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January 11, 2011 / tietze

Encounters Not Close Enough

When Steven Spielberg was done pre-empting George Lucas by being the first movie brat to revisit and re-cut a film – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, 1980 and – phew! – 1998) – he returned to thoughts of a project Columbia Pictures had requested of him. “Night Skies” was designed as a sequel of sorts to CE3K, though in practice its take on the Hopkinsville encounter was more of a thematic follow-up. Significantly, it was intended to be a darker variant on the alien encounter myth, something that CE3K had failed to be. It’s little wonder, given Spielberg’s penchant for the family-friendly, that the project eventually evolved into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

But CE3K itself revelled in an abandonment of the family unit in the search for knowledge, exploring an everyday darkness that audiences could relate to. In this sense, it remains satisfyingly fresh in Spielberg’s oeuvre, balancing the slow deterioration of a marriage evidently already destined for failure with the forced separation of another. Perhaps this is why it sits so disappointingly as a missed opportunity in dramatic storytelling.

There is from the outset too strong a focus on the minutiae of Roy and Ronnie Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr) marriage falling apart. It’s painted as fairly damaged to begin with, Ronnie’s endless bickering buffered only by Roy’s ability to escape initially into the world of his model train set and later into his post-close encounter obsession. Roy comes across as a child – the Pinocchio that Spielberg was after – while Ronnie is the supposed element of maturity, the adult who wants their family to conform to social norms. She’s endlessly worried about what their neighbours or friends will think. Worse, she sees no value in her husband’s occasional eccentricity, bitching at him right after he’s tried to get through to their son in helping with his maths homework. (The method he uses, while brusque and ultimately unsuccessful, would nowadays be considered an innovative teaching strategy.) Despite Roy’s oddball behaviour after his close encounter of the second kind, Ronnie shows not a jot of concern for the fact that half his face has been irradiated in the middle of the night, nor an ounce of worry that he’s been off on call for a hell of a long time.

About the only time she expresses any sympathy for anything he’s going through is when he’s fired over the phone. Even then it’s probably only because she’s the one who gets shouted at and has to pass on the message. If anything, this comes across more strongly as despair at Roy’s employer’s lack of social nicety than any sort of deep concern Ronnie may have for her husband. (Thoughts of a vanishing income probably rank higher than compassion as well.) What she saw in him in the first place, besides a handy sperm bank to pop out three kids and have the cosy nuclear existence in suburbia, is surely the greatest mystery in this narrative. Which wouldn’t be so bad if this antagonism existed to ease the family’s ultimate separation. But it’s all Ronnie’s got to give, Teri Garr functioning admirably in an exceedingly shrill, exceedingly one-note part.

The young Barry Guiler’s (Cary Guffey) abduction by the extra-terrestrials and his mother’s subsequent anguish are harrowing by comparison. Their hardship – she’s a single mother, they live in a caravan – is never overstated, indeed never overtly stated at all. Theirs is a stable, loving relationship, ripped to shreds in a frankly nightmarish scenario of wanton, apathetic destruction. (Indeed, what makes it worse is the understanding that these aliens don’t even mean any harm, that they are like H.P. Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” which wreaks havoc in its path merely by existing.) We don’t want Barry and Jillian’s (Melinda Dillon) family of two to be torn asunder, and boy do we give a shit when it is. But it’s okay, because the aliens are ultimately benevolent, mother and son are reunited, and we’re supposed to be focussed on Richard Dreyfuss anyway.

The shitty quality of the Neary marriage isn’t the only point that’s laboured in CE3K. Roy tearing the garden apart to build his sculpture of the Devil’s Tower is a pronounced example of Spielberg’s apparent loathing of subtlety. We get Roy’s obsession by this point: we’ve seen it enough times whenever he feels like making a mountain out of not so much a molehill as any pliable substance he can lay his hands on. Even the gentlest ten percent of this sequence would be enough to tip a sane wife over the edge, particularly as he spends most of it attacking the kitchen – her domain, if she really is Suzy Homemaker. But we get garden deforestation, shovelled soil and tossed bricks in the kitchen sink, the stock nosy neighbour’s duck pond fence being torn up – and all the while, Roy’s in his dressing gown. By the time Ronnie leaves with the kids for her sister’s place, you wonder why it took her so long to make her mind up. Hell, half the time you wonder why she waited for the close encounters to give herself an excuse.

Given all this, the family’s departure is dealt astonishing restraint. They leave, Roy gets a phone call a little later on (we only hear his end of it) and when it turns nasty, Ronnie rings off. End of family. Still, that’s okay, because there’s another blonde waiting in the wings, and she’s a believer so she won’t think Roy’s nuts. (There’s casting two blondes to suppose that’s Roy’s “type”, but there’s also lacking imagination, and this viewer for one got confused when he watched the film as a child!) Should Roy have gone on the mothership? Only if we want to give Spielberg any storytelling credit and assume he didn’t establish a “reserve” family for the guy. In a way, it’s lucky Roy does go off with the aliens. Had he tried to build a life with Jillian, she may not have taken too kindly to his adoration of the ETs.

