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Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind

November 19, 2010

(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes are discussed in this article, please keep in mind before reading)
One of the biggest mysteries along with the Bermuda Triangle and the Lochness Monster, is the existence of Unidentified Flying Objects, or better known as UFO’s.Do they or do they not exist? Is there life in outer space? Are we alone in the universe? Well questions which to date have not found any definitive answer. In 1972, Dr. J.Allen Hynek, an astronomer and UFO specialist, came up with the concept of close encounter, where a person witnesses an UFO. Hynek classified these encounters into different categories.
Close Encounters of First Kind- Sighting of a UFO or any other alien objects.
Close Encounters of Second Kind– An encounter with an UFO, which leads to effects like radiation, intense heat, damage to terrain etc.
Close Encounters of Third Kind– When human beings actually observe or come in contact with an alien.
The 3 encounters were suggested in Dr. Hynek’s book The UFO Experience.
In 1977, following the runaway success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg, choose the book as his subject for the movie, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. Spielberg took on 50′s alien encounter movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Plan 9 from Outer Space, as his influences for this movie.
The movie opens with a medley of scenes, showing various encounters in different places.
In a Mexican desert that is in the midst of a sandstorm, 2 fighter craft that have been reported missing in 1954, make a mysterious re appearance, and are discovered by Claude Lacombe( Francois Truffaut), a French UFO expert.
In the night skies above Indianapolis, a near fatal mid air collision is averted by Air Traffic Controllers, and pilots of both planes, tell about a bright mysterious object in the sky.
In the small townof Muncie, Indiana, a kid BarryGuiller, finds all the toys in his home mysteriously operating by themselves, and his home enveloped in a kind of unearthly glow. His mom, Jillian( Melinda Dillon) rushes out to stop him from going out of the home.
In Muncie itself, power plant worker, Roy Neary( Richard Dreyfuss) , is summoned due to a mysterious power outage all around, and he is driving down to another town, he encounters mysterious flying objects.
In the Mongolian desert, local nomads, and a UN military convoy find a huge freighter COTOPAXI stranded from nowhere.
Some where in Dharamshala, India, Lacombe listens to devotees, chanting a mysterious mantra. It is a combination of 5 notes that is chanted over and over again.
Roy is fired from his job for irresponsbility, much to the dismay of his wife Ronnie. He however is now obsessed with the UFO’s and keeps getting visions of a mysterious mountain somewhere. Barry is abducted by aliens inspite of Jillian’s best efforts. And back at the observatory Lacombe discovers that the five note sequence which he had picked up in India, and is now using it as an attempt to communicate with outer space, is getting back cryptic responses.
Close Encounters to me remains one of Spielberg’s more underrated movies. Though not as popular as Jaws, Raiders of Lost Ark, ET or Jurassic Park, i would rate this much higher than all those, and also one of the best sci fi movies made. It was released in same year as Star Wars, and while equally succesful, it has been somehow eclipsed by the visual razzle dazzle of Star Wars. I guess the fact that Star Wars was pure masala stuff, where you had the good guys, the bad guys and lots of action scenes. Close Encounters on the other hand is a bit more cerebral, and much more intelligently done.
In sharp contrast to other alien movies, which generally depicted them as nasty, scheming monsters, Spielberg actually breaks ground here by showing them as friendly and of course he takes it further in E.T. by showing the bonding between an alien and a young boy. Actually in a way the fascination for UFO’s and aliens, is a reflection of average American paranoia. During the cold war it was of course those Russians. So this constant fear of the other, could be Russians/Germans/Japs, some how explains the plethora of literature and movies dealing with aliens attacking planet Earth. Of course the extreme manifestation of this paranoia could be seen in movies like Independence Day. James Cameron again attempted a similar theme of human-alien bonding, in The Abyss, but there it went a bit deeper, with the aliens warning Earth of destruction, if the arms race was not stopped.
The most fascinating thing about Close Encounters for me was the way Spielberg uses the 5 note sequence as the central motif of the movie . John Williams in his career has given some memorable scores, but what he does here is something else. Interestingly, the 5 note sequence was choosen at random, there was no specific thought process behind it, Williams just experimented with many combinations, and finally both of them settled on this, as it looked good. We hear it for the first time, in the Mexican desert sequence, then the people in India chanting it, and finally Lacombe playing it on his synthesizer. The scientists using the computer to transmit the 5 note sequence to outer space,is a sort of reference to Spielberg’s family background, his father was a computer engineer, and his mom a pianist. On other level, it also reflects the age old relation betweenmusic and science. Scientists from long have been studying the differing tones and frequencies in music, and Spielberg using that as a means of communication with the alien species, just underscores the fact.
One interesting thing also which i did observe in the movie.In the first scene, when a Mexican peasant is asked about the events he says. El sol salio anoche y me canto!(The sun came out last night and sang ). Again in the sequence set in India, when a holy person asks the assembled gathering where does those tones come from and all of them point upwards. If one goes back earlier, we have those mysterious Nazca lines in Peru, and then the Mayans, Incans, Aztecsin South America were famous for their astronomical skills. Back home, India has a hoary tradition of astronomy dating back to the times of Bhaskaracharya. Now was this mystical belief borne out from earlier astronomical observations. Some how always felt fascinated by the connection between Indian philosophy and science fiction, there are many similiarities there, but thats another point altogether. What i want to say here is where the West, uses elaborate scientific apparatus to communicatewith aliens and prove their existence, mystic cultures like those of India and the American Indian tribes already seem to have a knowledge of it. 
One thing i really like about Spielberg’s movies, is the way he develops the characters, and etches them out. Jaws was elevated from a standard creature feature, just because of the way he developed the 3 major characters. In Close Encounters also, the way Spielberg develops the character of Roy, andthe strained relation with his wife Ronnie, is quite significant. Roy is an odd ball character, he is not bothered by the fact that he has been fired from his job, he is obsessed with the UFO, and he dreams just about that. His wife Ronnie on the other hand is materialistic, and concerned about her husband’s weird behaviour. She does not share his childlike enthusiasm for the UFO’s. Jillian on the other hand is looking for the UFO, just to trace her son back. Interestingly both Roy and Jillian use images to give shape to their dream. Roy builds a mud model of the mountain, while Jillian conceives it by drawing. Spielberg also makes a critique of the US Govt’s obsession for security, when they make that area out of bounds for the public. Spielberg explores this theme in much detail, later in Minority Report, which was a statement against Governments infringing on the rights of individual citizens in the name of security.
The special effects are brilliant as usual, and considering that the movie was made in 70′s, were really way ahead of time. The scenes where the UFO’s attack Jillian’s house, Roy’s first encounter with the UFO’s on the highway, Barry’s abduction are brilliantly shot. Of course the final 15 minutes, is just awesome, and the effects there are mind blowing to say the least.
The movie does not have big stars, but Richard Dreyfuss who earlier appeared as the biologist in Jaws, does an excellent job as the obsessed Roy, as does Melinda Dillon as Jillian wonderfully capturing a mother’s anguish over her missing son. The interesting thing is director Francois Truffaut making a cameo appearance. Now generally most of the directors of the European New School, especially Goddard were heavily critical of Spielberg. Many of the European directorssaw Spielberg as a sell out to commercial interests . Truffaut however was one of the rareEuropean directors who actually admired Spielberg, and was a big supporter of him. I guess maybe due to the fact that most of Spielberg’s movies havea strong focus on relationships. But some day i do want to come up with a post on Spielberg-Truffaut, would be quite interesting.
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