Close Encounters

The other day, I caught the end of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1990) and thought: so, alien beings are angelic jellyfish that read text messages? It’s all very bathetic. The mock-profundity of the sequence where Ed Harris is saved by the underwater beings conspicuously lacks the sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg achieves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), let alone Kubrick’s much more radical means by which to imagine the transcendent in the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When the giant sea/spacecraft emerges from the deep, with US Navy ships left stranded on it like so many bathtime toys, the result is curiously unengaging. There is, of course, a long-standing connection between the oceanographic and the cosmological, not least in Arthur C. Clarke’s long-standing love-affair with the sea (he abandoned Europe and went to live in Sri Lanka), but The Abyss, with its ending of a clinch between husband and wife Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, standing on the wet deck of the alien mega-submersible, is a very literal damp squib.

So I went back to Spielberg and Close Encounters. The opening of the film is wonderfully evocative, figures battling a sandstorm to discover a flight of Grumman Avengers lost in the Bermuda Triangle, including Francois Truffaut (playing it very straight) as the scientist Lacombe and the excellent Bob Balaban. There’s a strangeness to this sequence which shows what an off-kilter opening it is – we won’t see Truffaut again until much later in the film, and the film shifts to Indiana, where a passenger flight is buzzed by a UFO before the film focuses on two characters, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose young son runs off into the night in search of his extra-terrestrial playmates. The sequence where Neary, an electrical engineer lost in his truck in browned-out Indiana, encounters a UFO is full of iconic moments: standing at a level crossing, what appear to be a car’s headlights approaching behind him ascend vertically over the truck’s roof; the blinding white light and the objects in the truck’s cabin set loose from gravity; the truck, in long shot, zooming along a moonlit highway as a large, circular shadow passes across the screen; after having just avoided hitting Barry Guiler (Cory Duffy), standing in the middle of the road, Neary and Jillian watching (with a group of silent locals) the bright lights of the UFOs hurtle down the highway then carry on through a bend and up into the sky.

This spectacle is both superseded and completed by the end of the film. Under a kind of psychological compulsion, and accompanied by Jillian, Neary travels to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where scientists have constructed a base or kind of landing pad for alien visitors. Doug Trumbull’s effects in this sequence are marvels of light: their colours unearthly, upper-saturated neon, bespeaking their extra terrestrial origin. They shine too brightly; yet they are not threatening, even when the huge Mothership decends. Spielberg, in a typical visual gesture for him, renders the spectacle less anxious by arraying diegetic spectators. One or two run to the toilet, but most stand and watch, beguiled by the play of light. And play is crucial to the representation of the aliens in Close Encounters, from Barry Guiler’s toys at the beginning of the film (compare the sinister scene in the children’s bedroom in the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982), where the toys come to ‘life’), to the playfulness of the lights chased across Indiana by Neary and thee police cars, to the child-like aliens milling about on the landing field at the end.

Of course, at the end of the film, Neary abandons his own wife and children in search of wonder; he is chosen by the childlike alien entities (after gatecrashing the close encounter) and ascends to the stars. But this is the imperative of playtime, for Neary: he wants to discover, to inhabit a sense of wonder, to play. It countermands everything else. No wonder then, at Lacombe’s parting words: ‘Monsieur Neary, I envy you.’

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