Portrait of the director as a doting dad

I never liked Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I didn’t care for it at all when it opened in 1977, the various recuts left me cold, and when I watched it again on a whim a few months ago I found myself actively detesting the thing. It was Steven Spielberg’s pet project, made possible by the phenomenal success of Jaws (a film I loved when it first came out, and continue to love to this day) and its somewhat less phenomenal success paved the way for the commercial belly flop of 1941, but I wish Close Encounters had taken the fall. Behind the whizbang effects and the golly-gee wonder of it all, it’s a pretty nasty movie. I even think Spielberg realizes that now, and while I can claim no special access to Spielberg or his thoughts, I think his reimagined 2005 version of War of the Worlds bears me out. Close Encounters is a movie made by a director who was essentially still a kid. War of the Worlds is a movie made by a man who has kids. Boy, does that make a difference.     

The aliens in Close Encounters look harmless enough when they finally come out of that big mothership, but throughout the film their treatment of those humans unlucky enough to catch their attention ranges from criminally careless to downright sadistic. They are particularly brutal with single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), snatching away her toddler son after an extended bout of psychological torture, but they also do a pretty thorough job of messing with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), planting a vision in his head that ultimately destroys his marriage and family. And then there’s the collection of World War II airmen who were snatched out of the sky and held captive for decades because . . . well, because the aliens thought it would be fun, I guess. When they are finally returned to Earth, the airmen haven’t aged a day, which should be a great comfort to them when they try to look up their family and friends, or find work with generation-old job skills.  

But none of this would occur to a boy wonder filmmaker. He was probably thinking of the toddler boy who wanted to play with the fun aliens. He certainly didn’t spare a thought as to why a species that mastered godlike technology would reveal itself to mankind in the middle of nowhere, issuing an invitation in the form of a vague mental image more apt to land the invited in the insane asylum. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a nice tease of a title, but in this case it would be more appropriate to go with something like Douchebags from Outer Space.  

Credit the aliens in War of the Worlds with honesty: they’re not on Earth to make friends or trade smiles with Francois Truffaut. They have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and it looks like their bubble gum ran out sometime back in the Pleistocene, or whenever it was they buried their three-legged ass-kicking machines. When I argue the virtues of this flat-out frightening movie, I come up against the same kind of resistance I get when I talk up Lord of War. With the latter, some people just can’t get past their dislike of Nicolas Cage; with the former, they’ll have nothing to do with Tom Cruise. But Cruise, like Cage, is an underrated actor — go watch Magnolia and tell me that isn’t a fine performance — and in War of the Worlds he is quite good as a father trying to keep his kids safe and sane as all hell breaks loose again and again.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the tormented mom simply looks relieved when the aliens return her kid — caught up in the coolness of it all, we’re supposed to think. See, the aliens are nice after all. They just wanted to make her life a complete and utter hell for a while, until the special effects finale was ready. A real-life mom would have made sure her kid was okay, then stepped up and given one of the aliens a knuckle sandwich. When Tom Cruise’s character gets close to the War of the Worlds aliens who made off with his daughter, he spoon-feeds them some payback with a clutch of grenades. In other words, he acts like a parent. That’s why I prefer the malign War of the Worlds to the benign Close Encounters. The guy who made War of the Worlds knew a thing or two about life, and what it’s like to be a doting parent in troubled times.  


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One thought on “Portrait of the director as a doting dad

  1. Will says:

    I found WOTW a bit uneven and I hated the ending, but the burning train scene still sends chills down my spine. Really fine analysis of Spielberg’s maturation as an artist.

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