I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #64, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I’m probably the only person in the world who could find a way to get mad about Star Wars while watching Close Encounters. Let me explain.
Close Encounters is a fun movie, but as this is the first of five Spielberg films in this series of articles, I have some stuff to get off my chest. This is the train of thought that I couldn’t stop while watching this week’s film.
Steven Spielberg was something of a wunderkind when he first hit the scene. He was the youngest ever director to be signed to a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio at 22 years old after execs saw his silent short film Amblin’ (recognize that name?). Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Igmar Bergman and Sidney Lumet were some of the cinematic luminaries who welcomed his arrival and praised his ingenuity. He revolutionized the horror genre with Jaws, reinvigorated science fiction and showcased his ability to create memorable set pieces with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He seemed unstoppable.
Then came the partnership with George. They hit on something special with the Indiana Jones series, and they complemented each other perfectly; Lucas was the idea man and producer, Spielberg was the action sequence and comic timing specialist, and the results crackled with life and classic movie magic. The success of this collaboration may have been the key force in making Lucas recognize that his strengths were put to better use behind the desk as a producer/cowriter, instead of behind the camera as a director. Though the list of their collaborations is not terribly long, the effects of working with Spielberg can be felt in almost everything Lucas produced in the 80s.
When Lucas began directing again, it’s obvious he began trying to emulate Spielberg’s talent, something he is completely incapable of doing.
We all know what happened to Lucas in the 90s and beyond. He has no one to blame but himself for his betrayal of his own legacy, but I remain convinced that Spielberg shaped 80s- and 90s- era Lucas the way Francis Ford Coppola shaped him in the 70s. Spielberg is known to make suggestions to directors and producers, even for projects he has no official role in (for example, telling Ridley Scott to think of Gladiator not as an Ancient Rome period piece, but as the Los Angeles of 2,000 years ago, which worked).
Spielberg had some role in the prequels, albeit indirect, because watching Close Encounters feels like reading a Lucas diary entry called “What To Change About My Direction Style.”
Think about it. Except for his historical and war films, most of Spielberg’s films have been high quality yet family-friendly, while Lucas never made stuff for kids before their collaboration. TXH 1138 was bleak sci-fi, American Graffiti was nostalgic, and Star Wars was this strange, philosophical film about a political resistance. Compare that to the diversity of Spielberg’s career of the 80s and early 90s: Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Hook and Jurassic Park. These were all accessible yet artistically sound films (yeah, I liked Hook, bite me) where we are either supposed to imagine we are children or are filled with childlike wonder at what we are witnessing.
So when Lucas says “The Star Wars films were always for children,” what he means to say is “I wish I could direct like Steven Spielberg.”
Now On To The Film
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first of five Steven Spielberg films on the AFI 100 (the others being #60 Raiders of the Lost Ark, #48 Jaws, #25 E.T. and #9 Schindler’s List), making him the most represented director on the list. Spielberg and I have had our differences over his more recent work, but I gotta say that I do agree with everything about this. Those are the five best Spielberg films, and they are ranked appropriately.
Close Encounters was his first film after the massive success of Jaws, which is a dangerous place for directors to be. He had been building a reputation with his fellow filmmakers (hell, François Truffaut is in the damn movie), but he wasn’t particularly famous among audiences until Jaws. When a new director becomes so closely associated with the success of one movie, it can be the kiss of death; either they are compelled to repeat their successful formula (see: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and everything else after that) or go for something so radically different that they end up too far outside their comfort zone (see: Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko and Southland Tales). Spielberg rose to the occasion and showed everyone what a Spielberg movie can be, that he can do more than just Jaws.
What he gave audiences was a visually inventive, funny yet honest, technologically courageous sci-fi film. Nobody had seen anything like it before, and I’m not sure any director has repeated such a feat. Just watch this scene and you’ll get chills (**spoiler**, but c’mon, it’s one of the most famous endings of all time).
That said, while Spielberg is still a very skillful director, watching movies like Close Encounters serves as a reminder of a time before he tempered his ambition and vision with his marketing savvy.
A.I., Minority Report, The Terminal, Munich, Crystal Skull, etc., all show that he can still handle a camera and works very well with actors. But after the set pieces of Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters and E.T., his imagination bank has run dry, which is why his newer films are fueled mostly by pathos, nostalgia and children. He’s still treated as one of the greatest directors of all time, and that may be technically true true. But it’s hard to corner the market on wonder and imagination when all of yours was used up 30 years ago.
Comments: Wildly imaginative, special effects hold up, a real pleasure to watch. But it makes you wonder why nothing he’s done lately is anywhere near as imaginative as this.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes, and I disagree with adding or removing any of the Spielberg films on the list.
Inspired: The Spielberg adventure film revolution of the 80s – The Goonies, *batteries not included, Back to the Future, etc.
Next Week: #63 Stagecoach
Last Week: #65 The Silence of the Lambs
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
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