Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) is a genuinely silly, unfortunately outdated story. Its epic scope made it one of the highest-grossing films of 1977, nominated for two Academy Awards ® (it lost Best Visual Effects to George Lucas' "Star Wars"). Now, 27 years later, it just seems goofy and sickeningly sweet.
Not very convincing, are we?
Spielberg adds a schmaltzy layer to most of his films that set his projects apart from the work of other directors. Arguably the most famous filmmaker since Hitchcock (in terms of public recognition), Spielberg is responsible for some of the greatest films ever made. Most critics consider "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" – both films that deal with extra-terrestrial life – to be some of his finest. For me, they are both rather disappointing. And unbearably sugar coated.
So, what is the primary problem with "Close Encounters"? Is it a bad movie? No, not really. But it's not a particularly memorable one, either. Apart from a few so-called "classic" sequences (the boy opening the door, the mashed potatoes, the alien arrival), the movie fails to spark much interest. Most of it – to be completely blunt – is quite stupid. Spielberg admits on the Special Edition DVD that he finds "Close Encounters" a bit too optimistic and unrealistic. When Spielberg made this movie, he believed in extra-terrestrial life, and was a young man with no children. In retrospect, Spielberg claims that the movie is a perfect snapshot of his youth, but as an adult, he would never make the movie the same way he did in '77.
One of the largest flaws is the fact that Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss fresh off the success of Spielberg's 1975 smash hit "JAWS") abandons his own family (wife and children) to embark on a crazy search for extra-terrestrial life. In a matter of thirty minutes of screen time he has packed up, traveled to Wyoming, broken past blocked off roads, found a new romantic interest, and by the end...well...let's just say that the conclusion is rather shameful on Spielberg's behalf. It is quite evident that he had no firm grasp of moral obligation in '77, and Roy's climactic decision is wholly unbelievable.
Then again, most of the film is like that, too.
Neary is an electrician who experiences a "close encounter" one night when a UFO buzzes his car, and then flies off into the distance. Roy soon struggles with confusing mental images that have been mysteriously implanted into his brain.
Hounded by the smart Dr. Lacombe (French director Francois Truffaut in his acting debut), Roy soon realizes that the extra-terrestrials plan to land on earth – and he wants to be there, to see it all.
Roy's evolution is too fast – in a matter of what seem to be few days he has turned into a complete loon, and because of Spielberg's lack of character arc, the sudden change is startling and – worst of all – cold. We lose all sense of empathy for Roy, primarily because we do not experience his pain – we see him suffering, sure, and moping around like a "cry baby," as his son names him. But this happens so fast that we are left wanting more.
The movie's conclusion – which lasts over forty minutes long – is the most exciting part, but the abrupt change of pace (from being a slow-moving charming family film about "close encounters" to an oddball chase movie about the government covering up a dangerous conspiracy and hunting down escaped witnesses) hinders the lasting impact. Spielberg is constantly trying to find a groove for his movie, and never really finds one to stay the course.
Then, there's the long-awaited alien introduction (which lasts over twenty minutes long). Most people flocked to the theaters in order to see this sequence – the special effects showcase of the year. Then, audiences savored the F/X because they were the best since Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (even the trailer advertisements claimed this was so, in order to entice viewers). Now, they're outdated, by almost all standards of special effects. Watching them for twenty minutes becomes tiring.
And of course, the annoying musical conversation between man and alien comes next – something else that only makes the film more grating so many years later. Even John Williams' score fails to leave the same impact as "JAWS," "Jurassic Park," etc. "It's so '70s!" someone once said. I agree. (Many great masterpieces were made during the 1970s, but most people forget how many downright cheesy, forgettable movies were made, too.)
Many will disagree with me when I say that "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is an overrated, disappointing motion picture with few redeeming qualities. The feedback should be interesting.