(3 of 4)
Spielberg tells this tale with a virtuoso's confidence. He sweeps across continents with abandon, cuts from image to image with natural grace and creates terror even out of such found objects as household appliances and store-bought toys. He also laces the film with humor. In the grand Hitchcock manner, he loves to show his characters passing over clues that are staring them right in the face. For Dreyfuss, he has written throwaway lines that highlight the absurdity that is implicit in Roy's wild dash for the unknown.
What lifts this film into orbit—and what saves it from being a shaggy flying-saucer story—is the breathless wonder that the director brings to every frame. Whether he is showing us a pristine, starry Midwestern sky or displaying Special Effects Wizard Douglas Trumbull's formidable arsenal of spaceships and celestial storms, Spielberg seems to be looking at everything onscreen as if for the first time. The freshness of his vision is contagious—and exhilarating. While most thrillers, including Jaws, manipulate the audience mechanically, Close Encounters makes it a partner in the film maker's quest for excitement.
Spielberg's point of view in the movie is almost childlike. Close Encounters is in part a celebration of innocence. The characters who achieve contact with extraterrestrial life—especially a wideeyed four-year-old boy (Gary Guffey) —are those who are most open to experiencing the unexpected. Only the innocent seize the clues that lead to Close Encounters' equivalent of Oz, the spot where the space visitors will land. Only those who are willing to follow instinct can begin to grasp the extraterrestrials' unique, nonverbal language. Though Spielberg is certainly propagandizing for a belief in UFOs in Close Encounters, any polemics he indulges in are against all the many forms of cynicism that cripple the imagination of man.
Because Jaws shortchanged its human characters for mechanical effects, Spielberg has been accused of heartlessness. Close Encounters' sweetness belies that charge. It is probably no coincidence that the director cast Truffaut, the kindest of film makers, in a leading role, for Spielberg's sensibility matches that of such Truffaut films as The Wild Child and Small Change. Close Encounters' charm is enhanced by the performances as well: Dreyfuss, Truffaut and Dillon bring warm coloring to roles that are rather sketchily set forth in the script. The actors' eyes are lit with a touch of madness, just enough to suggest the courage that drives them to abandon friends and family to pursue their mission.
When the movie runs into trouble, as it does in the second half, the flaws are those of excess rather than design. Sometimes Spielberg does not know when to stop. A sequence set in India seems to exist only for the sake of one spectacular shot; a confused subplot about an Army cover-up of UFO research looks like a hasty bow to Watergate-era current events; an attenuated mountainside chase has little purpose beyond allowing Spielberg to pay homage to the famous crop-duster and Mount Rushmore sequences of North by Northwest. If any of these elements were removed from the film, they would not be missed.