Close Encounters of the Third Kind—Spielberg before Spielberg was Spielberg.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 20 2007 7:39 AM

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Nevermind those little alien guys—how about that suburban malaise!

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Instead of a man perhaps taken from his family by forces outside his control, we see a man with his foot halfway out the door. If the kids can't appreciate Pinocchio, how are they going to understand what Roy's seen? Other additions include a harrowing scene of Roy, tortured by his need to sculpt Devil's Tower, breaking down and showering while fully clothed. Ronnie makes an apparently sincere offer for the family to seek therapy together, but as the kids start screaming, she lets accusations of selfishness and neglect fly.

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The scene hews closer in tone to John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence than It Came From Outer Space. Garr plays Ronnie as a bit of a harridan, but who would react well if their spouse suddenly began following lights in the sky? And what did the kids do to deserve any of this?

The more context Spielberg provides for Roy's decision to leave his family, the less sympathetic that decision becomes. It's a flesh-and-blood family Roy abandons when he boards the mother ship. It's no wonder that when, in this version, we actually see inside that ship—a concession Spielberg had to make to get Columbia to let him tinker elsewhere—we find Roy standing by himself, alone, at last, with his bottomless capacity for wonder. Revisiting Close Encounters yet again in the 1990s, Spielberg removed the scene inside the mother ship but kept every frame of the scenes depicting the Nearys' domestic turmoil, and restored a few moments trimmed in 1980.

Spielberg has racked up a remarkably diverse filmography since Close Encounters, but in film after film he has circled back to the primacy of family, as if to apologize for Roy's departure. As early as E.T., released in 1982, Spielberg was reversing elements of Close Encounters. Elliott, the young protagonist of E.T., and his family take in an alien stranded in their suburban neighborhood. (They don't have to go searching for the wonders of the cosmos; the wonders of the cosmos come crashing down in their back yard.) And unlike Roy, they're restored, not undone, by this discovery. In fact, it's the elements of Elliott's middle-American life that allow him to befriend the alien—their trust formed with Reese's Pieces, their communication fostered by Sesame Street—and eventually rebuild his family.

His 2005 remake of War of the Worlds suggests an even more explicit reversal of Close Encounters. Here, instead of benevolent aliens whisking a man away from his bummer of a family, malevolent aliens threaten a family already destabilized by divorce. By film's end, they've learned that the only safety and comfort they'll ever know will come from one another, far away from twinkling stars, flashing lights, and the promise of other worlds.

The seeds of what would become the more signature Spielberg story line are present in Close Encounters. A subplot tells the story of a single mother (played by Melinda Dillon) desperately searching for a son abducted by the aliens. Mother and son end the film in each other's arms after the aliens release him and a few dozen other apparently unharmed abductees. But it's Roy's story that dominates the movie. And while the changes Spielberg has made to the film over the years have invited viewers to feel ambivalent about Roy's departure, Spielberg has never gone so far as his friend George Lucas (who softened Han Solo's nastiness by making Greedo shoot first). Roy still gets on the ship, fulfilling the fantasy of everyone who's ever wanted to leave everything and everyone behind, even if it's a fantasy his creator no longer shares.

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.