Steven Spielberg is the most overrated filmmaker I can think of.
His movies aren’t terrible. But they are always immature and unsophisticated.
In my estimation, he has made only one thoroughly great film: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” And 1 for 32 is a bad batting average, even for a backup catcher.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” made quite a splash when it was released in 1977. But it doesn’t hold up well today. The colorful special effects aren’t nearly special enough to hide the flaws in the script.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary: a fairly average nerd from Middle America with a wife, four kids, and a boring government job.
His job gets real exciting one night when he sees a spaceship right behind his work truck. Then he sees several other spaceships rushing down the road. Extraterrestrials have been visiting our planet for decades and now they’ve decided to make themselves known.
Roy becomes obsessed with what he saw. Nothing matters to him anymore except getting answers. And the government isn’t helping; they are pretending that nothing happened.
Roy is compelled to build little cone-shaped towers with anything he can find – mashed potatoes and an upside-down trash can. “This is important,” he says after making his mashed potato sculpture. “This means something.”
That’s more than I can say for the movie itself. Spielberg introduces some potentially dramatic and interesting themes but doesn’t follow through on any of them.
Spielberg fails us by showing that aliens exist beyond a doubt in the first few scenes. This spoils any hope of tension and suspense.
It also appears to justify all of Roy’s kookie behavior. If we the audience had some question about whether the ETs are really coming, we’d wonder if Roy had truly gone insane. That might have made for some good drama.
As it is, Roy isn’t crazy at all. He’s just a selfish jerk. It doesn’t matter whether your mashed potatoes mean something or not; you don’t act like an unhinged maniac in front of your children. That makes you a bad man.
One of Spielberg’s consistent flaws is that women in his films are nothing more than obstacles that get in the way of the important leading man fulfilling his destiny. In a grown-up movie, Roy’s patient, reasonable wife would be the hero trying to save her family. In “Close Encounters,” she’s merely an annoying skeptic to be tossed aside.
A key to the plot is the massive government cover-up. But I can’t figure out what Spielberg is trying to tell us. Clearly, our real-life government is not organized or competent enough to pull off a conspiracy of that magnitude. So it sure would be nice to know what is motivating Washington to even try to hide the aliens. Spielberg never gives us a clue.
On top of everything else, “Close Encounters” lacks imagination. The film ends with Roy walking into the aliens’ spaceship. A mundane ending to a half-baked sci-fi flick. Just another Spielberg movie that is not great.