Watched: 9 August (August Blind Spot)
What’s noticeable, viewing Spielberg’s Close Encounters for the first time 40 years after it was first released (I know, I know), is how slow it is. Like many other blockbusters of the era, it doesn’t have anything like the kind of frenetic pace we have since come to associate with such grandly-staged American sci-fi; Star Wars, released six months earlier, would change everything, of course, but only after 1977 was over and done with. No, this is a reflective, particularly unhurried film, and the intermittent four decades are keenly felt while watching. (That said, one of last year’s biggest hits, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, was very much cast from the same mould.)
Anyway, the slow pace ensures that there’s plenty of space between the few scenes here that depict UFOs, which filled lots of viewers with wonder in the 1970s and probably still do regularly today (though personally I think it all looks quaint now, and understandably so, rather than awe-inspiring). It’s space in which you can get a good feel for the characters played by Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and even François Truffaut, and understand how their own very different experiences with aliens affect them or have affected them in unique ways. Of these, Dreyfuss’s Neary’s ambivalence when his wife leaves and takes their three children with her is perhaps the film’s coldest moment, and fairly shocking, but it does serve the picture well, reinforcing the notion that those who come into contact with the aliens are subsequently completely in thrall of or obsessed by them, and want to be with them or see them again whatever the cost.
Some scenes and themes just seem to sum up early Spielberg: the everyman protagonist; the rural middle-America locations; the crane shots that show the authorities carrying out a vast operation; the toys and appliances that shake and ‘come alive’ in a house at night (repeated in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Poltergeist, assuming the rumours are true); and the grandness of the finale at Devils Tower, Wyoming, where the director shows us something we haven’t seen before and finds the perfect – and I mean perfect – way of scoring it. Lots of things come together well here: the music, the acting, the way Spielberg builds to something big and makes good on the promise to give you something big (is there a director more deserving of the audience’s implicit trust?), the way an air of mystery is sustained right through to the final moments. Something, probably related to the passage of time and the way things and people change, is stopping me from loving it, though; doubtless I’d have thought differently had I seen it in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but I do admire the film. (****)