Why do Steven Spielberg spectacles resonate so much more than other movie adventures? Because they’re fantastic tales that are so often grounded in the familiar – specifically, the everyday American family.
This trait revealed itself early on in the Spielberg-scripted Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which features, to me, his most endearing brood. The Nearys are a loud, boisterous lot, often talking all at once while busying about their messy home. Mom Ronnie (an invaluable Teri Garr) oversees three mischievous kids, but husband Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is nearly a fourth, especially after he encounters a UFO and is determined to relive the experience. Ronnie is supportive – when Roy tries to describe what he saw, she earnestly asks if it was shaped “like a taco” – but eventually Roy’s quest turns into a dangerous obsession, one that has no room for his wife and kids.
In Spielberg, the cosmic has dinner-table consequences.
And so my favorite scene in the movie – more so than the goose bumps of Roy’s encounter at the railroad crossing or the floodlit terror of little Barry’s abduction – is one of the Neary family eating dinner. Roy has been having visions of some sort of mountain, and as the mashed potatoes come his way, he begins piling them on his plate higher and higher, eventually sculpting them into this elusive image. It’s a funny moment – they all laugh at first – but it quickly saddens, as the others realize they’re losing him. “I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad,” Roy says. And there it is. In Spielberg, the cosmic has dinner-table consequences.
Perhaps this is why the finale is a bit troublesome to me, despite the blissful trance the movie puts us under with its near-experimental use of sound, light, space and color. I completely believe Roy would step forward at that crucial moment; it’s true to the story and his character. But if Close Encounters is missing anything, it’s a little nod to what he was leaving behind.