I can not remember what led me to track down this film, but a few years ago, I went out of the city, to buy it on DVD. A few hours later (the journey home), I popped in my new DVD and fell in love. Spielberg made a movie about aliens in which the film is more interested in characters than the aliens themselves (a statement that doesn’t stay true a few years later).
One night as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) sees a UFO, and it changes his and his family’s life. Roy is constantly motivated to find out more, and as he begins to have visions of something he can’t understand, it nearly becomes an obsession. One day as he attempts to shave, using shaving cream he tries to make Devil’s Tower, and it’s this vision that makes him try and make it in everything he can. He draws it, makes it out of mashed potatoes, and eventually sculpts a giant version of it in his living room.
In a beautifully constructed moment, Roy knows that this vision has changed him, and he needs to find out why, but as Roy breaks down in the middle of dinner, his family looks at him as if they don’t even know him. And they don’t, not anymore. After the close encounter that causes a sunburn on only half of Roy’s face, his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) wants him to get a sunburn on the other half to even it out. Ronnie and her kids just want things to go back to normal, but that isn’t enough for Roy anymore.
Roy has a dream, has a passion of sorts that he must chase for Roy becomes an artist. Almost in the literal term in which he attempts to make sculptures out of different materials: shaving cream, mashed potatoes and for his final project, plants, dirt, and a garbage can. They each grow larger and larger, one is practice for the next one. Roy is the artist that must chase his dreams while being in a family that doesn’t necessarily support him.
Compare that to Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who also has her own close encounter and understands what Roy is going through – to a degree. Jillian is in this for Barry, her son. In the beginning, her son sees something (in Spielberg fashion, we don’t see it, but we see his reaction to it) and runs out of the house with Jillian close behind. Soon after, in a legitimately suspenseful sequence, Barry is taken away.
Here’s the huge bombshell that some may find surprising, out of all of Spielberg’s filmography, this might very well be my favourite. Between the family dynamics, Roy’s driving passion for leading him to a place he (and many others) have never been before, Jillian risking her life for her son and, not to mention the naturalistic way with the camera. Nearly every frame is used to its full potential, it’s magnificent.
It’s because of this movie, that led to Spielberg to want kids, which led to E.T., which led to Amblin (his production company) which led to a dozen more films. To me, there are many other films that I love nearly as much as this one, but this is the only one that would make me drive to Wyoming, climb a hill, and go into the unknown for.
Sidenote: Close Encounters came out nearly 5 months after Star Wars. One hell of a year to be a space fan in 1977.