A boy, asleep in the country, is awakened by a strong light outside his window and some strange rustlings in the house. A few feet from his bed, a toy monkey claps its cymbals together—like a stick banging the floor three times in a French theatre, announcing the beginning of a show—and tanks and police cars spin and race around the room. The boy, who has a snub nose and wondering hazel eyes, is not at all afraid. A little later, the house is invaded again, this time not so gently: a Hoover suddenly sweeps across the floor, like a column of Roman soldiers, terrifying the boy’s mother. Out in the street, while light pours down from above, a row of mailboxes rattles furiously, as if under siege from a tornado.
The first hour or so of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—a movie that opened forty years ago—is unparalleled in its combination of scary and funny ideas. In Muncie, Indiana, something has definitely arrived. The aliens extend a galvanizing finger, reaching out not like the Sistine God to a naked and powerful Adam but to a boy, to toys, and to appliances. The American consumer world is thrilled into electric activity, the rubbish scintillated and redeemed. In Spielberg’s movies, transcendent or threatening forces enter ordinary existence, where, despite them, children play and couples quarrel, make up, and split. Life goes on. The people don’t know, so to speak, that they are part of a movie with a fantastic premise: they go to the beach oblivious of the shark; they tidy up the kitchen without noticing the alien in the house. By nature, most of us are busy with small tasks and immediate pleasures; we are self-interested and literal-minded. Yet the boy in “Close Encounters” stands before an open door, and the reddish-gold light beyond beckons him to some adventure he couldn’t possibly have had before.