The film that is opening in the most theaters this week is actually a 40-year-old masterpiece from writer-director Steven Spielberg. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about this one. You either know it, love it and acknowledge its brilliance, or you’re a crazy person who hates movies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has always been my favorite Spielberg film. In fact, there are times in my life where it was my favorite film of all time. And as I get older, different portions of the film resonate more.
When I was younger, not surprisingly, the entire film felt like a slow-burn built up to the final 30 minutes of the friendliest alien first contact ever committed to film. But as I got older, I began to focus more on what was happening around lead character Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), particularly to his long-suffering family, who are much more satisfied watching five minutes of The Ten Commandments on television or playing mini-golf than going to see Pinocchio on the big screen with him. There’s a disconnect between Roy and his family even before he’s zapped by alien lights and a vision of the Devil’s Tower National Monument is implanted in his brain. We accept that Roy is not in control of his faculties. At the same time, abandoning his family—a hot but disinterested wife (Teri Garr) and three screechy children—might feel like sweet relief at this time in his life.
I always found myself gravitating toward the genuinely understated performance by director Francois Truffaut as project leader Claude Lacombe, who has a look in his eye that always told me that he’s believed in alien life since he was a kid. His perpetually put-upon interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) adds the necessary sense of wonder and disbelief to every scene he’s in. The parallel storylines–Roy being driven to Wyoming, and the scientific team globe trotting in search of further proof that something other-worldly had been borrowing humans across the decades and is now re-introducing them to the populace, sometimes decades later without them having aged–feed our desires to be saved by someone other than ourselves.
Then there is Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning camerawork, John Williams’ sweeping (and quite hummable) score, and Douglas Trumbull’s groundbreaking visual effects that hold up as well today as they did in the same year that Star Wars was released. I could also make a case that young Cary Guffey gives the single greatest performance by a child actor that I’ve ever seen as young abductee Barry; there isn’t a second of precociousness or false joy in his work. At the same time, you feel every ounce of pain and worry suffered by Melinda Dillion as his mother Jillian. The only moment during which I also cry in Close Encounters is their reunion at the film’s climax.
For those who need to know, the version that is being reissued this week in a 4K presentation is Spielberg’s so-called “Director’s Cut,” which means no pointless Special Edition visit inside the mother ship to end things. Even with a few deleted scenes put back in, there isn’t a wasted moment in this nearly two-and-half-hour cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that has somehow matured along with me over the decades. Roy’s emotional journey has gotten more complicated with each new viewing, and I’ve come to accept that his decisions may not have been right, but they were right for him in that moment and that 95 percent of adult decisions exist in a shade of gray. There are many good movies in theaters right now, but there are none as good as Close Encounters. Even if you’ve seen it on the big screen, you haven’t seen it like this.