry and Jillian however, Roy’s experience is a bit more impactful…at least at first. Not just because half his face receives a killer sunburn in the middle of the night, but because whatever this thing is actually decides to fly directly over his truck (probably because they were lost and wanting directions to the nearest pizza joint or the interstate). Yet while these individual stories may not seem like they are even remotely connected in any way, I can promise you that the opposite is true and that they most assuredly are. You see dear reader, for all the differences between these individuals they have all been given a rather intriguing “gift” for lack of a better word. That being that these people have all gotten the opportunity to witness and/or uncover evidence that something from out there if you get my drift might be attempting to reach out and communicate with us. A choice that not only proves to be quite impactful to these characters in a variety of different ways be they good or bad, but which will ultimately see them embark on a very intriguing odyssey of sorts. One that will not only see them all try to come to terms with what exactly it is they have seen, but also begin to draw them to a place that they have never been and have no on earthly idea why they are so fixated on it to begin with. As for why this place is so significant to them to say nothing of what comes of this for our group of protagonists and even humanity as a whole that is something I will let you uncover for yourself….

Now right off, it should be said that the work done by the various departments operating behind the camera on this slice of sci-fi cinema is absolutely breathtaking in every sense of the word. With no question, this starts with the work done in the director’s chair by film icon Steven Spielberg and this manages to be yet another phenomenal entry in a creative resume, be it as a producer or director, that is chock full of them. Indeed perhaps the key things that Spielberg brings to this slice of cinema that I don’t know of many if any other directors could have is he brings both a childlike enthusiasm for the material, but also a sense of mystery and awe to the project as well. Indeed, much like he did with Jaws 2 years prior, we see that Spielberg does a brilliant job at limiting how much we see of the visitors and/or their ship until he is ready for them to make their intended impact on the story. By doing so, not only does Spielberg do a phenomenal job of raising the suspense present, but he also permits our imaginations to fill in the blanks for us. Suffice it to say that, despite only being the third theatrical film he had ever helmed (4th film overall if you include 1971’s Duel), there is no denying that Spielberg is able to bring this particular material to life with a confidence and technique that is truly mindboggling. Alongside his work in the director’s chair, we see that Spielberg is also quite successful when it comes to his penning of the film’s script. Not only in capturing the same elements of imagination and wonder that are so significant to his work on the film as a director, but also in conjuring up for us as an audience both a small yet well-written cast of characters that we can all identify with on some level or another as well as an atmosphere made up of equal parts mystery, majesty, and just the right touch of otherworldly respectively. In addition, this slice of cinema also features truly brilliant work from iconic special/visual effect wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey). Indeed through the ingenious utilization of camera technology and model work, we see that Trumbull and his team are able to do a next-level job at not only bringing to life the sightings that we hear about in UFO lore (or in a magazine at the supermarket checkout),  but eventually present us with a sight that, while I won’t spoil it here, is nothing less than the kind of work that definitely goes a long way toward validating cinema’s claim as an art form alongside painting and sculpting respectively. Lastly, I think this section would definitely be incomplete if I didn’t take some time to praise the work done here by the man, the myth, the legend John Williams on this film’s musical accompaniment. Indeed not only does Williams’ score seamlessly enhance what we are seeing unfurl before us in the film, but it also manages to operate as a brilliant reflection of the emotions that the characters, and by extension us as an audience, are feeling at any given point. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in top-tier work from the cinematography department that is not only jaw-droppingly gorgeous whilst also adding immensely to the impact that the film is able to have on the viewer from an image perspective as well as the editing department as headed by fellow frequent Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn among others it’s clear that the work done behind the camera here is nothing short of movie magic at its absolute finest and then some in the best way possible.

