Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Young film snobbery of the third kind

In 1977 a science-fiction film was released that became an obsession of my 10 year-old self. That film was not "Star Wars." That film was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Don't get me wrong - I saw "Star Wars" at the theater 3 times during the summer of 1977 and was pretty enraptured of it. But then during Christmas vacation my parents took us to see "Close Encounters" and all bets were off. I felt then and still feel that "Close Encounters" is the superior film. I saw it 2 more times that winter, and also saw the "special edition" twice when it was released in 1980.

The movie grabbed me pretty quickly - possibly because it seemed much more real and plausible, even to my young eyes. At it's core, the movie is basically about an ordinary man (an electrician for Pete's sake) grappling with the unknown, as well as the question "are we alone?"

Brief digression: that last part reminds me of a quote from author Arthur C. Clarke that I've always found, for lack of a better phrase, rather mind-blowing: "Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."

Well put, Mr. Clarke. Anyway, the movie contained an interesting mix of menace and wonder - kids were abducted, hard-to-define UFO's flew by casting off lens flares, the government was engaged in a cover-up, etc. Where "Stars Wars" was all adventure and spectacle, and quite obviously make-believe, "Close Encounters" was shot on locations and seemed maybe like it had, or could, actually occur. When we left the theater, I reflexively looked up at the night sky ("Hey, is that star moving?").

I watched the last hour or so of "Close Encounters" last night on some HD channel - it looked pretty darned good in hi-def, but also made me think about how well the movie has aged over the years. Certainly is has aged better than "Star Wars," and is without a doubt a more emotional and cerebral film. Collectively the acting is better, the effects are to my mind more impressive because of their real-world context, and it has a shot that imbedded itself into my brain and has never left - in my opinion one of the indelible moments of cinema. This one:

That abduction sequence was masterful as whole, but that shot - with the trees whipping around due to an otherwordly inferno being generated by God knows what kind of mechanism landing in someone's front yard - holy cow.

I was definitely in the minority at school when I attempted to convince others that "Close Encounters" was better. It had no toys or merchandising, and thus failed to whip youngsters into a frenzy like "Star Wars" did (I'll grant you that it was also much more fun to run around the neighborhood pretending to be Han Solo, pointing your imaginary blaster and going "Pew! Pew!" than it was pretending to be Roy Neary driving around in an electrical truck) . Then again, whenever mashed potatoes were served for dinner, you were presented with a golden opportunity to sculpt them into the shape of Devil's Mountain. So there.

"Close Encounters" was a huge financial success, and I think time has borne out my opinion of it's enduring quality. Certainly "Star Wars" has remained more in the public consciousness, but barring a few moments of aliens obviously played by little kids in costumes at the end (the mechanical alien puppet that does the sign language and smiles is awesome, though), "Close Encounters" isn't dated at all, and in fact seems like it could be made today.

But don't even try and draw me into an argument about whether "Close Encounters" is better than "The Empire Strikes Back." I'm not touching that one.


L*U*K*E said...

This movie made me play with my mashed potatoes for years too.

Bob said...

Close Encounters doesn't come close to equaling Star Wars. I don't know what it was about that movie. I liked it well enough, but I could never get excited about it. In fact, I think I'd rather watch Return of the Jedi, a true meh of a movie, five times instead of Close Encounters once.

This is what Close Encounters should have been like.


Dr. Charles Nostrand said...

Star Wars is certainly more of a thrill ride and has had a greater impact on popular culture. But that's the only advantage I can give it.

I think if you found two adults who hadn't seen either (impossible, I know) and screened them, Close Encounters would be named as the better movie.

Casey Brewer said...

Close Encounters for me tangles with the same emotions and fears of the original Jaws movie. What lies beyond our consciousness and imagination, whether that be in the depths of the ocean or outer space. There was an element of possibility there that wasn't evident in the Star Wars films.

I was probably more of a fan of Star Wars as a kid, but I've watched Close Encounters and Jaws far more as an adult.