In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a child first sees a space vehicle approaching through the clouds and is the first to go with the denizens of another planet, to be returned in the final scene. E.T. (Extra Terrestrial) is a development of that final scene, only here the child from outer space (E.T.) is left on earth when the space-ship leaves, to be found by a 10-year-old boy. This is a simple and affecting boy-and-dog story, except that instead of a dog we have a friendly extraterrestrial with whom the earth-children learn to communicate and for whom they come to feel an abiding affection. By the time the boy, thinking E.T. is dying, says, "I love you, E.T.," more than half the audience is in tears.
The tremendous popularity of this film is based not on the special effects but on solidly built characterizations: the boy, his brothers and sister, his mother. We empathize with them before the extraterrestrial incidents occur, and there develops an irresistible blend of love, pathos, and humor in their interaction. Every child loves it, and every adult, having once been a child, responds equally. The film speaks to the child in everyone, in ways that strike the emotional jugular. Moreover, unlike Alien and The Thing, in which the extraterrestrial creatures are hostile, in this film they are benevolent, thus creating the impression of a benevolent universe for which, it seems, audiences are searching in these days of downbeat films. This benevolence, together with the appeal to childhood innocence, are the secrets of Steven Spielberg's deserved success in this endearing film.
Quite different from E.T. is the Disney film Tron, in which the visual effects, produced largely by computer, are much more extraordinary. But the film is not engaging because the characters are hardly people (only one, played by Jeff Bridges, acts as a real live human being might act). There is very little in this film which would make a viewer care at all how things turned out. And thus, quite unlike E.T., this film is as cold as ice.
In fairness it should be added that technically this is quite a different film from anything that has gone before, and so is its central idea, the computer expert who gets caught in a contest of life and death in the very computer system for whose mastery he is vying with other experts. To computer aficionados the fascination of this theme will more than make up for the comparative lack of human interest in the story.
It is a joy to see a film that has both impeccable structure and important content. Such a work is Mephisto, whose title derives from Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust and Johann Strauss's opera Mephisto, the music of which is the central theme of the musical background. Any film produced in Hungary since 1956 is of course heavily subject to Soviet censorship, but the film makers get by with what they do because the villains are the Nazis rather than the Soviets. The moral of the film, however, applies to all dictatorships, and it is not difficult for the audience to make the mental extension.
The subject of the film is the role of the creative artist in a nation that does not permit artistic (or any other) freedom. Is art "above politics," so that the arts, even though crippled by censorship, should be sustained at any cost, thus justifying the compromises the artist has to make to keep his profession alive under difficult conditions? Or should the artist in such circumstances renounce his art, even at the risk of his life, until such time as the dictatorship is overthrown? This film concerns the attempt of one artist to hold the former position ("I'm nonpolitical, I just want to practice my art") and finds that the compromises he must make become more and more severe until, as the vise tightens, even he cannot stomach what he is required to do. The story rises in cumulative power from scene to scene until the end.
A fine description of Richard Strauss's attempt to cooperate with the Nazis, until he insisted on Stefan Zweig (a Jew) remaining as his librettist, is to be found in Zweig's autobiography, The World of Yesterday. The kind of situation the book describes is powerfully dramatized in this film.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. Among his recent books is Understanding the Arts (Prentice-Hall).