Because Arrival reminds me a little of Steven Spielberg’s film, I have gone back into VP’s archives for this review, printed over 25 years ago when a “Director’s Cut” was released.
Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 13 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets…
For many are called, but few are chosen.
The release of this Steven Spielberg 1977 film provides a welcome opportunity to reflect again on what I regard as the almost perfect film. Everything works to near perfection in this great work–a top notch cast, exciting photography, creative editing and music, and masterful writing and directing by Mr. Spielberg (and he was just 30 then!). However, I watched this re-release with some trepidation, because I had been disappointed when, a few years after its first release, Columbia Pictures had sent the film out to the theaters a second time in a so-called improved version. Someone had talked the director into shooting extra footage of Roy Neary, our protagonist (Richard Dreyfuss in perhaps his best role ever), inside the alien’s huge Mother ship. But to make way for the additional footage they gutted the crucial segments in which Roy Neary goes almost insane trying to understand his obsession with a tower-like image. These cuts weakened the over-all effect. In the latest edition those cuts are restored, and the additional footage taking us inside the Mother ship with Roy Neary has been dropped. Probably a wise decision, in that it leaves to the viewer’s imagination what transpires inside the glittering ship.
This is a picture in which it is best not to know too much about it before seeing it, so if you somehow missed it during its first two theatrical runs (and also while it has been available on video), do not read beyond this paragraph. Mr. Spielberg takes us around the world in a series of seemingly disjointed scenes. Viewing this film is like putting together a beautiful jig saw puzzle without having the picture on the box to guide you. You trust that there is a coherent whole, even though you are not sure how the piece (scene) before you fits in. We begin during a desert sand storm where a group of scientists gather around a squadron of vintage WW 2 planes, all in pristine condition–and whose engine serial numbers match those of a flight that disappeared forty years earlier in the Bermuda Triangle. What happened? An old Mexican reports cryptically that last night the “sun came out and sang.”
In India a huge crowd gathers on a hillside around their Hindu priests. Again, our scientists are there. The immense throng keeps singing/chanting five notes, over and over. Claude Lacombe, apparently head of the scientific team, asks through an interpreter where they first heard the mysterious notes. Thousands of hands are raised, index fingers pointing straight up.
Meanwhile in Muncie, Indiana, Roy Neary encounters his own mystery. A linesman for the power company, he is called out to investigate a power outage when an intensely bright light shines down on him and his truck is shaken by a powerful force. As he looks up, half of his face is burned as if he had been in the sun too long. Others also are facing strange situations, such as a flight control crew who spot a mysterious object on collision course with an airliner, and then at the last minute the UFO veers off and climbs into the heavens. Not far from Roy, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her little son Barry also have seen strange lights in the sky. When Roy races off in his truck in pursuit of the lights, he almost runs into the little boy who has wandered onto the highway. Roy discovers a whole group of watchers gathered on the hill and looking into the skies. Soon all are transfixed by two lights rapidly bearing down on them. Thrilling to another UFO sighting, the crowd’s hope is dashed when the lights turn out to be floodlights on two government helicopters, hovering over them in a menacing way in an apparent effort to disperse them.
Back home Roy seems totally irrational to his wife (Teri Garr) and two children, whom he bundles up in the middle of the night to go with him searching for the lights. They find nothing, of course, and their suspicion that Roy has gone off his rocker intensifies as he becomes obsessed with an image of what seems to be a mountain. He shapes his mashed potatoes into it, and in the bathroom, even his shaving cream. Across town Jillian is similarly obsessed: an artist, she draws hundreds of sketches of a tower-like natural object. In a far-off laboratory scientists play over and over the five notes they had heard in India in an attempt to understand their meaning. Cut abruptly from their keyboard to little Barry playing the same notes on his toy piano. His mother continues to draw the mountain, but soon her obsession gives way to terror when she observes huge clouds filled with what looks like heat lightning moving toward her house. Locking windows and doors, she cowers with Barry as some titanic force envelops and shakes the structure, setting into motion all of Barry’s electric toys. Barry himself stands in stark contrast to his mother. He is delighted by what he regards as a playful, rather than a malignant force. He crawls through the trap door toward the light, and his frantic mother is unable to hold him back. He disappears with the now receding cloud and light.
Roy Neary has become so transfixed by his experience and the mountain-like image that he is at the edge of his sanity. He has lost his job. His wife packs up the children and leaves him. His neighbors watch in amazement as he drags in bushes and a ton of dirt to construct a huge model of the mountain in their family playroom. He accidentally tears off the peak and realizes that this is how his image should look, flat on the top. Finally, he sees the same image on television. It is a powerful moment, an epiphany, for now his obsession with the image is beginning to make some sense. He is not entirely mad. It is Devil’s Tower, where reports of a mysterious plague have caused the government to evacuate the entire area. He sets off on a cross country trek in search of what he now realizes is his destiny, one tied to Devil’s Tower and the lights in the sky.
Mr. Spielberg’s film marked a decided break with the old science fiction films in which alien life-forms were usually shown as malignant. Movie screens of the Fifties, when we were so paranoid about the Red Menace from Russia and China, were filled with slimy aliens coming to do us in, even as we knew that the Communists would love to do so. Only a few films, such as the magnificent The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, suggested that WE might be the problem, rather than an evil alien species. Spielberg came along and gave us a picture that affirms that the universe is good. Using symbols associated with religious experience — lights and dark clouds, and a mountain — he created a film that uplifts the spirit and mind, as well as providing spectacular entertainment. His direction of child actor Cary Guffey as Barry is inspired, the little boy’s face with its large eyes expressing joy and wonder at the phenomena which terrorizes his mother and most of the other adults. And in scientist Claude Lacombe he gives us an adult counterpart to Barry. Played wonderfully by French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, scientist Lacombe has never lost his childlike wonder, eagerly anticipating the coming Close Encounter of the Third Kind. For that is what is about to happen to all the principals. Each has received a mysterious call, inviting them to a rendezvous at Devils Tower, one which will change their lives forever. Roy and Jillian (the latter also has discovered the source of her obsession) will face tremendous obstacles still, raised up by a paranoid government that does not trust the people with the truth of what is about to happen, but we know that they will prevail. Close Encounters… is that rare movie that seems to get better each time I revisit it. And it’s a visit in which the whole family can partake. Few movies arouse such a sense of wonder and awe as does this film.