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To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 1

2001 poster

No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.

Monolith

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 2

blade-runner-poster

The penultimate film in this countdown of my top five transportive sci-fi films has some similarities with a previous entry. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner transports its viewer to a sci-fi environment on Earth with suggestions of the beyond. Unlike Close Encounters, however, Blade Runner is far from a hopeful dream of a journey that we can envy, but a dystopic nightmare of a grim world in which hope, equality and life have been largely devalued. At the same time, it is a hypnotic and mesmerising vision with a haunting, otherworldly beauty. That the presentation of something so bleak could be so beautiful is testament to Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography and Lawrence G. Paull’s exquisite production design, as well as Vangelis’ melancholic score. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is the gloomy city of film noir turned up to 11, with enough rain for an Indian monsoon and enough filtered, neon light to accentuate the expressive mise-en-scene of sets, costume and performers. The combined effect of these cinematic features is to transport the viewer to this city of the damned, in what may be the most detailed and (chillingly) plausible dystopic landscape ever committed to film. Many sci-fi films predict the future. Blade Runner seems to get parts of it right.

Roy

To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 5

Close Encounters poster

The first time I saw this film was on television one Saturday afternoon, and it was one of my earliest realisations of the sheer wonder of film. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a remarkable play of light and sound (which is the fundamental action of cinema – no nonsense about characters you have to care about, that comes later), a visual and aural display that takes the viewer on the same journey as the protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus). Roy’s abandonment of his family is problematic (Steven Spielberg has said in interviews that were he to make the film since becoming a parent, he would make different choices), but the infantalising journey of wonder that Roy goes on is still alluring and transporting. Roy, along with the young boy Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), follows the lights not towards death but towards rebirth; the term mothership has rarely been used so aptly. Even if the viewer baulks at the journey of Roy himself, there are also the military and scientific spectators at Devil’s Tower, who are treated to an extraordinary display of light and sound, including the famous five tone theme. These spectators are similar to those of a cinema audience, also assembled for the dazzling display of the film itself, making Close Encounters of the Third Kind a meta-cinematic experience. Just as characters within the film make a pilgrimage to the mountain, audiences flocked to cinemas for the release of this film and continue to do so for other journeys into the imagination. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is at times the purest form of cinema – a transportive experience through the play of light and sound towards the infinite. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tells Roy that he envies him for the journey he is taking. The journey of the film, and of sci-fi cinema as a whole, expresses this journey and, at its best, gives us a sense of what that journey might be like.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind still

Review of 2012 Part Four – Great Expectations II: Inter-textual Looping

Looper

A late release of 2012, which I expect to be one of my films of the year, arrived with high expectations as to its quality.  Rian Johnson’s Looper is, unusually, not a sequel, nor a prequel, nor a franchise instalment, a reboot, a remake or even an adaptation, but that rarest of films, an original mainstream movie.  I found Looper an excellent sci-fi thriller, which used its time-travel conceit to effectively fuel its gangster setting and explore themes of freedom, destiny and responsibility.  As Old and Young Joe, respectively, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt convey excellent contrast between naïve nihilism and desperate hope, while Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan and Jeff Daniels provide sterling support, and Pierce Gagnon is thoroughly creepy.

Johnson’s style is unusual for an action film, favouring longer takes and a more measured pace than might be expected.  The style is, however, effective, as rather than being caught up in frenetic action sequences, the film lingers on the consequences, both physical and mental, of violent action.  We are used to seeing Bruce Willis wipe out a room’s worth of armed thugs, but at several crucial moments, Looper pauses to allow contemplation of what is about to come, and at one point denies showing us the kill.  Instead, Joe’s face(s) shows the impact of what he has done, experience steadily etched into both, one youthful, the other aged, but both deeply pained.

Consequence is crucial, as the time travel conceit of Looper is deeply concerned with the impact of one’s actions, responsibility for those actions, and consideration of what impact actions have upon the future.  Looper can become confusing if you think about its temporal mechanics too much, as Abe (Jeff Daniels) mentions.  But it also uses these mechanics to motivate the overall plot and individual scenes, including a thoroughly nasty yet remarkably bloodless torture scene, and an emotionally powerful conclusion that emphasises personal responsibility.  Whether the laws of causality would allow such attempts to change the future by altering the past is debatable, but that’s why we call it science fiction.  However, the resonances with other science fiction films is quite striking, as it is easy to relate the film to others that are similar and yet different.

I am not alone in this response, as without pre-existing material to base expectations upon, the buzz surrounding Johnson’s third film seemed desperate to relate the film to other films, particularly in the science fiction genre.  It makes sense to form associations through the time travel trope: Looper explores time travel in a similar way to The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Donnie Darko and Twelve Monkeys.  All involve a traveller from the future who attempts to change the future by altering events in the past.  Stylistically, Looper is very much its own entity, not as smooth as Cameron’s cyborg opus nor as trippy as Kelly’s debut or as skewed as Gilliam.  A hard edge runs throughout Looper, perhaps echoing Johnson’s debut, high school noir Brick that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  The measured pace restricts the visceral thrill of Looper’s action sequences, and the brutality of the film’s gangster setting is maintained, creating a grim and oppressive atmosphere.  This brooding, malevolent oppression is in constant tension with the conceit of being able to change your destiny, through time travel or any other means.  Looper’s grimness distinguishes it from Back to the Future, which is far more light-hearted and, furthermore, that film’s time travel and temporal causality is accidental rather than intentional.  A more recent comparison is Source Code.  Like Looper, Source Code involves an individual trying to change the past within a context that works against him and places him in terrible danger.  Unlike Looper, Source Code is more concerned with alternate time lines than actual time travel, but both play to the conceit that one man can make a difference, face the past and fight the future (hang on, isn’t that Looper’s tagline?).

