Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…
1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.
2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.
3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.
4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking in Wonder.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”
By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?
5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”
The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.
Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.
Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.
Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than in any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, where he transforms his audience into his favorite shot: People Looking in Wonder.