A close encounter between sentiment & cynicism

A close encounter between sentiment & cynicism

By: Matthew Tilt

When Steven Spielberg came on board to finish Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., many complained that the film was an uneasy mix of the former’s more sentimental style and the latter’s cold, cynical approach. Truth be told, Spielberg actually proved himself a master of this difficult combination over twenty years previous with the sublime Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

The 1977 classic is very much a film of two halves. In the first, Spielberg uses his talent for character development to bring to life an ensemble of people whom the audience is able to build a connection to. No small part of this is down to the clever choice of stars; Richard Dreyfuss is a quintessential everyman as Roy Neary, an electrician who finds himself at the centre of the alien sightings.

Melinda Dillon too, though given less to do, is excellent in her role as Jillian Guiler, whose obsession with the intergalactic visitors is driven by the abduction of her son Barry. Then there’s legendary French New Wave director, François Truffaut, who is clearly having a blast as Claude Lacombe, a government scientist charged with investigating possible alien activity.

For forty minutes, Spielberg gives us brief insights into these characters – with some of the best scenes confined to Neary’s house as he engages with the day-to-day battles of family life – and gleefully plays with our expectations. The reveal of the UFO is teased out, with malevolent scenes of electromagnetic disturbance, entranced children and bright, burning light. 

Once the eerie crafts are shown, Spielberg slips into second gear and bombards you with symbolism, yet never loses track of the story. Like many of his earlier works, he finds space to lean on the horror genre, if only slightly; the abduction of Jillian’s son is loud and abrasive.

All of the above would mean nothing, however, if the various stories weren’t tied together in a satisfying way, and it’s during the final scenes that Spielberg becomes more like Kubrick. The mothership is shown as a gleaming circle of light and its position in the hastily constructed landing pad gives it a touch of Area 51. Here, the shots tend to be from a distance, the visitors never truly revealed except against a backdrop of white light.

Even when we zoom in close to see each character’s arc come to an end, Spielberg forgoes sentimentality for a more subdued approach that ultimately benefits the film. Obstensibly it’s a happy ending, but one that leaves many more questions to be answered.