A few weeks ago I reviewed JJ Abrams’ Super 8 for Bad Haven. I’ve never been a huge fan of Abrams’ work (except for Star Trek) and some people felt that it fell short of emulating the great Spielberg movies of their childhood.
I know it’s not really fair to compare movies like that, but Abrams was, quite literally, asking for it with Super 8. It was his ode to Spielberg. A love letter to the adventure stories that held millions of kids in thrall for much of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
So I started wondering; why was Spielberg’s early work so great? What did he put into his films that Abrams failed to evoke with Super 8?
I decided to go back and watch one of Spielberg’s early adventures, but I couldn’t choose any old Spielberg classic. My perspective on most of his movies is warped. I’ve seen E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones far too many times to give any sort of balanced opinion on them. They are such a big part of my cinematic awakening that I doubt I would notice their flaws, never mind critique them.
It had to be something I hadn’t seen in a while, if at all. It had to be Close Encounters of the Third Kind!
I could only remember seeing Close Encounters once and I was no older than 11 or 12 when I watched it. I remember liking it well enough and it’s recognised as a classic so it never really disappeared from my radar, but I was damned if I could actually remember what happened in it. I knew Richard Dreyfuss went to meet some aliens but apart from that it would almost be like watching it for the first time.
It was perfect for my comparison too. Abrams undoubtedly kept a copy of Close Encounters handy when he was developing Super 8. If there was an answer to questions about Spielberg and Abrams, surely I would find them in CE3K.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in 1977 to critical and commercial acclaim. It followed Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws, and cemented his standing as a young director to be reckoned with.
The movie stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Muncie, Indiana. When a large scale power outage occurs in the area, Roy is called out in the middle of the night to investigate. On a lonely, rural crossroads, Roy has an encounter with a UFO which he then follows in a high speed chase. After Roy’s close encounter, he becomes so obsessed with UFOs that his family leave him and he sets out, determined to find out what was on the ship he encountered and what it wanted with him.
I’ll admit this straight up – I didn’t appreciate CE3K when I first saw it. The irony is that Spielberg shot the movie so that the audience would get a sense of child-like wonder when they watched. I didn’t truly experience that until I watched it as an adult.
I made the point that Super 8 lacked the charm and humour of Spielberg’s classics and I felt totally vidicated when watching CE3K. The sense of innocence and wonder that marks CE3K just doesn’t happen in Super 8. In CE3K Spielberg has us believing that we are witnessing something profound and momentous. Super 8 drops the pretence that it’s character driven pretty early and contents itself with offering us cheap thrills.
Spielberg also made me laugh and smile. Something that never happened during Super 8. The scene where Roy’s family leaves him is particularly bittersweet. He is obviously having a breakdown and his wife and children are abandoning him, but I couldn’t help laughing as he tosses mud, shrubs and bricks through his kitchen window and then follows them through.
It’s a pretty simple story, which is probably why it’s so effective. Spielberg catches our attention early on in the story and never lets go. He contrasts the ordinary with the extraordinary but somehow always manages to keep the story grounded in reality. His stroke of genius is to place the viewer into the narrative so that Roy’s story becomes our story. When we witness the final scene, we are not witnessing it as a passive bystander but are drawn into the event, experiencing it first hand with Roy, Lacombe and all the other participants.
Despite the fact that Roy abandons his wife and kids to travel in the mothership, for who knows how long, Spielberg still manages to have him finish the movie as the good guy. If you think about, Roy is being incredibly selfish and cold. It’s a testament to Spielberg that the audience is so involved in the movie that we forgive/ignore the fact that Roy is a terrible father/selfish ass. If we’re honest, Spielberg has us so enraptured at that moment that we would do exactly the same thing if we were in Roy’s place.
Perhaps we forgive Roy because we feel he is leaving with a higher power. There is no doubt that the themes of mysticism and religion are strong throughout CE3K. It has all the hallmarks of an Old Testament story where a humble man is chosen by God for special revelations. It has the original visitation (at the crossroads), the search for an answer from above (Roy’s erratic behaviour), the pilgrimage (the journey to Devil’s Tower), the sacrifice (Roy leaves his family) and the ascension (Roy travels with the aliens).
Spielberg is enacting his own version of a biblical tale. The wonderful thing about CE3K is that it works on a totally secular level too. Atheists will look at the climax and feel a sense of wonder at how small humanity is in the grand scheme of things and how precious life really is. Be it God or Intelligent Life, the idea that something other than man exists in the universe is one that appeals universally.
CE3K has had it’s fair share of criticism too. Apart from the controversial nature of Roy’s choice to leave earth, Spielberg has been criticised for turning the audience into children. He certainly makes the viewer feel small with low angle shots. But I think it’s more likely that Spielberg just wanted us to feel humble when we witness humanity’s first contact with an intelligent alien species.
And that’s why Spielberg succeeded where Abrams fails. The simplicity of a story about an ordinary man experiencing something amazing, wonderful and beyond his comprehension speaks to an audience in a way that a fast paced, action based, monster movie never could.
Spielberg should have let Abrams in on the secret. If the movie doesn’t have a heart, the audience won’t give a damn.
- KarolTags: close encounters of the third kind, retrospective, steven spielberg