Nov 11, 2016

Alternative to What: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)

Scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Alternative To -
Arrival (2016)

As long as there has been a sky, humans have been curious about extraterrestrial life. There has to be more in the world beyond those stars. It is a place both full of peril and wonder. What is there to discover? Aliens have stood in for a variety of topics from fear of a foreign enemy to being the transportation to something greater. In 2016, it has come to symbolize both parenthood in Midnight Special as well as the general concept of communication in Arrival - the latter of which opens this weekend and with promise of being one of the year's best movies. But what about the other big alien movies of the past? What blockbusters have gave us wonder to look towards the sky?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a tad predictable for a recommendation, but it's likely because of how influential the film ended up being. This was a story about alien invasions that consumed an international audience, making them wonder what was happening in their own backyards. With an iconic score by John Williams to back him up, director Steven Spielberg took U.F.O. phenomenon and created the template for big budget spectacle. The spaceships were bright and mesmerizing. The mystery was engrossing. Everything about the film helped to solidify the promise of him as a director for the masses.
How could they not? This was a mystery meant to understand why the aliens came to Earth. Through a series of notes, the film tries to cryptically understand a foreign life form. There's also the presence of a man who has become possessed and wishes to take off with aliens to a new land. There's a lot of bizarre moments scattered throughout, and it creates something awe-inspiring when seen on the big screen. Spielberg didn't just make an alien movie. He made one about how it impacted everyone's lives. When the finale occurs, there's the sense that Earth will never be the same again. It now knows that it is only one planet of many to inhabit life.
Most of all, there is a sense of compassion and understanding that draws the viewer in. These aliens aren't the violent sort who will blow up the White House. In fact, Spielberg's general opinion of aliens is far more sympathetic than The War of the Worlds model that came before. Humans do more evil than them. It's all just a fascinating portrait of mystery. Why are they here? What do they want? By the end, they leave peacefully and without harm to Earth. It's a film that shows some sort of understanding for relations between multiple planets that still feels poignant. It also has set the bar for what thematically an alien movie could be in the almost 40 years since the film's release.
With Arrival, we see yet another example of a film that owes some debt to Spielberg's iconic sci-fi tale. It may not be too similar otherwise, but it does manage to show the struggles of trying to understand those different from you while creating an original aesthetic. It's unlikely that the film will resonate in quite the same way with audiences, but the fact is that aliens will never go away. They'll just come to symbolize something else as time goes on. For now, they represent the international struggle to relate to each other. Maybe in the future, they'll simply reflect our desire to go into space and have fun. Who knows. Either way, aliens are a timeless subgenre of sci-fi that's here to stay.

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