Another key element that’s insanely laboured is the famous five-note motif. What works about it is that it’s instantly catchy and extremely memorable. Spielberg shouldn’t have had any worries about its composition in John Williams’ expert hands, particularly as the motif was written prior to shooting. Except he clearly did, because he does everything he can to ensure we’re aware of its use. An entire scene is devoted to Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) explaining how it can be conveyed through the hand signals of the Kodály Method (named after composer Zoltán Kodály, who borrowed the gestures from music education author and Congregationalist minister John Curwen), which he later uses at the landing bay behind the Devil’s Tower. Worse, he does this presumably for his own edification, since even if the aliens could see the gestures from within their UFOs, they’d never understand them.

Just in case that’s not enough, by the time Lacombe uses the gestures at the landing bay, we’ve already sat through a short scene in which some nameless background player explains verbally to a keyboardist each note, down to the octave. For something like ten to fifteen seconds. (I guess sheet music went out with the ‘60s.) Seems a strange time to be coaching said keyboardist on the tune, since the arrival of the UFOs is minutes away. Oh, and just in case none of this has registered with the audience (or the aliens?), there’s an enormous board in the background that lights up with each note. It’s multicoloured, presumably in an effort to make it appear pretty, and it appears to be arranged by octave and note. You know, in case the aliens can’t read sheet music but can still figure out that notes come in groups of eight. To human ears.

The cinematography is quite bland, with excessive diffusion used in the lengthy landing bay sequence in the film’s third act. Could this be to make the sequence seem mystical? If so, this might explain why all background personnel in the sequence are dressed in white. (Even the ciné cameras some of them are using have been painted in this shade!) Unfortunately, none of this does anything to disguise the film’s copious trick shots. Principal cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond has disastrously over-lit the studio-filmed “exteriors”, and process shots scream out to be noticed. It’s a poor trade-off for the sea of stars we’re given glimpses of every time the night sky is in shot. Given that the visual effects employed staff and techniques in common with the considerably more successful work seen in that year’s Star Wars, it’s a wonder the result isn’t significantly superior.

Speaking of commonalities with Star Wars, Spielberg’s UFOs are so chunky that they resemble nothing less than rounded rejects from Lucas’s space epic. They come across as battle hardware, not the sleek products of a sleek civilisation – and certainly nothing like eyewitness descriptions would have them. A disappointment for a such a meticulously researched project. Maybe Spielberg shouldn’t have hired out of Industrial Light & Magic after all.

For all these issues, a strong, well-structured story could easily have made them moot. Alas, CE3K is missing one of those as well. Lacombe and company turn up in too few show-stopper sequences early on, wasting Truffaut & Bob Balaban (both among the finest actors in the picture) and pulling us away from what most of the film really is. The Sonoran Desert prologue almost works because it establishes mystery and sets up the abductees who are returned at the film’s end. The Ghobi Desert add-in for the 1980 “Special Edition” is essentially a remake of that prologue. It pulls us out of the human drama that’s unfolding in the Neary household, but we accept that because we think there’s going to be more along these lines. Except there isn’t: the next time we see these characters, they’re finding the Devil’s Tower, not indulging in scenes of mind-boggling spectacle. Ultimately, their narrative exists to give the film a tail; it explains nothing and only really gives Spielberg an excuse to return little Barry by lumping him with the other abductees. Why couldn’t all the characters who’ve had CE2K experiences be drawn to the Tower, work out for themselves where it is (it’s a national monument and a very striking natural formation, so surely it’s not that unknown), then congregate and have their own encounter of the third kind without any military interference?

The alternative – and this is one that’s coloured by years of subsequent conspiracy-driven storytelling, but said offshoots probably exist largely because they work on a narrative level – is to factor the military-industrial complex into Roy’s story much more fiercely. He’s buzzed, he sees visions of the Tower much earlier, he finds comfort in a UFO support network while his marriage disintegrates in the background. But the government knows something of the score as well, and they’re aware some of these civilians might be getting too close to the truth. So there’s a conflict between parties of humans, culminating in some sort of stand-off at the Devil’s Tower UFO landing zone. The aliens subsequently arrive and encourage peace between these warring parties, thus vindicating their existence as a symbol of unity and harmony.

The film we’ve got, in all three of its versions, has no real antagonist until Spielberg wants to fatten things out at the 90-minute mark with some chases up the mountain. It’s three-quarters the story of a crumbling marriage with UFOs as its catalyst, one-quarter Star Trek on the ground. It sees Spielberg retelling most of the plot strands from his teenage epic Firelight while throwing in a few more pet interests and proceeding confidently in the belief that it’ll all mix. Unfortunately, like Spider-man 3 thirty years later, it comes off feeling like two or three stories that should have been told in separate films. There’s probably a themed trilogy to be found here, particularly if the original “Night Skies” pitch is used to round off the three, exploring three distinct facets of the UFO phenomenon. What it isn’t – what it should never have been – is one film presented in three slightly different cuts. That’s not a trilogy.

Note: I’ve based my essay on a viewing of the 1998 cut of the film, using the “Collector’s Edition” DVD as my basis. Consequently, any observations I may have made that are at variance with other versions of the film may be quietly ignored.

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