Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"We're the only ones who know! The only ones!"

After the Buffalo Bills managed to lose at home to the Cleveland Browns by a score of 6-3, despite holding the Browns to just two completed passes on the day, I decided that I was done watching them for the year and instead instituted a little tradition for The Daughter and I (since The Wife works on Sundays) called "Instead of the Buffalo Bills Theater". What this basically means is that instead of the Bills game, we watch a movie instead. It's a lot more fun than watching boring, badly-played football by a team that's probably not going to be here anymore pretty soon anyway. So, one film we recently watched was an old favorite of mine that I hadn't seen in a long time, it turns out: Steven Spielberg's UFO classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Describing the plot probably isn't necessary, but maybe it is – the movie is over thirty years old, after all. Its opening scenes establish, via subtitle, that the events we're watching take place in the "Present Day", although the illusion is harder and harder to maintain, the farther out we get from 1970s-era cars, hairstyles, and architecture. Still, we open rather mysteriously as a bunch of government operatives arrive at a crappy little town – or maybe it's not even a town – in the middle of a desert in Mexico. Why is this group, led by a Frenchman, here? To investigate just why a group of fighter planes that disappeared in 1945 have shown up there, with no trace of the pilots. (It's the famous Flight 19, which disappeared without a trace while on patrol over the Caribbean.) A local, an old man who looks as poor as his surroundings, tells the investigators that "The Sun came out last night", and that it sang to him. He is mysteriously sunburned.

This is the first of a series of very odd events that take place, all around the world: a ship turns up in the middle of the Gobi desert, the entire population of a city in India is singing a series of tones given to them from the sky, series of numbers are broadcast to a radio telescope that seem to be the latitude and longitude for Devil's Tower, Wyoming. As all this goes on, with the shadowy government people investigating it (just who they are and who they answer to is never really explained, although at one point they're seen to be driving around in vehicles marked "UN"), two people in Indiana are drawn in via psychological "messages" given to them (and many others, apparently). Electrician Roy Neary is out investigating a power outage when he truck stalls and is flown over by a UFO; single mother Jillian Guiler is awoken to find that her son Barry has run off into the woods after all of his toys have turned on. Both Roy and Jillian become more and more obsessive over time as the visions being implanted in their brains become stronger and stronger. Both of them are put through harrowing experiences: Roy loses his job and his family becomes more and more estranged by his increasingly crazy behavior, with the final straw being when he decides to build an enormous Devil's Tower sculpture in his own living room, while little Barry, Jillian's son, is actually abducted by the aliens in what is one of the more harrowing sequences Spielberg has ever directed. (To this day, the scene of Barry's abduction is scarier to me than anything M. Night Shyamalan has done.)

Eventually Roy and Jillian learn, along with others, that they are actually being called by the aliens, although they don't know who the aliens are, to Devil's Tower for the arrival of the Mother Ship, even though they're still not sure what's going on and may well be heading into their deaths. (The Devil's Tower region has been cleared of all people via the news of a train derailment that has spilled thousands of gallons of toxic gas into the air in those parts – or so the government has reported. It turns out that there was no toxic gas and that the livestock in the region was knocked out by the use of a sleep aerosol. One wonders how they'll explain this once everything's done – "Our bad, your cows were asleep, but everything's OK, come on home now" – but one also suspects that once the explanation for just why Devil's Tower and everything around it had to be cleared out gets made public, the apologies for the sleep gas will be the least important thing going on. I'd love to know what happens after CE3K, but more on that a bit later.

So the mother ship arrives, and turns out to be benign. Everything going on has simply been the aliens' way of saying "Hello", and in the end, all the people they've "abducted" are returned, including the pilots of Flight 19, little Barry Guiler (who is genuinely sad to see the aliens go), and a bunch of others. But before the aliens leave again, they take someone with them again, this time voluntarily: they choose Roy Neary. His selection and boarding of the ship, as John Williams's magnificent score quotes "When You Wish Upon a Star", is the film's emotional high-water point. The ship leaves, and the credits roll.

