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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Spielberg's 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled
out for attention. 
This is the Criticwire Classic of the

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Criticwire Average: A

Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar” began as a Steven Spielberg project, and Nolan hasn’t buried Spielberg’s influence. Whatever its flaws, the film is packed with the same kind of wonder and hope that marks some of Spielberg’s best films. Case in point, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Spielberg’s first foray into sci-fi, and one of his best. 

In “Close Encounters,” the interest in outer space is not borne of the need for survival, but of dissatisfaction, particularly for protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss in a brilliant, obsessed performance). Roy hasn’t settled into the American Dream well, too childish to be a good father and husband even before extraterrestrial visitors compel him to make his way to Devil’s Tower. Spielberg doesn’t downplay how hurtful or frightening Roy’s behavior is towards his family, but he understands his desire for something more, something that will give his life meaning. 

“Close Encounters” ends with one of the most magnificent displays of color and light in blockbuster history, a massive ode to communication by way of sci-fi phantasmagoria, given a human avatar in the developing friendship between Bob Balaban and Francois Truffaut. But while the images are beautiful and John Williams’ sweeping, symphonic score evocative, they’d mean little without the empathetic touch Spielberg brings. The film’s finale suggests that all it takes to connect is to speak and to listen. What begins as confounding, even frightening becomes profoundly optimistic and comforting, saying “Hello. You are not alone, there is something more.”

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

It was in the film’s last half-hour that Spielberg and Trumbull had to come through, to deliver the goods, and they surely do. I won’t spoil their surprises by describing what they portray, except to say that we do see the Mother Ship of all those UFOs, and we do see an extraterrestrial being. We also see special effects of the highest genius; is there anything Douglas Trumbull can’t convince us we are witnessing? Read more.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out London

Steven Spielberg’s film manages to get its point across without resorting to intimidation or cheap scare tactics. This is one of the few movies in history to appeal almost exclusively to what Abraham Lincoln called, ‘the better angels of our nature’: creativity, community, discovery and the capacity for wonder. Read more.

Josh Larsen, Larsen On Film

Roy has been having visions of some sort of mountain, and as the mashed potatoes come his way, he begins piling them on his plate higher and higher, eventually sculpting them into this elusive image. It’s a funny moment – they all laugh at first – but it quickly saddens, as the others realize they’re losing him. “I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad,” Roy says. And there it is. In Spielberg, the cosmic has dinner-table consequences. Read more.

Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club

At the time, Spielberg insisted the film wasn’t science fiction, but “science speculation,” and he believed that unexplained cosmic phenomena had occurred in the 20th century, and that the government was perhaps active in covering it up. Though he’s since retreated into skepticism, “Close Encounters” benefits from the awestruck vision of a true believer; the pie-eyed reaction shots alone suggest depths of curiosity and wonder that no special effect could ever muster. Read more.

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