If I were parked in a truck in the middle of nowhere and all of the sudden lights from above started rattling everything, the first thing I would do is change my pants. Next, I would find some aloe for my half-sunburned face. Then just maybe I’d pull a Richard Dreyfuss and rip out all my plants and build a dirt mound in my kitchen. Just maybe.
I’ve seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind numerous times, but my most recent viewing was the first time I was able to pick up on some of the more subtle details of the film. (I guess I should thank Michel Chion for cueing me into some of these in his book, Film: A Sound Art.) There is a significant amount going on internally within the film’s characters. I seemed to take this for granted in the past, apparently just thinking it was “natural” that common visions and tones would find their ways into the character’s minds. How did these images and sounds get there, and how successful is the film at portraying this mental infestation?
The implied answer to the first half of this question is that the characters became privy to the information during their close encounters, with the spaceships dropping knowledge on the characters like invisible crop dusting. Sonically, the scenes themselves are only accompanied by diegetic sounds. The spaceships whoosh and buzz through the night sky, and viewer is not cued until later that there was something more taking place. In this respect, Close Encounters might be better suited to a novel rather than a film. In many respects, this film takes the opposite approach to this plot structure than most science fiction films. Perhaps the most dramatic example comes with the film Scanners, in which screaming electronics are used to portray mental anguish. For Scanners director David Cronenberg, it was important to show the viewer that there was something going on that was unseen. Like many horror films — and perhaps even more so in this situation — Scanners falls flat when put on mute, as it relies so heavily on sound to build tension. This will be a topic of great discussion in my final project. What the film be improved or hindered by the use of sound to more concretely portray the passage of information from the alien species to the humans?
Of course, no post about the sound in Close Encounters would be complete without the discussing the famous alien chime that serves as a tool for communication between humanity and the aliens. The viewer is privy to the chime early in the film, as the characters intently play the tune through whatever means they have. (Consider young Barry, who plays the chime on a toy xylophone.) At the conclusion of the film — at the landing strip near the Devil’s Tower — the diegetic and non-diegetic sound begins to blur, as the iconic John Williams score begins to borrow from the alien chime. Once the humans and the alien ship begins engage in several sequences of melodic communication, the ship launches into an intricate arpeggio. At one point, a scientist remarks that the alien creatures are teaching them an entirely new set of communication tools. Is Steven Spielberg asserting that this is the most likely scenario for how we might communicate with alien beings? One could make a strong case for this, given that math is a universal language, as is the use of frequency to create tone. If this is the case, is there deeper meaning to the songs humans write and the melodies we find catchy? Are they “saying” something in this alien language?
In my opinion, the film loses a bit of power when it shows us the aliens. How do Spielberg and company know that this is what aliens look like? Is this assuming that popular culture’s typically alien depiction is based on some sort of reality (which may assume that the alien conspiracy stories from the American southwest are true)? By simply leaving the aliens to our imaginations, the film would lend itself to many more interpretations.
Also, what makes Spielberg think that we would be peaceful in an actual alien encounter? Humanity is supremely violent, especially when humans feel threatened. (We’ll just want to kill them before they can kill us.) I would predict that we’d at least have some serious firepower on hand for a large-scale meeting. How do we know it won’t be like Independence Day?