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Retrospective Film Review: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Sunday 29 June 2014

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Words Spindle

I remember reading Alien Heart, a short story by Philip Ridley in which a film-buff’s promising date comes unstuck when the girl falls asleep during Close Encounters, actually an acutely accurate illustration of the film’s polarising effect; I’m not so sure I understood what was going on when I saw it for the first time aged 12. Was this a horror, as the abduction sequence showing 3-year-old Barry Guiler’s house being invaded by unearthly glowings and humming seemed to suggest? Or an adult drama?

Roy Neary’s dinner-table breakdown, with his son silently crying as he watches his father lose it remains one of the most powerful sequences I’ve ever seen, even if at the time I didn’t fully comprehend the emotional dynamics of a family on the verge of collapse. Then there’re the lights. And what lights. The hilltop view of the state of Indiana experiencing a power outage section by section is a direct reference to the awesome luminescence of the Mothership we see in the film’s final act: only in darkness can we see the skies. But what Close Encounters really seems to be about is communication. Spielberg commented that if amicable communication can be successfully made with extraterrestrials, why not warring foes on our own planet?

Contact has become something of a clumsy device on which to hang misplaced patriotism in recent Sci-Fi attempts – how quickly does it all seem to break down into just another war film. Yet here we have a bittersweet tale of enlightenment. Bittersweet as, unusually for Spielberg, the family thread is left unresolved: Neary indeed abandons them as they feared he would. But for Neary, he is presented with an opportunity to discover answers. Like Moses, he too hears a big, booming voice from the sky. His faith drives him on, up to Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower where he is greeted by a greater intelligence, and he leaves this Earth with his faith intact. Whatever our spiritual differences, or maybe because of them, this film is essential viewing.

Words: Ash Verjee