Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a little critical analysis, as well as my own personal retrospective, on the films of Steven Spielberg. Granted, I won’t do all of them. I’ve done one for Ain’t It Cool News for E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (you can read that one here) and although Spielberg is probably my favorite living director I’m not going to go into films like 1941 or HOOK. There’s a myriad of reasons why those films don’t work, and I don’t think I can expand on that any better than the many others who have written about them. I’m not a critic. What I can do is give my personal take on what these films mean to me, and why Spielberg’s work continues to amaze and thrill me over the years.
An analysis of Steven Spielberg’s work is a bit like reviewing Coca-Cola. There seems to be little point. Like Coke, he’s everywhere. He’s probably the most famous filmmaker alive, recognized the world over, a juggernaut of box office profits and marketing. Hell, I knew who he was when I was seven years old, back in 1977. On the surface, he seems to be simply a brand name instead of an artistic talent. Over the years, we’ve watched that talent grow up and seemingly put away childish things to dwell in the adult world. But I think he’s still ostensibly the same filmmaker, through JAWS, through E.T. and RAIDERS, through SCHINDLER’S LIST and MUNICH. In the wonderful documentary SPIELBERG ON SPIELBERG, Spielberg himself suggests the common link through his films is the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of communication, and the dramatic power that it holds on screen. It’s as simple as one person yearning to connect and touch another, whether it be over the staggering space of a million light years, or the space between a Jew and a Palestinian deciding what radio station to listen to.
The first film I’d like to talk about is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. When it was released in its original version in 1977, it came out under the shadow of STAR WARS, and I’m sure Columbia was hoping for just that kind of success. I imagine it was a difficult film to market. The title is unwieldy and without context makes little sense, there’s no real villain to speak of, and the protagonist spends much of the film going mad and treating his family like crap. In a way, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND feels like the last pure Spielbergian film, a film made before profit margins dominated. It feels like a merger of the personal films of the 1970s with the blockbuster movies that JAWS and STAR WARS paved the way for.
There’s a charming naiveté about CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (referred to hereafter as CE3K), a sense of hope and wonder that’s been diluted over the years in Spielberg’s work. It’s still there, but in a different, more adult way. Here, Spielberg has a big heart on full display, unashamed of itself. It’s very much the work of an idealist, and it goes with the major theme of Spielberg’s work as he yearns to understand, to communicate, to find the common ground between what would seem to be diametrically opposed forces.
Roy Neary is Spielberg’s Everyman, and the audience’s window into the strange and amazing events that transpire over the film. Played by Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Neary is a man very much in touch with his inner sense of wonder and the child within us all. His favorite film is PINOCCHIO and in one scene he tries to push it on his kids, much like I’ve tried to push some of the films of my youth onto mine. They aren’t buying it. On the way to a job after a power outage, Roy Neary basically has a Saul to Paul conversion as unexplained phenomena, UFOs for lack of a better term, fly over his truck and around him down the street. When Roy drags his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) out in the middle of the night to show her what he saw, he’s not even paying attention to her. His need to show her doesn’t stem from a place of sharing but instead a place of self-justification, to prove to himself that he’s not crazy.
In the original cut, Neary’s far less sympathetic and bordering on mania. The scene in the director’s cut, with Neary in the bathtub, shows a man tortured by these visions in his head, but without it in the original he just seems like a odd man, ignoring his family and their needs. When he loses his job, he doesn’t attempt to try to find another and instead lets his obsessions control and manipulate him. Later when Roy trashes his house it can be seen in two ways – of a man who is driven by his vision to understand and try to answer this great question that’s been put to him, or of a man so sick and tired of his monotonous home life, so unsatisfied in his ambitions, that he destroys his home to escape it.
