I was but a wee tot when I first watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Less than ten, I believe.
I don’t remember much of that first viewing, and what I do remember has been jumbled up and confused with a lifetime of parody and homage. I don’t think I was much taken by the film – my mind already polluted by George Lucas and his own brand of aliens and starships.
‘What’s so wondrous about aliens?’ I must have thought. Why, look: here’s a cantina full of them; there’s a walrus man at the bar, an alien grey is playing saxophone. So what?
Simply, the magic – the wonder – was not there.
Upon rewatching Close Encounters as an adult, and as a veteran of science fiction, I found myself run aground by a different, yet similar wonder-sap. As an adult, I did as any sensible adult would do: I attempted to understand and explain the extraterrestrials’ motives and actions.
This is certainly the expectation of the modern sci-fi movie, such as the excellent Arrival, where the aliens follow a certain logic, a logic that can be understood, even if their reasoning is not readily apparent. Aliens are intelligent creatures, intelligent enough to visit the stars – ergo they have plans, dreams, ambitions. They are people, like us, if in a different shape, and can be understood in those terms.
When watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you may have a bevy of questions – why return the airplanes, the SS Cotopaxi? Why are UFOs cruising around the midwestern United States? Why do the aliens want Jillian’s child, and to such a degree that they are willing to invade the Guiler home? And why Devils Tower?
If you fixate on answering these questions you will inevitably be disappointed. You will receive no answers – for Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not that type of movie. Indeed, it is not a science fiction movie at all, and does not abide by the rules of the genre.
It is fantasy. It is, in every way that counts, a fairy-tale.
This is made almost as explicit as explicit can get in the film’s final act – when we finally get a proper look at the aliens. At first a gangly fellow, a grey with exaggerated limps and a vaguely aquatic appearance, emerges from the light of the alien’s mothership. He is the leader. He is alien, and exciting, if mundane – he is exactly what you’d expect from the pilot of a flying saucer.
But then emerge after him a group of smaller aliens, about two dozen of them – played by children with alien masks – ready to select the lucky humans who will accompany them to the stars. Are these aliens the lanky fellow’s offspring, or merely a diminutive race?
But this is when the fantasy becomes apparent, when our rapt attention becomes revelation. Diminutive – like the fey. These are not aliens at all, these are fairies, sprites, creatures from the fairy realm, the unseen land.
The kidnappings and luring, the dancing lights, the playful music. This is classic fairy behavior.
And this is when you realize, all your silly questions, attempting to unravel the aliens’ logic and motives – it was all for naught. The fey are inscrutable. They live by rules and magics unknown and unknowable to us. To try and understand is to invite madness, even death.
The magic of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (as a movie) is in the magic of the aliens, the unknowable magic of fairyland, of imps and will-o-wisps and Peter Pans.
More than any other movie I’ve seen, Close Encounters is dependent on this movie magic – on being absorbed by the screen so fully and completely that you do not ask logical questions. You must become fully immersed in the illusion of the screen – in the illusionary magic cast by the faeries.
To ask questions of the movie – of the fey – is to break the illusion.