Film & Television

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Forty Years Later

Watching Close Encounters after forty years, it’s remarkable how well the plot, effects and cinematography hold up. Although Spielberg tested some early computer-generated imagery (CGI), it proved too costly and time-consuming for his budget and schedule. Instead, the movie relied on old school techniques: puppetry and motion control photography. Today, the model of the alien mother ship resides in DC at the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian.

Spielberg’s films, with or without special effects, have always focused on people and relationships. This element of the movie still feels relevant today as well. Roy and his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) bicker casually while their three children wreak havoc in their house. (Their middle son literally bashes his sister’s baby doll to bits in the background.) Louder arguments break out over whether they’re going to see Pinocchio or play Goofy Golf. And, when Roy begins to act crazy after his initial encounter, Ronnie goes from supportive to embarrassed to distraught. She takes the kids and leaves.

And, that’s where the movie becomes more than a bit disturbing for a contemporary audience. Roy’s kids are gone. So, what does he do? He builds a model of Devil’s Tower in the middle of their living room. He drives to Wyoming. He escapes from a military chopper, climbs a mountain, and insinuates himself into a top secret operation. And — here’s the grand finale of spoilers — he ends up leaving Earth with the aliens, grinning like an idiot with apparently no thought of the human offspring he’s leaving behind, probably for years if not forever.

Roy’s character is Peter Pan. Like Barrie’s boy who would never grow up, he doesn’t have time or use for anything as grounding as a family.

Jillian, on the other hand, is desperate to get her family back. In 1977, Spielberg was not yet married or a father. But, as a filmmaker, he understood how to depict the unbreakable — and indomitable — bond of motherhood. She is as brave and proactive as Roy, but with a different purpose. Jillian’s scenes are intensely moving, and Dillon (who may be best known for her role as the mother in the cult favorite A Christmas Story, but who was also featured in the original Broadway cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf still breaks your heart.

Sadly, there aren’t enough women in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One element that dates the film is how few females appear in any of the scenes of the scientists. A team of astronauts does include two women (one with a nifty blonde beehive hairdo), but they are tokens at best. Apparently, preparing for alien arrival is “man’s work.”

Spielberg made Roy the central hero of the movie. It’s Jillian though who emerges as its heart. You can sit back and enjoy the ride, marvel at a true Hollywood classic. But, you can’t help but notice the characters’ priorities — and wonder just how true, based on some inherent gender reality, they may be.

Because, the bottom line is this. The woman goes on an incredible adventure for one reason: in order to find her child. The man leaves his children for one reason: in order to go on an incredible adventure.

After forty years, that’s what makes all the difference in this world.

Or somewhere beyond it.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.