Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Nevermind those little alien guys—how about that suburban malaise!
Steven Spielberg became a household name with tales of action, adventure, and, beginning with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, visitors from other worlds. It's a subject he would return to again and again, and one he approached with the zeal of a true believer. Prior to making his 1977 follow-up to the breakthrough hit Jaws, the young director had spent years clipping mentions of UFO sightings from newspapers, talking to ex-military men who believed in a cover-up, and befriending experts like J. Allen Hynek, whose scale of UFO encounter types gives the film its title. But take a closer look at Close Encounters, particularly if you haven't seen the movie in a while, and you realize the movie has a rather un-Spielbergian subtext. The protagonist, a young suburban dad penned in by the responsibilities of fatherhood, leaps at the first chance to leave those responsibilities behind. Given the opportunity, in the movie's final scene, to board the aliens' mother ship and fly away, he doesn't spare a thought for the wife and kids he's leaving behind. The stars await.
This from the director who has been ratifying the importance of family for a quarter-century now, in movies as diverse in their subject matter and genres as E.T., The Color Purple, Hook, Empire of the Sun, and Minority Report. Spielberg himself acknowledges that Close Encounters is a different kind of movie. "I would never have made Close Encounters the way I made it in '77, because I have a family that I would never leave," he said in a 1997 making-of documentary. "That was just the privilege of youth." But though he's twice re-edited the movie—in 1980 and again in 1997—each time casting a more skeptical eye on Neary's abandonment of his family, the act of abandonment still stands out. It's a glimpse of a different Steven Spielberg than the one we've come to know.
All three versions of Close Encounters are included on the new three-disc "30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition DVD," and in all three our protagonist is Roy Neary, a Muncie, Ind., electric company lineman played by Richard Dreyfuss (the actor Spielberg has often referred to as his onscreen surrogate). Roy becomes obsessed with aliens after seeing a UFO firsthand. Dispatched to investigate some strange outages, he gets lost along an Indiana back road and buzzed by a small, colorful alien ship. After returning home, Roy is able to focus on nothing else. He begins collecting newspaper clippings and turning every pliable substance he can find into a shape he'll later discover is Wyoming's Devil's Tower. When he eventually raids a neighbor's yard for chicken wire so he can build a living-room-sized sculpture of that landmark, Roy's wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), packs their three children into the family station wagon and leaves both husband and film behind.
In the version seen in theaters in 1977, Roy's obsession takes hold of him like a fever. Returning from his first sighting with only his burned face as evidence, he whisks his family off to share what he's seen. But the aliens have disappeared, his family is incredulous (even the kids), and Roy is forced to choose between his growing obsession and his family responsibilities. It's not presented as much of a choice. In the 1977 version, we never get a chance to know him, or his family, before he's called away to check on those outages.
Save for this short scene and a few others of Roy at work, the movie shows us only Roy's post-UFO life. The 1977 version, however, wasn't exactly the one Spielberg wanted to make. He'd been rushed to finish by a cash-strapped Columbia in need of a hit for the holiday season. He began work on a new cut, and 1980 saw the theatrical release of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: Special Edition, a re-edit made years before director's cuts become common practice.
The bulk of the new and previously excised material fleshes out Roy's maddening home life, including a considerably longer introduction to the Neary family. We see suburban Muncie as a sprawl of carefully arranged, nearly identical houses stretched out beneath a starry sky. But within those tidy houses, Spielberg finds chaos. Clutter piles on top of clutter in a family room that can barely contain its family. Conversations overlap but fail to drown out the television's blare. And at the center of it all is a man already half-mad from all the commotion, unable to focus on his toy trains and stuck with a family unable to appreciate the whimsy of Pinocchio.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.