The Greening of the Solar System
by Pauline Kael
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the most innocent of all technological-marvel movies, and one of the most satisfying. This film has retained some of the wonder and bafflement we feel when we first go into a planetarium: we ooh and aah at the vastness, and at the beauty of the mystery. The film doesn’t overawe us, though, because it has a child’s playfulness and love of surprises. There is a moment that is startlingly funny in its obviousness when a whole landscape of people in India who are ecstatically chanting a five-note theme are asked where these sounds came from, and a mass of arms are raised straight up, forefingers pointing. In routine science-fiction films, any bodies from space are alien invaders; they come from out there, and we start running or shooting. But in Close Encounters they come from up there—they’re sunburst Gods arriving through Blakean Old Testament clouds. This isn’t nuts-and-bolts, Popular Mechanics sci-fi; it’s beatific technology—machines from outer space deified. And to cap it all, the intelligent creatures in these machines are benevolent. They want to get to know us. This vision would be too warm and soul-satisfying if it weren’t for the writer-director Steven Spielberg’s skeptical, lefs-try-it-on spirit. He’s an entertainer—a magician in the age of movies. Is Spielberg an artist? Not exactly—or not yet. He’s a prodigy—a flimflam wizard-technician. The immense charm of Close Encounters comes from the fact that, for all its scale and expense (nineteen million dollars), this is a young man’s movie— Spielberg is still under thirty—and there’s not a sour thought in it. (The title is from a book by the astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek—close encounters of the first kind are sightings, the second kind are physical evidence, and the third involve actual contact. Sightings aren’t necessarily close and they’re not encounters, and physical evidence isn’t an encounter, either, but the title sounds good, anyway.)
The basic story is scanty: this unidentified-flying-objects movie is about those who are “looking for answers.” In Muncie, Indiana, an electrical-power-company lineman named Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), a three-year-old boy named Barry (Cary Guffey), the boy’s mother (Melinda Dillon), and a collection of innocuous misfits, retired folks, and artists all catch sight of the flaring lights of spacecraft; some of them are sunburned, and a vision is implanted in them. They become obsessed with a shape they don’t understand—a lumpy, sawed-off pyramid or mountain. At the same time, an international team of scientists, headed by a clearheaded Frenchman, Lacombe (François Truffaut), is dashing about the globe picking up word of other signals, which direct the team to a mountain in Wyoming. It is the spot the aliens have chosen for a rendezvous with us earthlings, and the dreamers—the invited guests— converge upon it. But military personnel who are working with the scientific team cut most of them off. It’s a going-to-Bethlehem story. Only those with enough faith and luck make it.
Close Encounters is a vindication of village crazies. Those people always give you the feeling they know something you don’t, and in this scientific fairy tale it turns out they do. God is up there in a crystal-chandelier spaceship, and He likes us. The stoned, the gullible, the half-mad, and just plain folks are His chosen people. To be more exact: It likes us. (The extraterrestrials appear to have evolved beyond sex.) The largest craft, the mother ship, is a great celestial body—a symmetrical, rounded Christmas-tree ornament as big as a city. When it descends from on high, looming over the mountain and hovering there, no storybook illustration can compete with it. This is something only movies can do: dazzle you by sheer scale—and in this case by lights and music as well. Spielberg is the son of an electrical-engineer, sci-fi-addict father and a classical-pianist mother, and in the climax of the film he does justice to both. Under the French scientist’s direction, the earthlings are ready with a console, and they greet the great craft with an oboe solo- variations on the five-note theme; the craft answers in deep, tuba tones. The dialogue becomes blissfully garrulous. And with light flooding out from the windows of this omniscient airship—it’s like New York’s skyscrapers all lighted up on a summer night—there is a conversational duet: the music of the spheres. This is one of the peerless moments in movie history—spiritually reassuring, magical, and funny at the same time. Very few movies have ever hit upon this combination of fantasy and amusement—The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, in a plainer, down-home way.
Close Encounters, too, is a kids’ movie in the best sense. You can feel the pleasure the young director took in making it. With his gift for investing machines with personality, Spielberg is the right director for science fantasy. He made a malevolent character of a truck in Duel, his famous made-for-TV movie. In his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, he had cars dancing, feuding, bonding. In his second film. Jaws, he turned a computeroperated shark into a personal enemy. And now he’s got his biggest mechanical toys: the mother ship and the flying-saucer herald angels— whirring through the skies, flashing their lights. Some are intergalactic Pucks teasing earthlings and leading them on fools’ chases; some are stately geometric forms spinning languorously. Each is like a musical divertimento, a delight unto itself. Jaws was a nightmare movie; this is a dream. In Jaws, the harrowing terror kept building; here the mystical good humor builds— the story envelops you. With Truffaut as Lacombe, the sympathies of the scientist don’t have to be explained; he is essentially the educated man of good will that Truffaut played in his own The Wild Child. Truffaut suggests efficiency plus innate refinement; his forehead is noble, his features are modelled in a seraphic smile, and he’s small. His Lacombe is a calm, wise child who responds to the vision of the dreamer-misfits—shares their instinctive trust of what is in space. (And when, at last, he communicates with a visitor from above, there is a fleeting suggestion of Jean Renoir’s lopsided grin in the extraterrestrial’s young-old face.)
