Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I recently reviewed the History Channel series The Universe for PopMatters. In an episode devoted to the search for extraterrestrial life, several scientists speculate that when first contact with alien intelligence is made, there’s a very good chance it would be with their technology, specifically in the form of interstellar nanobots, rather than with aliens personally. Fascinating as this theory is, it would certainly be a profound disappointment, especially after decades of speculative pop-cultural buildup — an inelegant and underwhelming anticlimax, depriving us of the drama, wonder and spectacle that you would hope would attend first contact.

We’d be cheated of the “Big Moment”, perhaps the biggest in human history, the confirmation that we are not alone in the universe. Or, in other words, we’d be cheated of something like the 45-minute climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Steven Spielberg imagines this moment as an orgiastic riot of light, color and music, a blinding sensory overload imbued with the proper amount of awe, magic, fear, and joy. Set in a vast outdoor amphitheater in the shadow of Wyoming’s iconic Devil’s Tower, this meeting with the aliens is operatic and breathtaking, but also, more importantly, personal and emotional, the epic and the human working in perfect harmony and congruity to bring forth one of the most sublimely humanistic and hopeful passages in all of cinema.

There’s a profound innocence and naïvete to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a childlike hope and optimism regarding the unknown that may have been out of place in 1977 (post Vietnam, post Watergate), and is certainly, um, alien to us now. This is a young man’s film, a film with its arms and eyes wide open, with none of the paranoia and xenophobia which plague us today. And Spielberg asserts as much, confessing that it is the one film that dates him the most, that most makes him realize how much he’s changed in the 30 years since its release.

It’s almost recklessly hopeful, refusing to acknowledge even the possibility of hostile aliens hell bent on our annihilation, a sharp contrast to both the paranoid alien invasion movies of the 1950s, and Ridley Scott’s nightmarish Alien (released just two years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a perfect counterpoint). Indeed, one need only look inside Spielberg’s own work, to his apocalyptically pessimistic remake of War of the Worlds (which is basically Close Encounters of the Third Kind turned inside out), to see how much the world – and the man – have changed.

And yet, this childlike wonder, what Spielberg calls “trusting the light” (emphasized in the movie by the iconic image of three-year-old Barry opening a door to the blinding orange light of the alien ships that have come to “kidnap” him, a terrifying but beautiful moment), is precisely the center of the film’s strength, what buoys it aloft and keeps it from sinking into sci-fi nonsense. Coalescing from Spielberg’s own passionate ruminations about the possibility of extraterrestrial life and UFO visitations, a long-standing fascination dating back to his childhood, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a dream of young imagination run amok. It is a film conceived and shot with a child’s eyes to the heavens.

I remember this being my absolute favorite movie between the ages of nine and 14, when I probably saw it close to 20 times. And it wasn’t just my favorite because of the pretty lights, the music, and the aliens at the end. There’s something vital and integral at its core, something that echoes the imaginative core we form as children. And even though not made specifically as a children’s movie, it has a direct pipeline to the inner child in us all, igniting in us that spark of trust that we lose in growing up. I am still enraptured, still can’t help fall under its sway even now, and still hope beyond hope that this is how it all goes down someday, when it goes down.

And yet, Spielberg is quick to emphasize, even now, that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was always meant to be taken seriously, even if its spirit doesn’t quite align with his own, anymore. He never wanted it to be regarded as simply a sci-fi movie, a kid’s fantasy, painted into a genre corner, beloved and spectacular but ultimately dismissible. Spielberg insists that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a whole other animal altogether — science speculation — a humanistic meditation on possibility and probability, based on scientifically based rumination, rather than unhinged fancy and fantasy. How much credence you give this assertion depends, I guess, on how much you give to any speculation about alien contact, but there is a formal elegance to it all that simply feels right, that first contact would just have to be through the language of music and color, and that the aliens would come in peace.

It’s strange listening to Spielberg talk about the film now. In the two interviews included in this set — one taken on the 20th anniversary, and the other this year on the 30th of the film’s release — he seems to both distance himself from the film and embrace it, placing it above all his others. It is a nostalgia trip, almost like a time capsule of the man he was in his late 20s, but it’s also probably the repository of the things he holds most dear.

