One of the benefits of having a good revue cinema in your neighbourhood is that it forces you to see old movies you’ve been putting off renting.
On Monday I went and saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind at The Rio, a movie I’ve been promising myself to watch for years now. I had only ever seen it once and that was on TV with commercials—lots and lots of commercials.
I remember when Close Encounters first came out 40 years ago. It was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws. Now that I think about it, Close Encounters would have been to Jaws, what M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was to The Sixth Sense: a test of an exciting new director’s talent. Was Jaws a fluke or was it all in the directing?
As I recall, Close Encounters was being marketed as a science fiction thriller. The film’s poster was ominous looking with its pitch black road that lead towards a bright light in the night sky. The commercials featured people looking into bright lights, concerned air traffic controllers, spaceships taking over cars, and luring children into fields. It was more than my 10 year old heart could handle.
The movie had an extended run at The Odeon in my hometown for its initial release. The Odeon was this cool old single screen cinema with a balcony. It had a reputation for showing grittier movies, like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy, whereas the Shoppers World Cinema featured more family friendly fare. One of the things I love about The Rio is how much it reminds of The Odeon, and downtown Brampton in the seventies.
I would have been in my early teens by the time I saw Close Encounters on television. VCRs weren’t as ubiquitous then, and my father was too cheap to buy one even if they were. The the network television premiere of a movie was an event.
I had more experience with tension-filled movies by then. I had seen Jaws, albeit on TV, but could handle a good jolt. I probably watched it on my brother’s black and white portable television while he was out with his friends.
The movie was nothing like I imagined it to be. Instead of being a thriller, it was more of a science fiction mystery where scientists are trying to learn the meaning of five chords that keep making their presence known in different parts of the world. It was more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I loved it. Except for the very end that felt like it went on for too long.
This being the 40th anniversary edition of the film, there was the obligatory mini-documentary about making of the movie. Spielberg said the inspiration for the film came out of the Nixon hearings of all things. He said, watching the hearing, he felt that the government had been keeping secrets from the country and he wondered what else they were hiding from them.
They talked to JJ Abrams, who I’m just not a fan of. I loved Cloverfield and I enjoyed his Star Trek and Star Wars reboots, but I don’t see him as the heir apparent to Spielberg and Lucas, like the film industry is trying to make us believe. Even his homage to Spielberg, Super 8, left me feeling wanting more.
They also spoke Denis Villeneuve, who directed Arrival and the Blade Runner 2049. I might be biased because he’s Canadian, but I found Villeneuve to be far more interesting. He saw Close Encounters in university and said the movie was a study in directing. You can see the echoes of Close Encounters in Arrival. And then he summed up the movie perfectly when he said the aliens and the humans attempt to communicate through culture. It was so French.
I’m pretty sure the the 40th anniversary print looks better than when the movie was released in 1977. The colours were brilliant and the special effects still hold up. The sound was perfect. You heard every freaking noise.
I was surprised by how many themes and images made their first appears in Close Encounters that would resurface again in movies like ET and Poltergeist. There’s the creepy blond child who gets abducted by an unseen entity; there were the rolling thunder clouds; the house set against the edge of a large field; the chaos of child-rearing; supernatural beings taking control of a home; governments covertly invading a community.
Narratively, Close Encounters is closer to AI than ET or Poltergeist. There’s a spiritual quality to Close Encounters that I’ve always found comforting, perhaps because I was raised Catholic and don’t believe in God. Here you have Roy, the least spiritual person in the world becoming obsessed with visitations and visions of a place he’s never seen. He develops a psychic connection with others who are having the same vision and whom everyone thinks are crazy. And some of them are. It’s an interesting perspective for an alien movie. Way ahead of its time.
My biggest complaint about Close Encounters the first time I saw it was the ending. This time my biggest complaint was the red jumpsuits they gave to the people who were selected to go on the ship by the government. The red jumpsuits were one of the biggest nods to the seventies in the entire film. Everything else looked so organic by contrast.
I was really hoping that Disney would restore the Star Wars: A New Hope and release it in the theatres for its 40th anniversary. How they passed on such a huge money-making machine is beyond me. Close Encounters was a great substitute and is probably the better film truth be told.
I read a biography about George Lucas earlier this year and the author talked about how Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola looked down on Spielberg and didn’t consider him to be of their calibre. Close Encounters definitely proves them wrong.