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A Beautiful Encounter

August 4, 2006

Steven Spielberg gets a lot of shit for his endings, and rightly so. Especially over the last 10 years, he has had a real problem coming up with satisfactory conclusions to his complex narratives. With Munich‘s nonsensical sex montage, he introduced the only thing worse than the artificial happy ending: the forced arty ending.

But while his denouements may be maudlin, at least they’re consistent. Despite the generic variety of his movies, the fundamental narrative is almost always the same: a male protagonist either rejects or loses his original family and then finds or creates a new one.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestial is only the most obvious example. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks forms a family with his men at about the exact moment he tells them about his life back home. Meanwhile, Private Ryan’s (Matt Damon) family narrative begins as Tom Hanks’ ends; in the climactic battle scene, Ryan loses most of the men of his adopted family, whom he refuses to abandon despite being the last surviving brother from his “real” family. Years later, we see he has created a family of loving children and grandchildren.

In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) rejects his boring, dysfunctional parents and adopts several families on his way to becoming part of a lasting family unit at the FBI. In Munich, Avner (Eric Bana) leaves his beloved wife behind for a twisted family of assassins. When he reunites with his wife in New York, he is incapable of recreating the domestic bliss he enjoyed in the movie’s opening scenes. The list goes on. (The only exceptions, it seems, are Jaws, the Jurassic Park movies and the Indiana Jones movies, but then again, the third IJ movie ended with Indy reuniting with his estranged father. And Spielberg made Jaws during the mid-’70s, about the only time in Hollywood history when bleak conclusions were considered more marketable than happy ones.)

As best as I can tell, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first Spielberg movie to follow this narrative template. In it, Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a beleaguered family man who seems more interested in playing with his toy trains than his children. While on a maintenance call for the electric company, he and his truck are buzzed by an alien spaceship. Despite numerous reports of UFOs in the area, his family doesn’t believe him. As his obsession with the mysterious experience grows, his wife becomes so fed up that she takes the kids and leaves. Following the visions in his head, he makes his way to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming where he witnesses an alien visit and joins the visitors on an intergalactic trip to parts unknown.

What makes Close Encounter of the Third Kind tougher, and a tad more unsettling, than most other Spielberg movies is that Roy had a perfectly good family to start with. He goes out of his way to alienate them, literally and figuratively destroying their home so he can build a giant mud sculpture of Devil’s Tower in the living room. While he leaves for the greatest adventure man has ever known, his wife is stuck at his sister’s with three unruly kids. During the awe-inspiring final scenes, I couldn’t help but feel apprehension over Roy’s abandonment of his family; Spielberg should have included one scene, even a short one, that shows the human cost of Roy’s obsession.

But none of that takes away from the wondrous spectacle of the alien encounters. The UFOs only appear at night, bedazzled in lights, the kind of bright round lights we’d call landing lights if the ships ever touched ground. They come in a variety of simple shapes–ovals, discs, tops–reminiscent of the polygonal fighters from Space Invaders. But they’re less ominous than awe-inspiring. The ships don’t fly or hover so much as dance, and the lights are a Christmas-y mix of blue and red. They’re like floats in a cosmic Parade of the Roses.

The ante is raised further in the amazing conclusion, when a team of scientists communicate with the mothership by repeating a simple melody to each other. It’s as if the aliens are so advanced that they communicate by music, not speech. While the scientists and aliens sing, the lights on the mothership flicker and flash in unison with the music, a perfectly synchronized galactic light show.

The choreography and beauty of the aliens’ communication stands in sharp contrast to the disorder and dissonance of human communication. While the alien ships move and communicate with one voice, rarely are any two humans on the same page. Once Roy’s first silent encounter with the aliens ends, and his truck starts back up, his CB is awash with a cacophany of voices talking over each other; earlier, there’s a similarly dissonant scene at an air traffic control tower when the crew is in alert after two planes spot a UFO. In both instances, attempts at simultaneous communication devolve into incomprehensible white noise. As a filmmaking device, the contrast between human and alien life makes the climactic encounter all the more enchanting, but I wonder if Spielberg is also offering a critique of the age of rationalism.

