I don't know why, but it feels somewhat strange that Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars were released just months apart in 1977. Perhaps that's because while the two nominally occupied the same genre, one has become a business unto itself—a multibillion-dollar property spawning cinematic sequels and entire universes of books and cartoon series and theme parks—even as the other remains the indisputably superior cinematic achievement.
It's hard to imagine now, when a smart sci-fi movie like Arrival scuffs and scrapes to sniff at $100 million domestic, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a massive hit with audiences and critics alike. Sure, it didn't make Star Wars or Jaws money, but Close Encounters grossed the equivalent of nearly half-a-billion dollars in 2017 ticket sales. And, perhaps more importantly, its success wasn't a huge surprise: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg swapped a profit point on the two sci-fi megahits as a sort of good-natured belief in the other's ability to put butts in seats.* Looking back from an age in which a handful of filmmakers can get anything they want made at just about any budget level they want, this sort of faith in audiences is touching.
Indeed, watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind from the vantage of today, one is amazed that audiences were willing to make such a film a blockbuster at all. It's an impressionistic movie, one that hops around the globe and rarely bends over backward to explain what we are seeing. Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) obsession with aliens would be terrifying if not shot through with Spielbergian levity: Roy's half-sunburned face after his initial encounter; his faceplam combined with his wife, Ronnie's (Teri Garr) stifled laugh when a fellow UFO-seers claims to have spotted Bigfoot once; even the fight in the middle of the street when Ronnie nearly runs Roy down with the car—an assault that concludes with him picking himself up off the ground, tying his bathrobe, and saying g'day to the neighbors. Claude Lacombe's (Francois Truffaut) globetrotting, meanwhile, is more mysterious and more measured than Roy's breakdown, a collection of bizarre images that combine into something obvious yet obscured.
Reviews at the time, even the negative ones, admired Spielberg's film as a technical marvel even if it was, occasionally, a bit emotionally stunted. Pauline Kael highlighted for special praise the near-symphonic duet between alien spaceships and human scientists at the film's climax: "This is one of the peerless moments in movie history—spiritually reassuring, magical, and funny at the same time. Very few movies have ever hit upon the combination of fantasy and amusement—The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, in a plainer, down-home way." But the movie's wonder is that of a child's, as Kael notes later, writing, "Barry, the toddling light-worshipper who sees the sky as a giant toy shop, is closer to the heart of Spielberg's vision than Roy, whose ‘looking for answers' Dreyfuss strains to represent."
The acerbic John Simon was far more cutting on his way to making roughly the same point. "The film's myriad self-contradictions allow for three possibilities," he speculated, the first of which being, "Spielberg has the memory span of a four-year old—a possibility reinforced by little Barry's being the closest thing to an auctorial alter ego among the dramatis personae." A harsh indictment of one of our greatest filmmakers—but one that resonates: Roy Neary staring up at the space-borne lights in wide-eyed wonder seems in tune with the way Alan Grant (Sam Neill) cranes his neck skyward to take in the full majesty of Jurassic Park‘s brachiosaurus.
But it's hard to hold this sense of wonderment against the director when he instills exactly that same variety of childlike awe in his audiences. You can't help but smile along with Barry as he runs about his house when it's surrounded by spaceships, trying to open the doors his mother so desperately closed as extraterrestrial lights flash through the windows. Watching the spaceship and the human computers play their competitive symphony elicits an involuntary chuckle every time I see it—and, on a big screen with a Dolby sound system cranked so high it literally makes your chair vibrate and your chest shake every time the bass rumbles through the auditorium, it elicits a half-wince, too.
Having not seen the film for a few years, I was a bit surprised by just how lengthy Roy's familial breakdown was; and, frankly, felt a bit differently about it now, with a family of my own. His childlike compulsion to leave his planet—and, of course, his family—just to see what's out there feels false, a bit contrived. But who's to say how a compulsion can change us, rearrange our priorities?
Given this release's billing as the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters, it may be worth quoting the final fragment from David Thomson's entry for Close Encounters in his book Have You Seen: "The phrase director's cut was first heard." A rather revolutionary moment in the business of making movies, it is instructive to go back and read Roger Ebert's 1980 review of the film's (first) re-release. Ebert highlighted what had been added ("an entirely new conclusion … more motivation for the strange behavior of the Richard Dreyfuss character"), what had been deleted ("the silly sequence in which Dreyfuss digs up half of his yard … dead ends and pointless scenes"), and what had been gained artistically (a great deal; enough, indeed, to inspire Ebert to tentatively ask, "Why didn't Spielberg make it this good the first time?").
CE3K is available in almost as many varieties as Blade Runner; frankly, I'm not enough of an expert on the various cuts of the film to tell you which we encountered up close last night (though it doesn't appear to be the director's cut Ebert reviewed in 1980). But whichever one it was constituted a nice treat to close out a summer that has been pretty uninspired on the big budget blockbuster front.
*This tidbit comes from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in which the author reported that the two also traded a point of their films with the great John Milius for his surfer flick Big Wednesday. Biskind claims that Lucas asked for his point back when Milius's film did not, ah, perform quite as well.