Theatrical and director’s cut:
1980 Special Edition:
What was it in the water in 1977 that directors of classic sci-fi movies couldn’t leave well enough alone? Long before George Lucas had turned the words “Han Shot First” into a fanboy battle cry, Steven Spielberg had already done a major facelift on his landmark UFO film. When Close Encounters was in production, Spielberg was aiming for a summer, 1978, release. Columbia Pictures, on the verge of bankruptcy, forced him to finish the movie for the fall of 1977, leaving unfilmed several of what he thought were key scenes.
After Close Encounters was established as a hit, Spielberg went back to Columbia and asked for something rather unprecedented at the time: money to shoot the unfinished scenes and re-cut the picture. The studio agreed on one condition: Spielberg had to include a scene inside the alien mothership. Reluctantly, he agreed, giving birth to Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition in 1980. The director was never happy with the mothership scene and the fans of the film generally agreed with him. So, in 1998 Spielberg recut the film again, keeping most of what was added in 1980, restoring a few scenes taken out for the so-called Special Edition and, most importantly, deleting the hated mothership scene. This Director’s Cut has been the one available on DVD since 2001.
Call me old school, but I think he should have left well enough alone. When he was shooting Jaws, the non-functioning mechanical shark forced Spielberg to resort to sleight of hand and keep the titular man-eater off-screen for most of the film, vastly improving the final result. Similarly, Columbia’s corporate dysfunction compelled the director to make difficult creative decisions under trying conditions and his creative instincts served him well.
The additional material provided by the later re-edits do little to further illuminate what has already been established by what there in 1977. The scene in which they find a large ship deposited mysteriously in the middle of the Gobi Desert is impressive, no doubt, but it does not tell us anything that the opening scene involving the missing bombers has not already illustrated. Neither do the additional scenes of Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) personal life unraveling serve any purpose not already fulfilled by what we already had.
Furthermore, scenes missing from the 1980 and 1998 cuts, specifically those showing Roy reporting to work to deal with a UFO-induced electrical crisis, are sorely missed. They served to put the situation in clearer perspective and make Roy losing his job more meaningful. Also, the line I quote here, probably one of the best lines of dialog in the Spielberg canon, appears only the original cut.
That’s not to say that the alternations completely ruined Close Encounters. The film is a genuine classic and certainly strong enough to survive Spielberg’s tinkering, but my opinion is that the original is still superior to its later forms.
Richard Dreyfuss has rarely been better as the average family man whose personal life is torn apart by events beyond his understanding. Teri Garr is also excellent as the wife and mother whose love for her husband can’t survive her fear of what’s happening to him. Melinda Dillon brings an earthy sweetness as the single mother whose world is turned upside down when the aliens abduct her 3-year-old son (played by an angelic Cary Guffey).
The real casting coup, of course, was legendary French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut as Lacombe, the leader of a research team investigating the sudden rash of UFO sightings. He puts a human, optimistic face on what is otherwise a faceless government cover-up in the classic X-Files vein.
And that is where Close Encounters separates itself from and rises above other “flying saucer” movies and other cinematic depictions of extra-terrestrial life. Typically, movie aliens fall into two broad categories: threat or savior. In other words, the little green men are either here to kill us or they represent some sort of juvenile wish fulfillment that are here to solve all of humanity’s problems. The aliens in Close Encounters are here to inspire a childlike sense of wonder and it is that perfectly realized sense of wonder that made this film a classic. E.T. may have garnered the greater share of the box office but artistically it still exists in the shadow of its spiritual ancestor.