Monday, August 19, 2013

Abduction, Obsession

2. Embrace the Future

I was lucky enough to catch a revival screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind a couple weeks ago. This film was a staple of my viewing as a young wannabe UFOlogist because it contained every element of the abduction/sighting stories that I loved. Also, in true Spielbergian fashion, it closes with a happy ending.

The last time I'd seen this film I was a kid, and I'd forgotten that it's a relic from the era where PG films could be slightly terrifying. Two big scenes stand out as great examples of this. First, the scene in which Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is out at work during a power outage and has an alien craft hover above him in his truck. It's his first direct encounter with the aliens, and we experience it as if we're sitting in the cabin alongside him. Bright light flood the windows, gravity vanishes and reappears, electronics malfunction, and then... nothing. It's a baffling rise to a climax that never occurs, and leaves us and Roy wondering just what the hell we've experienced (and why). In the other scene, Jill Guiler (Melinda Dillon) wakes in the middle of the night and tries in vain to protect her son from being abducted. The film switches into pure horror-movie mode as light and fog pour in through every opening in the house, and appliances, toys, and electronics go temporarily haywire. The invisible assailants pursue her from room to room, and despite her every effort her son eventually leaves of his own volition, making the abduction that much more bizarre.

Honestly, I'd crawl out the dog door for a trip into space if I lived in rural Indiana.
It's fitting that two of the most memorable scenes catalyze the characters' obsession with seeking out explanations for the phenomena they witness. Their search for answers (and the audience's desire to see it fulfilled) is the backbone of this film, and our questions as viewers mirror those of Roy and Jill exactly. Still, putting the aliens to the side for a minute, the underlying narrative is really focused on how the two seek answers in the face of trauma. Jill's trauma is explicit within the film: she's lost her child. (Curiously enough, we never find out why her kid gets abducted. Cause she's a single mom? Is the supernatural just a stand-in for her evil ex? What does this say about the film's ending?) Roy's affliction is less clearly drawn, but strongly parallels the onset of mental illness.

Watching the film as an adult, the scene that was the hardest for me to watch was when Roy loses his shit at the dinner table and starts sculpting his mashed potatoes into what he'll eventually realize is the Devil's Tower in Utah. As his wife and kids struggle to hold back tears, he snaps out of it for a moment and realizes what he's doing. It's the last time he'll really experience this mental clarity, and he tries desperately to explain to his family what he's feeling, with no success.

"Well I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad..."
Following this scene is the dark seed at the heart of this movie, one that seems to be too often overshadowed by its otherwise happy conclusion. After the emotional display over dinner, Roy's insanity is fully unleashed as he manically destroys the house by shoveling dirt and uprooted shrubs into the windows. His mashed-potato pile wasn't sufficient and he needs to see his sculpture writ large in earth. His terrified wife drags the kids to the car and leaves for her sister's house. The abandonment doesn't even seem to cross his mind as he seeks out the Devil's Tower and eventually chooses to become a passenger on the alien craft. It's the one wrong that isn't righted by the end of the film.

Spielberg has mentioned that if he were to make the film now he'd have changed the ending so that Roy stayed with his family rather than taking off in the alien craft. I can't imagine a bigger mistake. From the instant Roy encounters the UFOs, he's obsessed. He isn't sure what he's experienced, but it's something powerful enough to cause him to leave his family without regret. It's easy to overlook this as the John Williams score swells and the craft ascends into the sky over the final credits, but it ends up being one of the most interesting twists in the film.

...other than the grey alien smiling at Francois Truffaut.
Jill's ending sort of baffles me though. Her loss is completely waved away when the mothership delivers her son back into her arms. It's a consolatory ending that completely conflicts with Roy's story. I like that Roy welcomes his future with open arms (and not a loaded gun), as it's an indication that severing ties with his past life is going to be messy and difficult. He ascends into space leaving a wrecked family behind. Jill's problems are solved by the same entities that caused them, seemingly without reason.

3.  At the Mercy of a Vicious Cosmos

Another take on obsession within the abduction story is the dark mirror image of Close Encounters that is Fire in the Sky. Released in 1993 at the height of what seemed to be a surge in UFO popularity, this film dramatizes events that occurred in 1975 outside Snowflake, Arizona. On the night of November fifth, a young logger named Travis Walton was riding home from work with a truckload of friends when the group saw strange lights in the woods. Travis left the truck, appeared to be lifted into the air by a flying craft, and went missing for five days before reappearing naked in the woods.

Until a recent rewatch, I'd forgotten that Travis remains absent for nearly all of this film. The majority of the screentime is devoted to the police investigation into his disappearance and the interrogation of his friends. It doesn't make for a terribly engaging film, especially when you're lured into it hoping for UFOs. Thankfully, the wait pays off in the end after Travis returns and experiences a horrifying flashback to his abduction. It's one of the most terrifying sequences that I've ever seen in an alien abduction flick, with a slimy organic feel to the craft interior that's more unsettling than the typical well-lit and surgically pristine environments that we're usually shown. It also makes Travis's disorientation literal, as gravity seems to combat his every move about the ship, shifting and varying in strength to throw him violently around the corridors.

Still, the flashback feels like a bone thrown to the audience for sitting through the first two acts. However fascinating, it shifts the focus away from what the early portion of the film is attempting to say. Those left behind after Travis is abducted are subjected to a media frenzy that consumes their lives. The story blows up into a shit storm as reporters, families, and law enforcement clamor for answers that none of the witnesses have. When Travis finally returns, he's assaulted by crowds of people who want to hear his experiences directly from the source. It's hard to say that dealing with the fallout of the abduction would be more difficult than being wrapped in some sort of skin-membrane and operated upon by scowling greys, but it's enough to push him back within his own mind and into the safety of catatonia.

It's a shame that there's not as much focus on the fallout of the abduction or Travis's story after his return. But I don't think that's the point. Here the obsession with answers is primarily external rather than originating within Travis himself. Despite the fact that he returns, there's no sense of wonder, no enlightenment, and no suggestion than he was anything but used while he was up in space. While he's still trying to process what happened, the media, the police, his family, and his friends are clawing him to pieces, hoping to find answers inside somewhere. Rather than a public light show and a display of goodwill, all these aliens leave the abductee with is a serious case of PTSD and an immeasurable feeling of violation, both of which are exacerbated by the world he's thrown back into. There's no comfort to be found at the end of Fire in the Sky, just more questions. In this film the only thing worse that being taken into space is be being brought back to Earth.

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