I'd be fascinated, though, to know what happens the day after. What happens? I'd assume they can't keep all this a secret, and that word of the First Contact will get out. So what then? What would the world be like once we know, for all time, that we're not alone? The film makes no suggestions thereof; neither does the later film Contact, which is content to allow many to believe that the first contact didn't even happen. And not just the world in general, but what would it be like, being Roy Neary's wife and learning of what became of him? Learning that he wasn't crazy, and that it was all part of a plan by these aliens? Her actions (getting increasingly upset with Roy before finally concluding that he's literally gone crazy and become dangerous enough that she leaves him, taking the kids with her) are entirely reasonable, and while it is to Spielberg's credit that he doesn't present her actions as unreasonable, we are left to wonder what it will be like for her to learn that no, Roy wasn't crazy after all.

Spielberg grew up in a broken household himself, and it is something of a recurrent theme in a lot of his early movies. The family in ET is a broken home; even in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is shown to be estranged from his father figure, Abner Ravenwood, and is later shown in Last Crusade to be somewhat estranged from his actual father. I read somewhere that Spielberg has admitted that if he were to make CE3K today, he wouldn't just have Roy Neary go off with the aliens without so much as a farewell to his family or something similar. And yet, Neary's actions themselves, as presented in the film, aren't unreasonable either. He doesn't have the chance to explain anything to his family, because he doesn't understand any of it, and by the time he does understand it, the time to leave is upon him, if he wishes to take it. On this one level, then, the film's resolution somehow seems both wrong and right at the same time. It's an odd thing, really, and only as we watch the film do we realize that we have no real idea at all of what the aliens were about in the first place. Spielberg makes no attempt to explain any of this. Where are they from? Where are they going? When do they plan to bring Roy back? Do they plan to bring Roy back? We never learn one answer to any of these questions, and the reason seems more practical than anything else: the film just doesn't have room for the answers. There's no point at which it would make sense for anything to be explained. That fascinates me.

Technically, the film still looks wonderful, even now that it's more than thirty years old. There are only a few moments that genuinely appear dated – a shot of Ronnie Neary in her "sensible shoes", a shot of the old-school dashboard radio in Roy Neary's electricians' truck – but everything looks natural enough, so it's generally easy to get into the spell of the film. The effects are amazing, crowned by the mothership, whose arrival is one of the most stunning special effects sequences ever filmed. Now, I'm not one to wax poetic about the model-making era of movie effects or to decry the way things look now that it's all done with computers, but that doesn't mean I'm not often amazed by the artistry involved in the great effects spectacles of the past. This is one of them.

CE3K is one of those films that doesn't get enough recognition for how influential it is. There's a great deal in its production design, its approach to atmosphere, and even its music that would show up in later efforts like The X-Files and other conspiracy or horror shows and films of the 90s and 2000s. I always take note, of course, of John Williams's score, which makes heavy use of atonal dissonances throughout but which also gradually moves toward a tonal climax toward the end, and of course, there is the masterful way Williams incorporates the aliens' musical communication motif into the tableau of his scoring at film's end. (If ever I start my own Geek version of the Freemasons, our secret handshake will incorporate the musical hand signals from CE3K. Anybody can make the Vulcan salute from Star Trek, but how many people know the hand signals from Close Encounters?)

Remember: this means something. This is important.


Lynn said...

One of the best movies ever! Sadly, my boys have never liked it because of the lack of explosions, high-tech weapons and things going really, really fast. They hated ET for the same reason.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

I remember being very bothered by the scene where the electrician simply walked into the ship without any concern for his kids. I always thought that was such powerful symbolism of something happening all too often.

The aliens and the fantastic space ship represented to me the lure of self indulgence and ego run riot. Their large heads indicated an obsession with self.

Yes, the Spielberg era ushered in the broken family-as-normal. Why is it that more modern marriages in this country fail than marriages based on family matching kids via family connections as the Indians (those from India) do?