Critics' Pick

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 40th Anniversary Release (PG)

Program 137 min. September 1, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
In one sense, Steven Spielberg's 1977 UFO bliss-out, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is reprehensible. It is, after all, the story of a daydreamer dad (Richard Dreyfuss) who leaves his family for worlds unknown as he continually trades in one slender, luminous life companion for another: Teri Garr for Melinda Dillon for the glowing sprites disgorged from the grandest spaceship in cinema history. In another sense, that narrative proves deeply revealing of the film's creator and its era. The leave-it-all-behind ethos of Close Encounters extends beyond the go-nowhere clutter and clamor of the downwardly mobile suburban life of Dreyfuss' Roy Neary. Here was Spielberg the wunderkind, at the tail end of the decade of personal Hollywood filmmaking, dramatizing the desire to vault from American malaise and right into fantasy. He wished upon a star, and the movies followed. But don't let the dreck that arrived in Close Encounters' wake blind you to its wonder and honesty. Part of the fantasy in most adventure stories is a liberation from a family unit; adventure stories often disguise this by centering their quests on the restoration of that family unit. Close Encounters doesn't bother.

The extended finale posits that the aliens have come to Earth to jam on some prog. It's arranged according to the logic of Broadway showstoppers rather than science fiction. Radiant heralds dance before the arrival of the star, that glittering mothership, which blats out oboe solos. Then comes the curtain call: Out skitter the silvery aliens. This last reel, all peaceful pageantry, remains singular among blockbusters. Nobody dies, and nothing gets blown up, except the Neary family.
Steven Spielberg Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban Steven Spielberg Sony Pictures


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