There are, of course, limitations to science-fiction movies. People used to love to be frightened by ghost stories—those evil portents of a world beyond death, with their intimations of haunted, macabre sex. Those stories belonged to an age when people lived in fear of their own impulses, and in dread of punishment. And movies were able to bring out the stories’ primitive-sophisticated power—their suggestiveness. Science fiction, the modern successor to tales of the supernatural, lacks those psychological dimensions, it doesn’t have the whole nighttime apparatus of guilt and superstition clinging to it. The attraction of science fiction is that it’s an escape into an almost abstract unknown. Those who are frightened of, despairing about, or bored with this world like to turn their hopes to other worlds in space, but they’re not much interested in people. Imagination and idealism are expressed in simplified, allegorical terms. Generally speaking, when a speculative fantasy deals with human conflicts in any depth, it ceases to be called science fiction. The persistent fault of sci-fi movies has been the split between the splendor of their special effects and the stilted mediocrity of their characters, situations, and dialogue. There has probably never been a first-rate characterization in an American science-fiction movie—how could there be, since the stories don’t depend on character? (That’s why science fiction used to be considered a pulp genre.) It’s difficult to think of even one well-written role. Kubrick’s 2001 was no exception: its only character who made any impression was Hal, the voice of the computer. In Star Wars, audiences fell in love with R2D2 and C3P0; people had the same reaction to Hobby, the robot in Forbidden Planet. and to the drones in Silent Running (which was directed by Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special photographic effects in Close Encounters). In sci-fi movies, the robots have personalities; the actors usually don’t. 2001 wasn’t a pop escapist fantasy, like Star Wars; it was an attempt at a more serious view of the future, which was seen as an extension of now, a super-ordinary world. In Kubrick’s conception, there was no richness, no texture—it was all blandness. He might as well have been saying, “I have seen the future and it put me to sleep.” Spielberg’s movie is set right now, and it has none of that ponderous seriousness—but it’s the same bland now that sci-fi enthusiasts seem to think we live in. The banality is really in their view of human life.
With a vast, clear sky full of stars, and a sense of imminence—much of the movie feels like being inside the dome of an enchanted cathedral waiting for the Arrival—terse, swift, heightened dialogue is called for. Instead, we hear casual, ordinary-man language, and, although it has an original, colloquial snap, Spielberg just doesn’t have the feeling for words which he has for images. And he doesn’t create the central characters (Barry’s mother and Roy), or develop them, in a writer’s way: he’s thinking about how to get them into the positions he wants them in for his visual plan. Roy is supposed to be the Hitchcockian ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances; for Hitchcock that could he Cary Grant, but for Spielberg it means a sincere attempt to show how a lumpy average man living in pop-culture emptiness could get caught up in a quest. Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy waddles in rear view, and becomes moist-eyed when he longs for knowledge. We seem to be asked to respond to Roy for being out of condition and, at times, out of control. There’s a fine dinner scene in which Roy’s children, who love him, are upset by the compulsiveness of his behavior; they can feel him growing away from them. But Spielberg doesn’t follow through on the change in Roy; he jumps to a low-comedy marriage-breakup scene. And after we’ve had a few closeups of Roy’s hectic fervor, as he attempts to share his U.F.O. experience with his pragmatic wife (Teri Garr), her dry philistinism has a hard- edged, comic-strip appeal. With her one-track mind, she’s a frozen pizza in Roy s yearning-mystic eye. As one of the crackpots—a man who has seen Bigfoot as well as flying saucers—Roberts Blossom has the look of a true believer. That’s what Dreyfuss lacks. Spielberg is far more successful with Barry, the three-year-old, whose pure lust for otherworldly entertainment is delicately funny. Barry, the toddling light-worshipper who sees the sky as a giant toy shop, is closer to the heart of Spielberg s vision than Roy, whose “looking for answers” Dreyfuss strains to represent.
