Steven Spielberg’s pivotal status in film history can be pretty well summed up by the example of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his second major blockbuster. A lifelong passion project, one of only two films in the director’s career to have a script solely credited to him, Close Encounters was also a lifeline for its struggling studio, Columbia. Against Spielberg’s protestations that the film wasn’t quite ready, the studio insisted on a release at the end of 1977, half a year after Star Wars. Financially, this decision more or less worked out, but the film was in no way another Star Wars. The pacing was designed to delay the audience’s gratification, and the story presented the concept of first contact with an alien species as more mysterious yet ultimately peaceful than anyone could have expected. A sequel was proposed to try and goose the audience a bit, but nothing came of it. Still, Spielberg wasn’t quite finished with his baby. He had enough leverage to get a new cut of the film, with some new footage, released three years later.
This was an important moment in Hollywood history: not as epochal, again, as Star Wars, but in a way a culmination of the 1970s generation of filmmakers’ rise to power. Directors in the Old Hollywood always had to bow to their studios to some extent, as Orson Welles, for example, knew. A “director’s cut” of a film was unheard of, but in the wake of Close Encounters, the restoration of the auteur’s singular vision would even become a selling point. Spielberg’s friends George Lucas (as we’ve seen) and Francis Ford Coppola (as we will see) would later perform some post-release tinkering on their magnum opuses as well. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s pioneering efforts were still compromised. Columbia again required something of him that he later admitted to regretting. In order to sell the idea of a re-release, Columbia asked for additional spectacle in the film’s climax; namely, the interior of the aliens’ mothership. As a matter of fact, Spielberg wouldn’t get his final director’s cut until 1998. This third version is the longest by a few minutes and is generally considered definitive, but I will abide by the rules I laid out at the beginning of this blog series, looking only at the two versions of the film that got wide theatrical releases: the original cut, and the “special edition.”
The oddest thing about watching these two cuts back-to-back this week was realizing that, without ever setting out to see both versions before, I was familiar with scenes that were exclusive to each one (except for that mothership interior — more on that later). During my Spielberg retrospective, I watched the 1977 cut, but I have no idea which version I first saw back in the early 2000s. I probably saw some of the additional scenes when the film was broadcast on some movie channel or other. Certain parts of the special edition have become landmark moments in critical writing about the film, testament to the fact that the original cut was difficult to find for a time. Seeing them both together, it occurred to me that each seems in its own way incomplete. I’m very open to the idea that the final cut combines the two into the best form; I’ll have to sit down and watch it some time. While the special edition adds a few scenes, it also removes a few other expository scenes, rendering it actually about two minutes shorter than the original cut. As one would expect, those changes subtly affect the film’s tone and storytelling, and the significance of those changes can vary quite a bit.
Let’s start with “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song, and the story of Pinocchio, have an almost subliminal presence in the original cut. There’s the music box in the middle of Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) toy train set. Then in the last few minutes of the film, an orchestral rendition of the song is gently incorporated into John Williams’s score. Roy’s childlike love for magic and make-believe, and his discontent with his mundane adult life, are established quickly and non-verbally in the original cut. The model train falls into the “river” underneath a drawbridge. Roy looks on, disappointed that he doesn’t have it all set up just right yet. In the special edition, Roy doesn’t enter the film as a child playing with his toy, but as a father helping his son with math homework. In this version of the scene, Roy learns that Disney’s Pinocchio is getting released in theaters again, and he tries in vain to convince his kids to go with him. In different ways, the two versions of this scene introduce the motivation for Roy’s eventual obsessive quest.
The family crisis, the dramatic center of the film, is the source of the most interesting additions and subtractions. After his UFO sighting, Roy starts fixating on the shape of a flat-topped hill. He doesn’t know what it means, but he can’t stop thinking about it. In one of the most famous scenes of Spielberg’s career, he starts molding his plate of mashed potatoes into the shape at the dinner table. Later that night, he reaches a crisis point, crying out to the heavens for answers. In the original cut, this is the last incident of the night, but in the special edition, there’s a further breakdown. Roy sits in his tub, fully clothed, with the shower running. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) tries to get him to seek professional help, but the conversation devolves into a shouting match. Ronnie was a thankless role to begin with, but the addition of this scene, in which she responds to Roy’s pleas for solace by yelling “I hate you,” is heartbreaking. The original cut didn’t use this difficult scene, swapping it for an extension to the scene the following morning, in which Roy, after briefly coming to his senses, starts shoveling dirt into the house so that he can construct a mound in the living room. The ellipsis in the special edition is curious: Ronnie simply piles the kids into the car while Roy traipses through the yard in his bathrobe. In the original cut, she first spends a not insignificant amount of time (very quietly) trying to get Roy to stop what he’s doing. The contrast in tone between the two versions at their respective midpoints could hardly be more striking.
The special edition of Close Encounters is bookended by its two most iconic additional scenes, and as it happens, I ultimately feel like both of these moments are superfluous. They are transparent attempts to “put the money on the screen,” but narratively speaking, the movie does just as well or better without them. First is a scene in the Gobi Desert, where the research team led by Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) discovers a cargo ship that had been thought lost. The image is undeniably cool, but the scene is basically just a repeat of the film’s first scene, in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, where a bunch of World War II-era planes have inexplicably turned up. Last but not least is Roy’s journey into the mothership, something left entirely to the imagination in the original cut. While I don’t see the additional footage as an abomination, I’m also hard-pressed to defend it. It’s a well-designed light show, but it’s also an indulgence tacked onto what had already been a thirty-minute-plus fantasia of color and music. Roy’s quasi-religious fervor was always somewhat abrasive. His abandonment of his family became a sore point for Spielberg as he got older. I think it’s perfectly fitting that the character’s apotheosis should be a little enigmatic — remote — backlit.
In an even more pronounced way than the 1997 “Special Edition” of the Star Wars trilogy, the 1980 cut of Close Encounters has since become an intermediary version of a classic and will only continue to recede from memory. I do enjoy some of the additional footage, but again, that 1998 final cut beckons. Some of the excisions in the second version are particularly galling, as well. The Bigfoot apologist played by Roberts Blossom has a much-diminished part, and the scene with a cameo by Carl Weathers (as a soldier questioning Roy for entering a restricted area) is gone altogether. The special edition was released in August of 1980, putting it in the wake of (you guessed it) The Empire Strikes Back. Spielberg’s film is always going to be under George Lucas’s shadow, which is a little unfair. If, on the science fiction spectrum that stretches from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind sits more closely to the former, then that’s exactly how Spielberg wanted it. It’s not a story about conflict, but about the vindication of faith and the wonders of the universe. In its conception and execution, it becomes just about the most thrilling marriage of art and science that I can think of. This is the film that ends with Douglas Trumbull and John Williams riding off together into the infinite. It’s a treasure in any of its forms.