I think it’s his most personal film, his real baby, the seminal film of his early career, more so even than Jaws. This love manifests itself in his seeming inability to let the thing alone. Twice now he has gone back and revised the film, tinkering here and there to make sure the vision he wants you to see is the one you see. Having felt rushed by Columbia Pictures to have the film done for a Christmas release in 1977, Spielberg convinced the studio to let him go back and shoot new scenes to “complete” the film (this, after its initial blockbuster success, of course), the one lamentable caveat being that he had to add a scene inside the alien mothership at the end (rightly absent from the first cut).

This “Special Edition” version became the standard for most of the film’s existence then (it was the one I grew up on). Spielberg added some new set pieces that deepened the mystery around the global UFO sightings, cut some of the more extraneous character development scenes, added a few new effects here and there. The results may seem cosmetic and minimal, just small points of emphasis here and there — except, of course, the ending, which was horribly botched. Spielberg apologizes profusely, insisting this was his chief regret, that the inside of the ship should always have remained the province of imagination of the audience.

So, finally, he got the chance to go back and rejigger the film one more time for what he insists is the final, definitive director’s cut, which fortunately extracts the awkward “Special Edition” ending, and adds in a few more scenes from the original cut that had been previously cut, while cutting others that had been added in from the “Special Edition”. Unless you are Spielberg devotee, the director’s cut is the only one you need to see. And for those who don’t want to go back and watch the different cuts to find out what they missed (or didn’t), the DVD package comes with a very helpful illustrated foldout chart detailing exactly when and where in each version of the film the changes were made.

As mentioned, included along with the three films, the rather awesome chart, and a booklet of bios and behind the scenes stills, are two excellent features, one a short 30th anniversary interview with Spielberg, and the second a feature length documentary about the making of the film done in 1997/98. This latter features interviews not only with Spielberg, but most of the cast (including the grown up Cary Guffey, who played the little boy Barry, and who has a remarkable memory for amusing anecdotes), and all the major behind the scenes players in the production.

Richard Dreyfuss is a bit animated about how integral he was to the whole project — he may be right (as the hero Roy Neary, he nails that childlike wonder and belief that Spielberg was aiming for), but he wasn’t Spielberg’s first choice, or second, or even third, for the lead role (it was first offered to Steve McQueen of all people).

Most everyone fawns over Truffaut, in undoubtedly his best role as an actor, and probably the only thing most Americans remember him for. Truffaut’s casting was a pipe dream for Spielberg, who was flabbergasted when the legendary French director accepted immediately. He, too, embodies that childlike view, a perfect complement to Dreyfuss.

The segments about set design, special effects, and cinematographic logistics is fascinating, if a bit confusing. At the time, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was probably the most ambitious, and nighmarish, effects-heavy production made (more so than even Star Wars), and the nitty-gritty of how it was all put together is positively headache inducing in its labor intensity and need for outside the box thinking. (Of course, current audiences may not be so impressed these days, and indeed all the effects could have been quite easily done with CGI). The amount of raw footage shot was equally legendary, and it’s no wonder Spielberg kept going back to the well to reshape the film. In fact, it’s no small wonder the film was ever completed at all.

As far as definitive packages go, this 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition is adequate if not exactly comprehensive. Though missing any commentary tracks — Spielberg famously refuses to do them, more power to him — Spielberg is so garrulous, warm and informative in his interviews, that none is necessary. Gone missing are a handful of deleted scenes which never made it into any version of the film, but they are not really missed (they were included on previous releases).

I’m not sure it’s necessary to own all three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I’m glad they are made available together. It’s a nice treat to be able to go back and watch the film as you remember seeing it for the first time, and that one version is not allowed to permanently supersede another. But regardless of which you watch, Close Encounters of the Third Kindis still essential, a grand spectacle of cosmic and human scope — mysterious, terrifying, enthralling, full of hope and wonder, and completely unforgettable.

RATING 10 / 10