Other films that have been related to Looper include The Matrix, Children of the Corn, The Adjustment Bureau and Blade Runner, and these seem less obvious.  A dystopian future need not always echo Blade Runner, and Looper’s largely rural setting is very different from Ridley Scott’s noir cityscapes.  Only the final act bears resemblance to Children of the Corn, as Looper brings horror into its already potent genre mix of gangster, chase thriller and sci-fi.  It is testament to Johnson’s skills as a writer-director that these elements integrate rather than clash – much like Argo, Looper performs an impressive balance between potentially disparate elements.

To compare The Matrix with Looper is strange, as the film’s subject matter as well as Johnson’s style is very different to the Wachowskis.  While there is an element of mind-over-matter in Looper through the telekinesis of various characters, in The Matrix that element is part of the artificial reality, which is not a feature of Looper at all.  Looper and The Matrix both involve men with a lot of guns, but that is hardly a distinctive feature.  Similarly, as Looper is an intelligent sci-fi film with some complex ideas, an obvious reference point is Inception.  Indeed, a moment in the trailer in which objects levitate reminded me of the famous upward tilt of a street in Inception, but when I saw Looper itself there was very little that reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s dream heist film.

Why is it so hard to take a film on its own without reference to other films, and why is it so easy to make these inter-textual connections?  Saturation may be partly responsible, especially in an era of cross-media platforms where films, TV series, video games, music videos, webisodes, trailers, advertisements and YouTube videos assail us from every screen.  But such inter-textual references are hardly new, as studies have demonstrated how major texts from Gothic literature such as Frankenstein fed into the work of later writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.  Subsequently, this literature fed into science fiction films from A Trip to the Moon and Metropolis, to The Blob and The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner, The Matrix, Inception and Looper.  Science fiction is inherently inter-textual, as any science fiction film seems influenced by others and may well have been, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the filmmaker.  As sci-fi consumers, we link one text to another as part of our textual understanding.  As another example, when I recently saw the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which was not as bad as I feared it would be), while being very different from the original film, it also looked to have been influenced by Independence Day, Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.  Similarly, Looper is perceived and understood as a science fiction film in relation to other science fiction films, so critics and audiences alike forge these links as part of our understanding of the science fiction mega-text.  This works in several ways, as audiences are savvy enough both to see the commonalities between films like Source Code and Looper, and to create their own links between Looper and The Matrix or Inception.

These inter-textual references, not to mention marketing and commentary, created expectations for Looper.  Not being a franchise instalment, marketing was more moderate and I only noticed the trailer and posters.  But reviews had an influence: Total Film, which I tend to agree with, gave Looper a five star review and described it as the best sci-fi film since Moon, while Empire also gave it five stars and compared it favourably to Repo Men, Surrogates and In Time.  The BBC’s Mark Kermode was positive but more reserved.  Overall, critical reaction was very positive, so one could go into Looper expecting something good.

Precisely because of its non-franchise status, I was not sure what to expect of Looper except that it be very good, based on the reviews that I encountered.  Most years deliver a major film which is not based on pre-existing material.  Looper was the original oddity of 2012, much like Super 8 in 2011, Inception in 2010 and Avatar in 2009 (Avatar can be accused of being unoriginal, but it is not an adaptation of any previously published property).  Super 8, Inception and Avatar were all among my favourite films of their respective years, and they are also all sci-fi.  The link I made for Looper therefore was with earlier favourites of mine, and I expected the film to blow me away as those had.  It is perhaps unsurprising that it did not, as Looper is not an emulation of those films and, overall, I do not think it is as accomplished.  Super 8 created a convincing, believable community that was afflicted with something very strange; Inception used its high concept to explore issues of grief and memory while also being meta-cinematic; Avatar re-invigorated cinema and performed a spiritual call to arms.  Looper merges genres in an intriguing and cohesive melange, but I did not feel it offered me the combined emotional and intellectual satisfaction of those previous films.  Looper has much to admire and to enjoy, regardless of what it is like and unlike, but once again, expectations were too high and had a negative effect upon my appreciation of the film.  That said, I imagine it will be rewarding on repeat viewings, and like Prometheus, should be an interesting film for philosophical discussion.

Frightful Five No 4. “Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks.  Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it.  Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did.  It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room.  I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.

Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today.  Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws.  Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score.  Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy.  Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth.  As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat.  I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.

The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power.  Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence.  But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us.  Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea.  Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water.  The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea.  This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own.  The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse.  Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.