Reading of Ten Minute Extract from
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’
dir. Steven Spielberg (1977)
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ is director/writer Steven Spielberg’s first film after the enormously successful 1975 smash, ‘Jaws’. Its optimistic, benevolent, loving portrayal of alien encounters sets it apart from most science-fiction films of its type. This awe-inspiring film is one of the most dazzling UFO science fiction films ever made. I am analysing a ten minute sequence from near the beginning of the film, which begins with a first look into the home and life of the lead character, Roy Neary.
A location shot shows an aerial view of a suburban neighbourhood. It is the evening. We then cut to a scene inside the Neary household; the first shot we see shows the father Roy and his eight-year-old son playing with a train set while Roy tries to help his son with his maths homework. The son is a stereotypical complaining child. Suggestions of happy families and father/son bonding help to establish an image of a happy nuclear family. Narrative convention dictates that this happiness is due to be floundered. The long take consists of a well framed shot with the son on the left had side of the screen and Roy on the right, with the train set at the bottom. The camera is situated on the table top looking up at them. Despite a few cut-aways the camera pans from this point throughout the scene. This seems to give a sense of naturalism, as if the scene is almost entirely voyeuristic. This helps create a feeling that this is a real family, ultimately adding a fundamental impact when the family life is crushed.
We cut to another part of the room to see two more children and a mother, Ronnie. This is, indeed, a very ‘nuclear’ family with disobedient children and a flustered wife; the father the bread-winner. The impression that this is real family life is further enhanced by very ‘natural’ lighting, purposefully made to look like light from household lamps.
The phone rings. Conventionally in films the interruption of a ensemble sequence by a ringing phone heralds the bringing of bad news, or a disruption to an equilibrium. The call is from Roy’s boss (Roy apparently works for an electricity company) who warns that the power is going off all over town. Roy is ordered to the Gilmore substation to try and fix the problem, just as the lights go out in the house. The loss of power brings darkness, which always signals a sense of suspense. The darkness and subsequent shadows are an identifier of the science fiction genre.
We cut to shots of the local McDonalds as the power goes off there, and then to the petrol station, as the power goes off there as well. We then see an aerial shot of a neighbourhood as the power goes off in each row of houses in a domino effect. In an aerial shot of the town an object crosses the sky. An enigma surrounding the identity of the object is posed. As the whole town is plunged into complete darkness, building a sense of enigma, suspense and mystery, we cut to a forest.
In the forest, a woman, Jillian, is searching for her young son, Barry. She carries a torch and shouts her son’s name as the camera tracks alongside her with a wide shot of her. An unnatural white glow from the ground, and atmospheric smoke, add to the mysterious feel of the scene; the white light an identifier of the genre and the smoke a standard aesthetically atmospheric device.
As Jillian continues her search, we cut to a vehicle on a dark road. All we see is the headlights of the car as it approaches the camera and comes to a stop. As the vehicle, a van, approaches, we see Roy Neary inside behind the wheel. ‘Help, I’m lost!’ he sighs. A character getting lost is another genre convention and suggests that something significant is about to happen to this person. Through the rear window, while Roy’s face is buried in a roadmap to get his bearings, we see a set of bright lights approaching from behind the truck. Without looking, he casually waves on the car, and is reprimanded: ‘You’re in the middle of the road, you jack-ass!’
Roy starts driving again and we get a shot at ground-level of the car on the road and the sky above; the starry sky taking up nearly three-quarters of the screen. This signifies the importance of space ad reminds us of the huge expanse of the universe, and the likelihood that we are not alone. He proceeds to a railroad crossing and pulls to a screeching stop to once again check his map. Another set of bright lights approach behind him – it illuminates the interior of his truck with brilliant light. Again, he waves it past while engrossed in studying his map. But instead of going around, the intense lights levitate up above his truck. Roy doesn’t pay any attention to this phenomenon. The first sign he gets that things aren’t quite as they should be is when he hears a strange rattling noise. Shining his torch out of the side window he catches sight of a row of rattling, jiggling mailboxes moving back and forth as if they were in an earthquake. Suddenly, his torch, radio and other electrical lights shut off. From above, his truck is bathed in blinding, powerful rays of luminescent light. As the light engulfs the car, the mailboxes continue to rattle. Roy is scared. Mysterious smoke raises from the ground, breaking streams of light. The UFO’s searchlight and the ship itself (a flying saucer) are genre conventions.
As the UFO’s influence increases, the railroad signals go haywire, ringing and rocking. A deep-toned, thunderous vibration envelopes the truck. As if the light were cancelling gravity, items on the dashboard fall towards the back of Roy’s cabin and Roy is ambushed with cups, radio handsets, maps and debris. The electrical system indicators in the cabin dashboard go haywire and smoke, and debris flies randomly around the interior of the cabin. The dashboard cabinets are ripped open and the contents torn out. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the vibrations and rockings end, and the lights blink out. Darkness. The stillness is deafening – a dog barks off in the distance. Terrified in his car, Roy looks up to see a colourless black mass cross the sky above.
Throughout this entire ‘close encounter of the second kind’ an extra-diegetic score compliments the action. The soundtrack by ‘Star Wars’ supremo John Williams is outstanding, using sound effects as opposed to actual ‘music’ to give an awesome sense of suspense and anticipation of the unknown.
We cut to a view of the road ahead. The UFO’s searchlight beams down on a road sign as if looking for something, then goes out. This acts as a signal that this is all part of a large operation by the alien visitors.
This ten minute section from the film introduces us to Roy Neary, the film’s principle character. It is also a key point because it features the film’s second ‘close encounter’, this being the close encounter which influences Neary’s actions throughout the rest of the film. From this point he and other characters experience several ‘close encounters of the second kind’, that is physical evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrials, which finally builds up to the film’s finale when Roy experiences a ‘close encounter of the third kind’, that is contact.