When Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind received a theatrical rerelease for its 40th anniversary, the scope of it was puzzling. Jaws, Spielberg’s first great film, had been rereleased for two days to celebrate its own 40th in 2015, but Close Encounters was receiving a grand treatment, with weeks of nationwide screenings — not just an isolated TCM-endorsed simulcast. In one sense, it was fitting: Close Encounters is the greatest of Spielberg’s films pre-E.T., and it deserves that kind of attention. Yet the scope of the rerelease was strange because in many ways, Close Encounters has almost been forgotten by younger filmgoers.
It wasn’t always that way. Close Encounters debuted a few months after Star Wars had revolutionized American filmmaking (perhaps for the worse), and it was also a major success. The box office receipts were sizable and most of the reviews were sizable, but it couldn’t approach Star Wars’ simplicity and escapist charm. The story Spielberg was telling was far more complex, and not quite as easy for younger viewers to digest.
Close Encounters opens with a discovery of extraterrestrial phenomena, as a group of scientists and researchers, led by Lacombe (François Truffaut), discover a group of fighter planes in the Sonoran Desert. These craft have suddenly reappeared after having mysteriously disappeared during the Second World War.
After some more possible alien sightings, the story shifts to Indiana, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has been called to work on power lines after blackouts have started spreading in the middle of the night. He has his own fateful alien encounter, and it launches an obsession that will drive him to go searching for the aliens that have indelibly marked him.
Spielberg is a master of building suspense, as exemplified by the initial alien sightings and Roy’s race up Devils Tower, but between those exhilarating bookends is a much more difficult hour devoted to Roy’s disintegrating family life. Roy reverts to a childish state when around his young children, leaving his wife Ronnie (wonderfully played by Teri Garr) saddled with the actual work of parenting. She handles it as best she can, but the strain is visible, and cracks start to appear in her façade. After his close encounter, Roy begins to suffer from wild mood swings — at first, he has a hyperactive desire to see the aliens again, before falling into a nearly catatonic state in which he compulsively tries to sculpt a shape that has been imprinted in his mind.
The most hardest scene to stomach is when Roy goes mad and starts tearing up his landscaping (and the neighbor’s) to build a gigantic dirt diorama in the house that stretches up to the ceiling. A frightened Ronnie packs up the kids and drives away as fast as she can. Earlier, Spielberg had painted Roy’s mental breakdown in far subtler colors, but the scene of mania is tonally unbalanced; it’s painful to watch the family flee because of Roy’s behavior, yet much of what happens seems to be played for comedy. Even harder to square is how easily Roy gives up on his family, leaving his Indiana home for Wyoming’s Devils Tower and beyond.
Alan Scherstuhl has written quite movingly about how Close Encounters represents the young (and childless) Spielberg’s fantasies about leaving everything behind for a life of freedom, whereas so many of his later films are about reuniting families, but these complicated domestic scenes also work as a compelling portrait of mental illness and how it wreaks havoc on a family. Extraterrestrial visitors have planted these obsessions in Roy, but his wife and family don’t know that for certain; for them, he’s in the midst of what would be diagnosed today as bipolar disorder. He vacillates between states of mania in which he suffers from what his family assumes are hallucinations, and depressive states in which he blankly messes with a pile of mashed potatoes and is brought to tears by the sight of his frightened children. Those familiar with the effects of mental illness on families will find the middle sections of the movie particularly painful. The scenes are Spielberg’s attempt at gritty realism in the midst of an escapist fantasy, but they cut to the bone.
Which brings me back to how Close Encounters has been forgotten (perhaps a bit of hyperbole, as Spielberg is too popular for any of his films to really be forgotten, but it nonetheless occupies a precarious place in his oeuvre). When I first saw the film on an old VHS copy of the 1998 special edition, I was frightened by the early scenes and stunned by the glorious final half hour. The domestic drama in the middle, however, left me supremely uncomfortable. I appreciated the science fiction elements of Close Encounters, but my Star Wars-addled brain rejected the touchy-feely stuff.
Informal surveys of friends and acquaintances revealed that Close Encounters has never taken hold among younger generations the way the escapist fair of the Indiana Jones movies or the elegant horror of Jaws and Jurassic Park have. E.T. is a touchstone for many childhoods, but its familial strife is conveniently locked away in the past, just a memory for young Elliott. Close Encounters‘ domestic troubles are more immediate — and more painful. Still, it’s shocking how many people have never seen Close Encounters, or have only seen it once so long ago that they barely remember it.
A major rerelease would have made more sense for some of Spielberg’s other films, but it’s absolutely essential for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Wisely, Columbia opted for a 4K restoration, but skipped the 3D conversion that has marred so many other re-releases. The final sequence at Devils Tower is as perfect as anything Spielberg has ever shot, and he knows not to mess with it. Forty years of distance haven’t managed to sand off the movie’s rough edges, but it’s a film that breathes with renewed vigor. Now it’s ready to be discovered by a new generation.