Our future is explored after Hollywood has a Close Encounter of the profitable kind
- Credit: Archant
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is 40 years old and its enduring appeal has paved the way for a number of thoughtful films about our society and its future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke celebrates the serious science fiction film
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the second knockout blow of science fiction’s one-two punch that started with Star Wars, is celebrating its 40th birthday this year.
While, George Lucas’ 1977 space opera fueled cinema’s love affair with space battles, laser gun-fights and life in a galaxy far, far away, Steven Spielberg’s contribution was much more thoughtful and much more down-to-earth.
Instead of reaching out to the stars, Spielberg’s movie was based on the premise of what happens if an alien culture comes here and starts trying to make contact. This is no invasion. There are no battle fleets, no clone armies, no sophisticated robots – just a peaceful, inquisitive, technologically advanced race trying to establish a dialogue with the human race.
Spielberg is interested in how they would discover a common language and decides that it would be through maths and musical notation as they could be conceived as universal constants. Then, thanks to Spielberg’s long-term musical collaborator, John Williams, the world got that famous five-note musical greeting – such an immediate hit that it was referenced in the next James Bond film Moonraker as the sound made by a key-pad on a security door.
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Originally called Kingdom Come, then Watching The Skies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tells the story of Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, an electrical engineer at a power plant, and how his life is turned upside by a close encounter with alien space craft on a road, late at night. He becomes increasingly obsessed with unexplained phenominon, which steadily destroys his family life, and eventually is drawn, along with other people, to a mysterious rocky outcrop in Wyoming, which becomes the reception point for the main alien spacecraft.
This is the main drive of the film. It is an exploration of what we would do, if an alien intelligence wanted to make contact. It is a film of ideas and ideals. There is no heavy military intervention. It is the scientists who control the operation rather than the guys with guns.
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One of the longest lasting contributions Close Encounters made to the world of modern science fiction is that they gave us – ‘the greys’ – the large-eyed, smooth-faced aliens taken up by the X-Files and dozens of other series. They have become the de facto serious-face of life out among the stars.
Although, Star Wars and Star Trek continue to boldly go to the fathest reaches of the universe battling evil alien-races, the success of Close Encounters has meant that every few years ‘serious’ science fiction movies do continue to make their mark on our cinema screens.
Here’s the Top Five thoughtful, science fiction films
Blade Runner (1982) - Ridley Scott
Most, so-called, ‘serious’ science fiction films are pre-occupied with one thing; our relationship with increasingly sophisticated technology. Blade Runner is set in a dystopian near future. It may look fairly similar to our world but something is different. Some people aren’t people at all, they are robots or replicants. They were originally developed to work as servants or in menial jobs but as their artificial intelligence improved they developed ‘free-will’ and now society wants them irradicated. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a police officer, tasked with hunting down and dealing with wayward androids. But, the big question is what constitutes life? Part of that equation means considering the possibility that Deckard may himself be a replicant.
Alien (1979) - Ridley Scott
Two in a row from Ridley Scott, who most people would not regard as a science fiction director, and the movie which launched a very lucrative franchise. This first film is a very different beast to the films that followed being concerned with showing how the human race are colonalising the galaxy, taking capitalism out to the stars. The film takes a lot of time to develop characters and relationships between the crew before they start getting hunted by the alien Xenomorph. This is the indigenous species defending itself from foreign instrusion and exploitation.
Contact (1997) - Robert Zemeckis
Instead of aliens coming to Earth, Contact is about communicating long distance. Scientist Jodie Foster receives messages from deep space and along with religious colleague Matthew McConaughey they decode the garbled messages which enable them to build a multi-dimensional vehcile which will allow them to travel vast distances - do they encounter the face of God or are they merely existing within their own minds? It’s a fascinating debate.
Gattaca (1997) - Andrew Niccol
Once again our fear about science rises to the surface and it’s not androids or artificial intelligence this time but eugenics – how our genes and DNA are manipulated to breed a new rigid class structure. Your life, career and life achievements will be pre-ordained before you are even born. It’s a thrilling, terrifying possibility brought to life by Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, but there is always a ray of hope.
Minority Report (2002) - Steven Spielberg
This is a world where crimes can be predicted, behaviour modelled, and intervention staged before an illegal act takes place. Steven Spielberg has Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell working in a world where people are arrested before they have done anything. However, what happens when the state starts to use the system to target political or idealogical opponents. The film also sparks a complex debate on the nature of free will.
If you liked those try these: Arrival (2016), Ex-Machina (2015), Interstellar (2014), Children of Men (2006)