The Double Feature: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Paul
Movies involving aliens tend to fall into two categories: the hopeful and the “oh my god, we’re all going to die!” variety. I find the latter aren’t nearly as much fun as the former. There are only so many ways an alien invasion can go down, and at this point, we’ve seen motherships take out every significant landmark known to man. On the off chance that there are other life forms out there, I prefer to think we would approach each other with wonder instead of with a “kill it with fire” mentality, and this month’s duo of films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Paul, are all about the wonder of the unknown.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is so engrained in our collective culture that it has become inescapable. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potato sculpture or heard composer John Wiliams’ iconic five-note melody used by the scientists and the extraterrestrials as a means of communication in the final moments of the film. Those two moments have been lovingly parodied dozens of times across every form of media, leaving a pop culture trail of the film’s influence.
It’s fitting that Close Encounters has been the subject of so many homages and parodies because modern science fiction films owe it a great debt. The genre was in decline until 1977, when Close Encounters and Star Wars came along and not only revitalized it, but ensured its blockbuster future. Steven Spielberg’s vision of how a typical American would react to a close encounter is full of joy, spectacle and just the right amount of darkness. As mesmerizing as Roy’s (Dreyfuss) journey to Devil’s Tower is, the cost of his obsession can’t be overlooked. The need to make the pilgrimage consumes his every thought, and ultimately costs him his family, but the need to know what’s out there is too powerful for him to resist. As a counterpoint to Roy, who is driven by a need to understand what he saw, Close Encounters presents us with Jillian (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose son is taken by the aliens in the film’s only truly frightening sequence. Jillian makes the journey with Roy as an ally, but her goal is to get her son back, whereas his is unclear (even to him) until the final moments.
The film is full of interesting ideas about faith, exploration and family, but every time I watch it, I find myself caught up in its spectacle. Like so many of Spielberg’s films, it taps into an almost childish sense of yearning and imagination. It’s a sci-fi epic, yes, but it’s just as much a road movie about a man in search of meaning. Even as it begs us to think, Close Encounters is most effective at making us feel.
Paul is not as good as Close Encounters; Paul isn’t even as good as it could be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a charmer in its own right. Think of Paul as E.T.‘s gangly, older brother. It’s not as polished and it makes more fart jokes, but it’s full of love for all of the films that preceded it. And it stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig, which is reason enough to see any film.
Paul is a meta-filled adventure about two friends who inadvertently find themselves in a scenario straight out of the fantastical films they love. The premise is simple enough: two British geeks, Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are visiting the States in order to attend Comic-Con and tour America’s most infamous UFO sites when they encounter Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien who the government has held captive for decades. Paul is in the process of escaping and returning home when he meets up with Graeme and Clive. The duo end up helping Paul, and in the process, they find themselves on an increasingly madcap road trip being pursued by a pair of rednecks, the government and the father of a sheltered woman (Wiig) who wants to “rescue” his daughter.
Paul has so much going for it– the chemistry between Frost and Pegg, the deadpan humor of Paul, its boundless affection for the sci-fi movies of the ’70s and ’80s –that it’s easy to forgive it for trying to do too many things at once. There’s too much of everything, and because the film tries to cram in so many car chases and bad guys it never gets to let its characters breathe. Despite its shortcomings, it still succeeds as a celebration of genre storytelling and the people who consume it. It’s not groundbreaking in its own right, but Paul is a lovable, popcorn-friendly outing that’s perfect for a movie night.
Despite the quality gap, Close Encounters and Paul are an excellent fit thematically, and there’s a good reason for that: Paul is a direct descendent of Close Encounters.
Frost and Pegg grew up watching the films of Spielberg, and his influence on their work cannot be overstated. Paul is a love letter to the modern sci-fi genre, the one that was created by directors like Spielberg and George Lucas. Watching it alongside Close Encounters, allows you to see the reach of the classic’s legacy, and the ways in which it captivated modern genre storytellers who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s. Without Close Encounters, Paul wouldn’t exist (although Paul the alien begs to differ in the film’s most clever meta joke), but more importantly, the careers of filmmakers like Pegg, Edgar Wright and J.J. Abrams would be virtually unrecognizable if Spielberg hadn’t come before them and captured their imaginations, just as they now capture ours.
If you decide to watch this month’s Double Feature listen carefully during the flashback scene in Paul. When Paul helps Spielberg iron out a few of E.T.‘s plot details, that’s actually Spielberg’s voice.
Paul is just one of many modern films that would pair nicely with Close Encounters. Do you have any other ideas for a Close Encounters Double Feature? Will you be queuing up this one for your next movie night? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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