June 01, 2013

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which has been hailed as some kind of cosmic masterpiece, really one of the biggest snow jobs in movie history?

The first forty-five minutes of Close Encounters work really well at establishing a sense of mystery, even foreboding, using very ordinary, grounded effects: shaking household objects, Richard Dreyfuss's car sputtering and rattling as a spacecraft approaches--the meters on all his gauges going haywire and loose objects flying out of the glove compartment and off the dashboard. Director Steven Spielberg also manages to achieve a kind of impressive realism in the events that take place: the air traffic controllers trying to register an unidentified vessel, carrying on multiple conversations at the same time as they interpret their green computer screens; the cozy clapboard house in Muncie, Indiana that rattles in the wake of the spacecraft; a child's bedroom with the wind-up toys and the record-player all abuzz, shattering the silence and waking a three-year-old boy (these images felt like precursors to Poltergeist, which Spielberg produced) and calling the curious youngster out of the house, his bewildered mother (Melinda Dillon) following after him.

But then, as Richard Dreyfuss's character becomes increasingly more obsessed with his close encounter, the movie becomes tiresome and our trust in the direction of the story falters. I think it was the scene where Dreyfuss pulls the shrubs out of the yard--by the root--and throws them into the kitchen through an open window, that pulled me out of the movie. I'm not a fan of Richard Dreyfuss to begin with: he's too much the stereotypical egghead, miscast as an everyman whose repressed wide-eyed eccentricity awakens during his close encounter and alienates his wife (Teri Garr) and three young children.

I can appreciate that Spielberg (who also wrote the screenplay) was grasping at the wondrous with this project. But I was too disinterested by the time we finally got to have a look at the alien beings whose imminent landing teased us for the whole movie. And I kept re-casting the main character, quite convinced that Jeff Bridges, with his rugged mellow Americana qualities, would have serviced this film nicely: he has the necessary "everyman" look down pat, and I can believe Jeff Bridges is a curious eccentric more easily than I can like or enjoy Richard Dreyfuss.

What's more, much of the film centers around Dreyfuss's mini-meltdown. Because he's so obsessed with the spaceship he saw, his wife ends up leaving him with the kids in tow, and it struck me as fairly cynical that the "everyman" should be so monomaniacal. He loses it, and in turn loses the audience along with "it."

On a positive note, the so-called practical effects were refreshing after seeing an endless series of computer-generated effects in current movies. Even The Great Gatsby looked like it was mostly done with computers, and that depresses me greatly. Going back to the 1970s, when big-time effects were done with models and "magic," I'm reminded of the immense value a movie can have when someone actually makes the trick. Even when some of the effects appear dated, they're still believable. The CGI, for all its realistic looks, is not believable.

With Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer, Lance Henriksen, and Roberts Blossom. 137 min.

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