Alongside the absolutely magnificent work done by the various departments behind the camera, this slice of cinema also benefits immensely from the equally as brilliant work done by the extremely well-chosen cast of talent in front of the camera as well.  Without a doubt in my mind, this starts with the performance given by Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Roy Neary. Indeed as the audience’s eyes through this particular story, we see that Dreyfuss does a fantastic job at not only bringing an everyman relatability to the role, but also a determination if not downright obsession to get to the bottom of things, a childlike enthusiasm, and even a growing sense of detachment from just about anything that could get in the way of him getting the answers he so desperately longs for. Yes in a lot of other films some of the actions shown by this character would either be played for laughs or to just make him out to be some kind of kook. In the hands of Dreyfuss however, there is both a genuine emotion in these scenes to say nothing of a soulfulness as well that helps us as an audience see Neary not as someone who has lost his marbles, but as someone who is just trying to make sense of what has happened to him much in the same way that you or I would. Suffice it to say that it is a phenomenal performance and easily one of the five best of Dreyfuss’ career hands down. Along with the electrifying work done by Dreyfuss, this slice of cinema also benefits from an incredibly effective turn from Melinda Dillon, who was incredibly not cast in the film until a few days before she was due to start filming her scenes on it, in the role of Jillian. Indeed Dillon does a terrific job at giving us someone who, like Roy, is just as curious and fascinated by the strange events that are going on. Unlike Roy however, we see that Jillian also has an event take place to her that, due to throwing her life for a significant curveball, results in her possessing more of a singular/personal focus and motivation for getting to the bottom of this mystery than any other character in the film that is nothing short of admirable. Suffice it to say that it’s a terrific turn and one that Dillon brings to life in a manner that is truly heartwarming to behold. Far and away though, besides the pair of turns previously mentioned, I think that the standout performance has to be the one that comes from iconic French film director François Truffaut in the pivotal role of Claude Lacombe. Yes he didn’t act in front of the camera that often, but here we see that Truffaut is magnificent at providing this character with a brilliance, empathy, and relaxed/gentle demeanor that makes him instantly someone we both admire and respect. Not just as the leader of this research group to or even as a man of science, but also as a plain and simple human being as well. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in solid work from talents such as Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, child actor Cary Guffey, Lance Henriksen, Carl Weathers, and George DiCenzo among others it’s clear that this is one cast that, from top to bottom, all manage to deliver nothing short of their absolute best and then some regardless of how big or small their amount of screentime in the overall film may be.

All in all and at the end of the day I think I can safely say that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a bonafide classic. Not just of 70s cinema, sci-fi cinema, but cinema in general. Indeed here is a film that takes the time-honored and universal thought-upon question of “whether or not we are alone in the universe” and provides us as an audience with an answer that is equal parts gripping, awe-inducing, and nothing short of pure magnificence. Suffice it to say that if you want to know what makes this slice of cinema as genuinely amazing as it is, I think the simple answer to that question is one which can be found not only in the phenomenal work done behind the camera, but also in regards to the impeccable work done in front of the camera by the extremely well-chosen cast of performers who are all brilliantly chosen for their respective roles here and who all shine no matter how much screentime they have. On the other hand, if you want to know what makes this slice of cinema the masterpiece that I consider it to be I would have to say that, in many respects, a masterpiece of cinema is a film that can be put in front of even an extremely cynical film viewer much like myself and proceed to floor them by providing them with a majesty, excitement, and pure grade-A enthusiasm at what they are seeing unfurl before them. More than that, it would also have to be a slice of cinema that has each and every component involved in the making of it work together in such a brilliant sense of harmony that it permits that same cynical viewer to view things never before put onto the screen whilst also regaling them with a narrative that has the potential to touch them on an emotional plane that they never thought cinema would ever be able to touch them. Above all though, a film that deserves to be considered a classic with zero cause for pause whatsoever, is one that is not only able to pull off the aforementioned items once. Rather, it is one that is able to do so each and every time you choose to sit down and watch it no matter how long it’s been since your last viewing or even how many times you have watched it to begin with. Suffice it to say that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is that and so much more. As for what else it is, I think that is something that every viewer has to find out for themselves. One thing’s for sure: once you find it, I can promise you’ll never lose sight of it. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Close Encounters of the Third Kind a solid 5 out of 5.

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