Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new (and sometimes classic) movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg‘s most complex and stunning film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has been re-released in theaters for its 40th anniversary. It’s still a marvelous masterpiece, a fascinating counterpoint to its contemporary cousin, Star Wars. When I think of cinema spectacle, I think of the combined visual talents of Vilmos Zsigmond, Douglas Trumbull, Joe Alves, Spielberg, and the rest of the creative artists working on this dazzling sci-fi drama. There’s audio spectacle here, as well.
Like a lot of the movie brats’ early blockbuster entertainment, this one is totally unique and inspirational in its own right while also being heavily influenced by films of the past. Some of those direct connections make up part of this week’s Movies to Watch column, while other recommendations are more focused on the alien subject matter, which was very respectfully handled in CE3K.
While Spielberg would later use Pinocchio as a much more obvious template for the plot and themes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, he first showed his love for Walt Disney’s animated adaptation of the Carlo Collodi fairy tale with CE3K. In the movie, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) tries to get his family to go see it, and during the end credits John Williams’s score turns into an orchestral cover of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song had been on Spielberg’s mind for the feel of the movie, and he’d initially used the version from Pinocchio but test audiences snickered at its inclusion.
I don’t entirely get how the two movies are related. Roy’s final transcendence can be compared to Pinocchio’s transformation, I guess, with the Blue Fairy an alien from above providing the magic. Spielberg himself says (as quoted in Joseph McBride’s biography) Roy “becomes a real person. He loses his strings, his wooden joints, and… he makes the most important decision in the history of the world.”
But his continued abandonment of his family and responsibilities are more obviously similar. That big boat of a mothership at the climax is transport to a cosmic Pleasure Island, or maybe it’s the whale swallowing him up. If he becomes a boy, that’s regressive; he’s off to Never Never Land.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
There are conflicting reports on how Devils Tower was chosen for its iconic involvement in CE3K. More likely is the story of production designer Joe Alves choosing the location while driving around the West. But there’s also the claim that Spielberg wanted to use the natural monument after seeing it in My Darling Clementine. He really was interested in anything majestically akin to the landscapes of John Ford’s Westerns. Spielberg is said to have watched The Searchers over and over while making CE3K.
Perhaps he also was a fan of this Ford classic, which stars Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as Doc Holliday in the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Maybe he’s fond of movies released in the year of his birth (I know I am, which is part of why I have a special interest in CE3K, having been born in 1977). There is another interesting connection between Spielberg’s movie and Clementine: Verna Fields, Oscar-winning editor of Jaws and daughter of Clementine co-writer Sam Hellman, worked on CE3K in an unofficial capacity as an editor and associate producer.
It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Most UFO and alien visitation movies before (and after) CE3K involve invading aliens. Encouraged by producer Michael Phillips, Spielberg went with the idea of benevolent extraterrestrials. We’d seen aliens come in peace before, in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and this breakout feature for Jack Arnold, a former Oscar-nominated documentarian (he’d go on to make such genre classics as Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man). And like those aliens in Spielberg’s movie, they tended to still use shady methods.
Same as the stories we hear from many alien abductees: the aliens are basically good, but they still do abduct people and conduct tests on them. Why did the aliens in CE3K take all those people for decades only to just dump the human (and dog) load at Devils Tower all at once? And why do the aliens in It Came From Outer Space need to abduct people? Actually, that’s clearer: the aliens are hideous so they needed humans to hideaway while they mimic them and go about town getting materials to fix their crashed spaceship.
Spielberg acknowledged the influence of It Came From Outer Space on CE3K during a discussion with Ray Bradbury, who wrote the story for the former. “Close Encounters wouldn’t have been born,” Spielberg told the author, “if I hadn’t seen It Came from Outer Space six times when I was a kid. Thanks.”
Technically you can’t watch all of this early Spielberg feature, or even very much of it. All 500 people who caught the one screening 53 years ago in Phoenix should realize how lucky they are to have seen the dawn of an icon at only 17 years old. Young Spielberg lost much of the film when he loaned it to a producer as evidence of his talent, and that producer disappeared with it. The bit that’s publicly available now is only a few minutes, which you can watch below.
The reason to include it on this list, then, is mostly to acknowledge it and further its awareness. Firelight is sort of an early incarnation of what he does with CE3K. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the later movie a remake of the amateur effort (as IMDb’s listing does), but there are a lot of similarities. Both movies involve UFO abductions, and there is a couple having marital problems. But Firelight divulged its (non-benevolent) aliens’ motives: a human zoo on their home planet (five years before Kurt Vonnegut wrote of one in “Slaughterhouse-Five”). Maybe that is also the aliens’ intent in CE3K. We have no idea. Maybe Roy winds up in a cage on display in a galaxy far, far away.