The relationship between Roy and Gillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) isn’t so much one of romance as it is of two desperate people, clinging to each other as proof of their sanity. Her child Barry (Cary Guffey, all of 4 years old at the time) has been abducted by the aliens, and her struggle is to have her child returned to her. She also wants an answer – why her child? Why is this happening? It drives her as much as it drives Roy, and apparently many others across the country as these people begin to have visions of a strange mountain, which means something important. It has caught the attention and involvement of Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), who with his interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) seek to understand what it all means. Truffaut brought a sense of serious clout to the film, and it’s a great performance. As Spielberg has kept his sense of wonder intact, so did Truffaut, and it shows in his acting.
There’s some aspects about Roy Neary that make him an interesting character for Spielberg, some of which I’m not sure he was aware of until years later. In one of the documentaries about CE3K, Spielberg talks about how he was a different man when he made the film, and that he’d never leave his family the way Neary left his, no matter what wonderments lay in store for him. I’m not sure that’s quite correct, though. The family in CE3K, whether or not Spielberg realizes it, is seriously dysfunctional. Roy is an absentee father already. There’s several scenes between Roy and Ronnie that already suggest that the marriage was in trouble, even before Roy’s obsession takes hold of him. Garr has a fairly thankless role here as his suffering wife, and we don’t know what kind of relationship they had before the UFOs came into their lives, but from the way she reacts to Roy during their midnight excursion it’s obvious that the romance in their relationship is long gone. It’s also evident in Roy’s impatience with his children, who seem strangely distant from him. We fill in the spaces with aspects of our own family lives, but it seems in this film Spielberg may be channeling his own disconnect from his youth with his own family. When he made CE3K, he wasn’t yet a father, wasn’t yet married, and it’s evident that he’s drawing from his own experiences as a child with his parents. Spielberg was very much a child of divorce, and it is a fascinating aspect of the film to watch.
Finally, during the climax of the film, the aliens and the humans make contact. It’s a spectacular scene and iconic, and it’s difficult to think of UFO phenomena without referencing the imagery. Through music and lights, the breach between worlds is bridged, and we come to understand the truth – that we are truly not alone. It’s a comforting, beautiful sentiment. These aliens aren’t about to burst through our chest or shoot us with death rays. They yearn, as we do, to reach out. As the people abducted over the years return to earth, Barry returns to Gillian and she begins to understand the grand scope of it all. Roy finally gets the answer that he’s been seeking, and in the end goes with the aliens, leaving Earth behind, to explore the universe. As a child, I thought, “Of course he left. Who wouldn’t?” But as an adult, with a family, I could never bring myself to do that. Spielberg understood that in his later years, but it’s to his credit that he didn’t change it, to have his family show up on the runway yelling “We believe you!” and have them be one happy family, because that wasn’t in Spielberg’s experiences at the time. It made sense to him that Roy leave, because that’s what he would have done then. It’s a fascinating window into Spielberg’s thinking at the time.
I purchased the Blu-Ray box set (buy it here!), and I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful picture, sounds terrific, and the colors are gorgeous, for lack of a better word. The supplements are pretty much the same as the DVD release, but this time we get a 20 minute interview with Spielberg, and all three iterations of the film, including the original 1977 release which hasn’t been seen since then. There’s a real difference between it and the director’s cut, which I prefer. The original edit doesn’t humanize Roy as much as in the director’s cut. In the original he seems less tortured and less relatable. As far as the inside of the mothership scene in the special edition, I don’t really need it. I prefer to imagine myself what it looked like.
I’ve read many opinions that Spielberg was a better, purer filmmaker when he made CE3K as opposed to now, where some feel his endings have been compromised with the marketer’s need to have a happy ending to them and damn the logic. I don’t think he’s necessarily a better or worse filmmaker now, just different. I don’t think he could make a film like CE3K today, and not just because of the ending. It’s a film that shows much of the true nature of the man, whether he intended to or not. It’s very autobiographical in a sense and it’s easy to see why he embraced the world of filmmaking like he did – because it’s those visions that compel him, that drive him, and in making them he shuts out the less comfortable, more difficult parts of his nature and of his childhood. In later years it becomes less easy to see the aspects of Spielberg in his films, but with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, we see the filmmaker laid bare, and it still feels like the work of a genuinely original voice, 31 years later.