Watching Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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We’ve reached the second installment of my Watching Spielberg series and things have already taken an unexpected turn.

I really liked Jaws and I was struck by how well it held up in all areas. The cinematography was ageless, the story was simple and efficient, and the setting felt true-to-life. It wasn’t necessarily pushing boundaries as much as it was a perfect culmination of everything Hollywood had learned about film to that point.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind couldn’t have felt more opposite to me. Gone was the simple, relatable story of man versus wild. Just two years after Jaws, Spielberg had set his sights on something larger and swung for the fences with Close Encounters.

Where Jaws was restrained and intimate, Close Encounters was sprawling and cold. Where Jaws focused on proven film-making notes, Close Encounters forged new ground. Where Jaws focused on slowly-deepening relationships between humans, Close Encounters focused on humanity desperately trying to communicate with the extraterrestrial, leaving its human relationships feeling hollow and flimsy.

While Jaws plays just as well in 2018 as it did in the ’70s, Close Encounters feels very much like a time-capsule of its era.

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This isn’t to say I didn’t like it. While I won’t echo cinema buffs who like to rate it somewhere near perfection, there’s still a lot to love if you’re patient. Much like Jaws — and perhaps even more so — the cinematography is stunning. If Jaws was naturalism, this is surrealism.

Because so much of the film takes place at night, the star of the show becomes light itself.

The stars look plastered on, adding to the eerie science fiction vibe. As the characters first try to catch a glimpse of the UFOs, the sprawling lights of their town and the dimly-lit streets serve as the stage. The lights of the spaceship shine down in an attempt to abduct people just as you’d expect they would. I think this may be some of the best use of lighting I’ve ever seen in a movie. It adds so much to the final product.

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There are a few scenes, however, that share Jaws’ natural beauty. The dusty opening minutes have a great tone and the later scenes at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming are fantastic.

I think the film’s enduring legacy, aside from its cinematic beauty, is the basic aesthetic. It turns out that ’70s sci-fi chic is still awesome. The government’s encampment at the base of Devil’s Tower is movie set perfection. The final spaceship and the way it fills the screen is awe-inspiring. The sparse use of color in the film — always displayed in relation to the supernatural — was a fantastic move. The music and sound design and its direct role in the story make everything pop in the same way Jaws did.

Even the special effects, which fall flat until a final scene that seems to have sucked up the entirety of the VFX budget, contribute to the vibe. It feels exactly like a ’70s alien movie —and that’s a good thing.

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That being said, the story is complete nonsense. I can’t stress this enough. I’d reached the end of the film before realizing that I didn’t care about any of these characters half as much as I cared about how the film would frame the next scene. I have a hard time understanding how Close Encounters manages to be critically-revered more than four decades later considering that the plot seems like nothing more than a vessel for cinematic flaunting.

The flaunting is great, though. It’s worth your two hours and 15 minutes. Don’t expect to be wowed by the story, but Spielberg and his team really did make something timelessly beautiful.