Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

For me, going to the cinema has always been, first and foremost, an immersive experience. My favourite films are not those with glamorous stars (though they may be present), or meaningful messages ("Messages are for Western Union") , but those that create so convincing an experience for the full 90+ minutes that I come out feeling an instant sadness at having left behind the people and places with whom I had had what amounts to a close encounter. It is to be immersed in an alternative reality so vivid that I almost struggle to return to my own mundane life.

For me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one such film. Although released in the US in 1977, it didn't come out in the UK until March 1978, so I had plenty of time to savour the anticipation with the new friends I had made in my first year at college. Not that I saw it with them, as it was during the Easter holiday that my younger brother and I made the journey to the Odeon in Portsmouth.

It was just as good as I'd anticipated. I can recall emerging from the cinema and looking up at the stars, hoping to see something as wondrous as the film I'd just watched. The working title for this movie was, apparently, 'Watch the Skies', so I did, in the fervent hope that something spectacular might reveal itself before I had to get on the bus and come home.

Over the 40 years since, I know my memories will have acquired their own layers of fantasy, not least from subsequent viewings, especially the criticisms that can be levelled at the work. I'm fairly sure that I thought at the time that Roy Neary's building of the Devil's Tower in his living room was silly; that the scale of the mothership kept changing, and it couldn't possibly have hidden behind the Tower; and that Neary's mistrust of Francois Truffaut's humane scientist was unncecessarily antagonistic.

But I was able to forgive the director these flaws as I watched how Spielberg fashioned not just a series of grand spectacles that outdid anything Lucas did in Star Wars (which I'd seen for the first time only a couple of months before), but how he let us in on the conspiracy too. We follow not just our ordinary hero as he tries to make sense of his close encounters, but also the scientists and military as they race to make sense too (so they can keep it secret).

One of my favourite scenes is early on, set in an air traffic control tower, where a pilot describes to his ATC a sighting of bright lights moving at great speed. Spielberg's camera pushes in towards the illuminated display showing the positions of craft in the near air space, and then pulls away as other ATCs come to watch the incident unfold. The use of blinking lights, reflections off spectacles, radio chatter, overlapping dialogue, pregnant pauses and no music (in contrast to the urgent horns in the opening sequence), together with subtle camera work create tension out of next to nothing. This echoes the previous scene and prefigures the climax, where, despite the impressive visuals, it's the reactions of the humans to what they are witnessing that leads the audience's emotional response (Melinda Dillon laughing at the musical exchange between the mothership and the computer; the technician who dashes to the toilet; the assembled crowd putting on their Foster Grants!).

Spielberg fiddled with this movie more than once (Special, Collector's and Director's Cut editions), but the most important scenes were left more or less untouched - those where these unusual experiences were shared, lending an objective reality that would have been missing if it had only been about the individuals concerned. If we'd been inside the cockpit of the airliner being buzzed by a UFO, it would have been his experience only. By showing us the ATC instead, and the group of men trying to make sense of what the pilot was reporting, we witness a wider, collective event, instead of merely looking in on one man's personal experience.

We are immersed from the very beginning.  As the subtitle to the movie says, 'we are not alone'.

(After writing this, I found another enthusiast who wrote a detailed analysis He rates CE3K better than Star Wars too!)

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