Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is dazzling when it is showcasing the talents of special effects designer Douglas Trumbull and his crew but falls precipitously on the scale of artistic ambition when the focus in more often redirected at that peskiest of ingredients in science fiction: human beings. So just imagine the disappointment when decades of labors and countless billions of dollars have been shuttled into the exploration of space to answer the question as to whether or not we are alone, and to find the answer is no: we are sharing the universe with the patrons of an intergalactic Chuck E. Cheese whose denizens are only interested in our species as long as they can grab the most irresponsibly infantile of the bunch whose ideal of a keen sense of mature scientific curiosity finds its foundation in the lyrics of a song made famous by Jiminy Cricket. A Spielbergian wet dream if there ever was one.
The film begins by jumping around the hemisphere recording incidents most accurately identifiable as extraterrestrial j.d. pranksterism: an airliner is buzzed by a U.F.O. to the career distressed chagrin of it’s pilot; in Mexico, a squad of missing World War II fighter planes is found pristinely intact in the desert, and most importantly (at least for the purposes of the film’s inevitable focus) the city of Muncie, Indiana, for some inexplicable reason never explained, becomes the fulcrum of extraterrestrial interest, subjecting the citizens to a series of incidents including a massive power blackout, a sadistically harrowing episode of child abduction and several traffic violations, plus selectively chosen mental implants resulting in a psychic intrusion to the film’s lead character who is already more than a little childish when we first meet him; his only frame of reference when attempting to pry his sleeping kids away from their beds to join in a nocturnal chase of spaceships is that “it’s better than Goofy Golf”, one of many blatant reminders of the Land of Disney so deliberately planted in the film that it’s unclear that when the ship does arrives the departing specimens might not be a rodent named Mickey followed by an army of dancing brooms.
This character is Muncie power department employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) whose effects from the subconscious implantation are manifesting into a manic obsession with geological protrusions while simultaneously disintegrating his obnoxious domestic situation. (If Neary is emotionally immature, then his wife is portrayed as a scattered, unsympathetic nitwit; a particularly unflattering portrait of the “average” American household as envisioned by the writer-director.) This storyline is juxtaposed with that of a globetrotting team of scientists, led by Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), who set about collecting random evidence of close encounters with extraterrestrials at evidently a moment’s notice. (It’s never explained how this group is always seemingly just minutes away from these intergalactic manifestations.) It becomes very clear early in the film that Spielberg’s interest lie more with his perverse view of everyman as everychild and so the bulk of the film’s attention centers on dreary Neary whose compulsive behavior oddly isn’t all that different from the habitually distracted character we’re introduced to (pre-encounter) and whose inability to maintain any appreciable level of cognitive thinking makes him a dubious choice at best to eventually represent the human race on an intergalactic student exchange.
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