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

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

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

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Nov. 20 2007 7:39 AM

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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

Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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.

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.


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.