During the scene in air traffic control, we hear the two pilots give direct testimony of the ships they see from their cockpits. Once the ships are gone, the lead air traffic controller ask if either would like to report a UFO. They both pause, and say no. Their very modern, very rational denial of an experience of wonder and mystery contrasts with a later scene when a flock of religious pilgrims gleefully repeat the alien melody for a group of UFO-chasing scientists. Spielberg seems to be saying that modern man has become so reliant on technology as a record of absolute experience that we’ll deny, even to ourselves, what our eyes see. Only men of faith, like the Indian pilgrims, are capable of witnessing wonder. (And Spielberg may not know it, but this idea, that post-Enlightenment man has lost his capacity for experiencing wonder and mystery, is one of the key points in the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.)

This connection between faith and the alien arrival becomes more explicit as the film progresses. To keep people away from Devil’s Tower, the government manufactures a train disaster, and says that a toxic gas leak will make the area uninhabitable for days. The military not only evacuates the area and closes down all roads to Devil’s Tower, it leaves dead sheep and cows along the sides of incoming roads. Roy and a fellow believer completely disregard these warning signs and drive against evacuating traffic and bust through barricades to get to Devil’s Tower–despite having no real proof the aliens will land there, besides the visions in their head. If that’s not a religious quest, I don’t know what is.

When the mothership finally lands and the aliens come out, yes, they look like the extra-terrestials from the old Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unknown” book series, but there is a remarkable innocence to them. They are bathed in light, they are naked and they all look alike. Like Adam and Eve before the serpent’s arrival, they are unfazed by their own nudity. In their virtue, mystery and power, they fulfill the fantasies of religious people waiting for a sign from God, but in their communal lifestyle and advanced technology, they also embody the highest ideals of secular rationalists.

By conflating the dreams of theists and rationalists, the aliens in Close Encounters serve as the focal point of a new kind of religion, one that replaces angels with extra-terrestials. It’s a potent, and prescient, idea. From groups like Heaven’s Gate (whose members killed themselves so their souls could depart to a more perfect planet in outerspace) to the Raelians (founded by a journalist who had an encounter with an alien on a volcano in France) to the Church of Scientology, alien worship is no longer just the stuff of sci-fi movies.

The ending is all the more amazing when you realize that the movie is nearly 30 years old. Star Wars came out the same year, and while its special effects were jaw-dropping at the time, they look a little rickety in places now. But with the possible exception of the animatronic-ish ambassador alien, the F/X in Close Encounters are remakably believable. Part of that is due to the ships always appearing at night (and steering clear of water, which is one of the trickiest vistas to render realistically, either by computer or via miniature), but part of that is due to one brilliant stylistic decision: when the alien lights point directly at the camera, they cast halos, the way oncoming headlights or spotlights at night football games do.

But perhaps the most significant virtue of the ending is that it tells us very little about the aliens. We learn nothing about who they are, where they came from, why they came, how they get here or whether they’re coming back. Spielberg, at least in this movie, seems to recognize that mystery is an essential component of awe. By showing so much but telling us so little, he left me wanting more. Spielberg 2006 could learn a thing or two about endings from Spielberg 1977.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    August 4, 2006 8:59 pm

    that’s interesting that you consider this an embrace of religion/spirituality, when spielberg pretty much avoids it all costs in his other works, even his explicitly jewish-themed ones like munich and schindler’s list. never mind the fact that all the main characters are played by non-jews; if i remember correctly, there were exactly no jewish rituals in either one, except for the rocks on the gravestones at the end of schindlers

  2. August 4, 2006 11:52 pm

    Interesting point, and it makes sense in the context of Close Encounters, which seems to celebrate a kind of rational religioiusness; a belief in technology and outerspace as sources of incomprehensible mystery and power.

    But I wouldn’t say the values of his movies are irreligious, they’re just secular humanist, which actually is a growing (albeit small) Jewish movement.

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