Steven Spielberg is probably the most gifted American director who’s dedicated to sheer entertainment. He may have different aims from the aims of people we call artists, but he has integrity: it centers on his means. His expressive drive is to tell a story in shots that are live and hopping, and his grasp of graphic dynamics may be as strong as that of anyone working in movies now. The spatial relationships inside the frame here owe little to the stage, or even to painting; Spielberg succeeds in making the compositions so startlingly immediate that they give off an electric charge. He puts us right in the middle of the action, yet there’s enough aesthetic distance—he doesn’t assault us. Though the perspectives don’t appear forced or unnatural, they’re often slightly tilted, with people moving rapidly in or out of the frame, rarely intersecting the center and never occupying it. By designing the images in advance, Spielberg is able to cut without any confusion. Nobody cuts faster on shots full of activity than he does, vet it’s never just for the sake of variety: it s what the movie is about that generates the images and the cutting pattern, and there’s a constant pickup in excitement from shot to shot—a ziggety forward motion. Even the weakly motivated sequences (which are needed for a later, visual payoff)—such as Roy’s going batty, and tearing up his garden and throwing mud and plants in through his kitchen window’, or the mountain scaling out of North by Northwest, which comes across as a delaying tactic—are partly saved by Spielberg’s visual energy. Close Encounters is big and complex (in addition to Vilmos Zsigmond, who was the director of photography, other famous cinematographers—William A. Fraker, Douglas Slocombe, John Alonzo, and Laszlo Kovacs—worked on it), and there are sequences, such as the one in India, that are fine in themselves yet don’t have Spielberg’s distinctive graphics. But he never loses the emotional drive of his subject, and he gives audiences full opportunity to luxuriate in the sensuousness of the spectacle. It’s too bad that John Williams, who did the score, thinks he’s still working on Jaws. Movie music in general has reached the point where if it isn’t meant to cheer you or to scare you, the composer doesn’t know what to do. Except for the great duet here, Williams provides emotional noise, rising and shrilling in the Bernard Herrmann manner. The score fails to match the witty use of rapturousness in such images as that of Barry trotting out of his house at night—just a speck on the prairie under a blanket of stars and a huge roiling cloud.
Close Encounters shows an excess of kindness—an inability (or, perhaps, unwillingness) to perceive the streak of cowardice and ignorance and confusion in the actions of the authorities who balk the efforts of the visionaries to reach their goal. Having devised a plot in which the government systematically covers up information about U.F.O. sightings, Spielberg is much too casual about how this is done and imprecise about why. He has a paranoid plot, but he hasn’t dramatized the enemy. The obstacles here are just Air Force and Army men doing their duty, and these authorities are shrugged off by the cranks, or humbly accepted. Roy and the others don’t have the incapacitating hatred of smooth-talking authority which would make us respond to their frustrations—would make us feel what was unhinging them. Impersonality doesn’t enrage Spielberg, because he hasn’t got at the personality hidden in it. Stock villainy isn’t what’s needed—something deeper is. He had similar trouble with the corrupt local merchants and politicians in Jaws; their corruption was tired, ritualized—it was necessary for the plot, that was all. In Close Encounters, there is nothing behind what the military men do except bureaucratic indifference. But that means they don’t know what they’re doing—and to be so totally blind is tragic, crazy’ emptiness. Spielberg has a genuine affection for harmless aberrants, but he doesn’t fathom the dangerous aberrance of authority—particularly an authority that in its own eyes is being completely reasonable. In terms of his plot, Spielberg needs some ferry Southern in his soul, or maybe even some Norman Wexler. He needs to show us how scared bureaucrats are of something they can t understand and don’t know how to handle.
Steven Spielberg is commercial without really being commercial: that is, he’s a popular entertainer who doesn’t have a feeling for the profane, sneaky pleasures of tawdriness. Close Encounters is so generous in its feelings that it makes one feel maternal and protective; there’s also another side of one, which says, “I could use a little dirty friction.” Most directors who make sweet movies are unskilled, and you’re supposed to forgive them their incompetence because of their niceness. Spielberg may be the only director with technical virtuosity ever to make a transcendently sweet movie. Close Encounters is almost the opposite of Star Wars, in which a whole planet was blown up and nobody batted an eye. It seems almost inconceivable, but nobody gets hurt in this movie, except the occupants of one police car, who are so delirious in their pursuit of a flying object that they hurtle off the highway into the air, and then bounce down to earth in a ditch—and they may he too surprised to be hurt. The film is like Oklahoma! in space, with jokes; it s spiritual cotton candy and it goes down easy. The summer-skies atmosphere is achieved by certain exclusions: the film is virtually sexless, and the aliens don’t deliver any invitations to the Soviet bloc, so there’s no political scrambling in the race to the rendezvous. Mercifully, there’s no cosmological philosophizing, either: nobody stands around arguing about what the manifestations prove. As was the case with 2001, though, the publicity is full of the usual announcements about the data in it not having been disproved. And statistics about how many millions of people claim to have seen firing saucers are used to give the film an almost official status, as if it were a daring inquiry into facts that the government is hiding from us. These publicity claims of credibility and usefulness only take away from what should be the film’s enduring appeal as fantasy.
Close Encounters is a beautiful, big, enjoyable film that sends you out happy. It might be even better if there weren’t so many people at the end looking upward with transfigured faces. Star Wars had its guru, Alec Guinness, in his neo-Lost Horizon trappings, and this film, too, has its gaseous naïveté. But it has the visionary magic to go with it. If Roy and Lacombe and the other dreamers do a lot of blinking and staring up with wet eyes, it’s not like The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima—here we at least get to see what they’re staring at. And we watch Roy ascend the stairway to Heaven. Spielberg is busy, like that fine humbug Wizard of Oz, pressing buttons on his light panel. He puts on a great show.
The New Yorker, November 28, 1977