In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 blockbuster aliens encounter human beings and, amazingly, aren’t horrified at what they find.
“We Are Not Alone,” says the ad, but in fact we very possibly are and, if we are not, we more probably can never know it. So I detect the kind of mischief in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was present also in his Jaws, but is entirety absent from Star Wars, the other science fiction epic of the season. That earlier film, set in some vaguely stipulated period of the very remote past, is content o be a romance of outer galactic knight errantry which doesn’t for a moment abuse the credulity of even the 10-year-olds who drag their parents to it three or four times in as many weeks. But a good many otherwise reasonable people find themselves constrained to believe in UFOs; a whole literature, not to say lobby, has sprung up to defend their reality and, like the Bermuda Triangle (another promising scalp tingler for Mr. Spielberg), faith in the presence of extraterrestrials among us is not dispelled by the lack of any confirmable evidence. Jaws cast a shadow over an entire summer at the seashore, and from now on more people than ever will be sprinting to the telephone to tell NASA of an unearthly spectacle in the night sky.
Close Encounters employs a routine sci-fi narrative. The visitors have drawn near – one may assume that their main vehicle is circling somewhere in the Milky Way. They intend to make contact, but before doing so prudently send ahead scout vessels (psychedelic Frisbees) to check the terrain. The units of this advance party give off an eerie light; anyone exposed to it receives a quick sunburn and becomes seized with an irresistible urge to “know more.” He or she drops all usual pursuits, assumes a goofy smile and begins frantically to draw or sculpt a shape that more and more comes to resemble the Devil’s Tower, a national monument in eastern Wyoming.
That’s a signal, by golly! There are others, including a whole flight of World War I fighter plans that suddenly materialize near the Mexican border, but such details are what give the picture its amusement (at least, I was not amused by its spiritual overtones) and I won’t divulge them here. All these goings on in the world of TV America (at which Spielberg pokes rather obvious fun) involve the film in problems of plausibility that Star Wars, remaining scrupulously within the bounds of fantasy, quite avoids. For example, the passage overhead of the scouts sets up a turbulence more destructive than has been seen anywhere since the devil got into that attic in Washington, D.C. Doors fly open, windows are shattered, electric gadgets go berserk, the contents of a refrigerator are thrown around the kitchen and a fearful groaning and grinding is to be heard. But this happens, apparently, to one house, only – at least, there is no general outcry of alarm – although the UFOs are passing over quite densely inhabited semi-rural country. And when one of those who has seen the light (Richard Dreyfuss) begins to throw bricks, masonry, dirt, ornamental bushes and fence wire through the window into his kitchen (he is one of those who take to sculpture), his wife bundles the kids into the car and departs for shelter among relatives. You would think she might have sought medical advice. But I liked the ponderous curtain of secrecy set up by the Army – that was indeed plausible.
When the supreme moment of close encounter does finally arrive, it is an awe-inspiring anticlimax. The problem is, after perhaps ninety minutes of the most carefully calculated crescendo of suspense, what sort of physical structure do you invent for the great ship? It’s all very well to decide that the natives aboard it shall resemble a textbook illustration of the 5-month fetus (big head, tendril-like arms and legs), but what sort of engineering will these exotic beings have developed? What they have developed, it turns out, is a gigantic replica of the central chandelier in some metropolitan motel – a confection of stainless steel grills and spikes, some of them suggesting gun barrels, flickering with indirect neon light. It’s a very pretty bauble, but as obviously earth-conceived as a baked Alaska. I don’t blame Spielberg for offering us this gorgeous inadequacy – it obviously exceeds the capacity of the human mind to imagine what nonhuman minds might design, according to the dictates of their sensory apparatus and the mathematics of their corner of the universe. Inevitably, the special effects crew have come up with something that looks like Christmas week at Macy’s; they would have been wise to settle for a burning bush.
I should mention that among the bedazzled principals are a cute toddler (Cary Guffey) and his distraught mother (Melinda Dillon); it was her house that got totaled. Also, that Francois Truffaut plays a French scientist whose area of special knowledge is left conveniently vague, but who is chief of the reception committee. He conducts himself with Gallic composure among the near-hysterical Americans, but if I understood what was happening during the final moments, he made an unrewarding deal with the little creatures from out there.