Da. Da. Da. Da. Daaa.
Those five notes are perhaps some of the most iconic in cinematic history. After all of the human drama and stunning visuals leave you of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the brain hangs onto the most simple aspect of the film. And that’s completely by design, I suspect. In the film, the music, created of course by the brilliant John Williams, provides the initial common ground to the depicted first contact with extraterrestrial beings. The notes are the building blocks, the elementary alphabet that bridges the gap between such wildly different entities.
And the simplicity is gorgeous. As is this great film.
I didn’t come to fully appreciate Close Encounters of the Third Kind until recently. I do remember when it was released though. I remember going shopping with my mother and begging for a Close Encounters of the Third Kind coloring book. One of the pages contained the outline of the friendly, egg-headed aliens that actually don’t appear until the end of the film. Even though I had no idea what it was, that image remained in my head for decades. I suppose the simplicity of the alien forms works brilliantly that way.
Like those omnipresent tones.
The plot of Close Encounters is deceptively simple too. Richard Dreyfuss plays a harried family man who has an encounter with an alien spacecraft. The event changes him, driving him into an all-encompassing obsession that takes over his life. Melinda Dillon wants nothing to do with the visitors, but they develop an attachment to her young son. He is eventually abducted in the film’s most thrilling sequence. Their shared experiences drive them to unite in a quest to find these mysterious visitors. It’s funny. Not much actually happens plot-wise throughout the film. I recently saw it at a 40th anniversary screening with a friend who loves sci-fi, and he found it “slow,” the dreaded curse you never want to hear of your favorite films.
But it isn’t really the plot of Close Encounters that’s so fascinating to me. What makes it great lies between the lines. The subtext.
You see, to me, Close Encounters is a masterpiece of obsession. Dreyfuss’s obsession with alien-influenced imagery causes him to build an elaborate sculpture of Devil’s Tower in his kitchen. Dillon’s obsession for finding her son nearly drives her insane. They find each other through impossible distances. These characters are driven by obsession over images and music and shared connections. The obsession often feels like Spielberg working out his own obsession over direction. That point is particularly underscored in the Dreyfuss character as he constructs the elaborate Devil’s Tower set. You feel Dreyfuss unable to communicate that one thought so prominent within his own mind. That’s certainly something I could imagine Spielberg experiencing from time to time.
Yet, as much as it is about obsession, Close Encounters starts introducing Spielberg’s obsession with the family unit. The dissolved family unit in particular. This is a theme he would later explore in E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial as well. Here in Close Encounters, the obsession over alien communication drives Dreyfuss’s wife (played by Teri Garr) to abandon him, taking the kids. Can you spoil a 40-year-old film? Well, if I can, here goes… At the end of the film, he joins the aliens by boarding their aircraft and leaving Earth. He gives not a second thought to doing so too. Not a single minute spent worrying over his family. He just goes. Admit it, though, that it would be pretty bad ass to take that trip. You can almost see a young Steven Spielberg wondering where his father went when his own parents divorced. Maybe to another planet?
Close Encounters ranks as one of my top three Spielberg films. It’s something I’ve grown to love over multiple viewings, partly (mostly?) because it’s the first GREAT film my son loved on his own. I didn’t have to tell him why it was great. He sort of instinctively knew. The experience exploring the film’s many great moments is one I will treasure as much as I treasure the film itself.
If that doesn’t a masterpiece make, then I don’t know what does.
Da. Da. Da. Da. Daaa.