• Close Encounters of the Third Kind

    By Don Shay

    For a twenty-seven-year-old director with a smattering of television experience and only one prior feature, Steven Spielberg demonstrated an awesome mastery of the film medium when his first big production hit the screen in 1975. An instant and certifiable phenomenon, Jaws had vicarious thrill-seekers queuing up around city blocks all over the world and within months became the biggest grossing film in history. Could the audacious Spielberg make lightning strike twice, or was his shark picture merely a fluke? Not even he could say for sure. One thing was certain, however, Jaws would afford its young creator a rare opportunity to write his own ticket—at least for one more outing—and Spielberg was determined to make the most of it.

    For years, Spielberg had been fascinated by accounts of unidentified flying objects. As a youth, he had been introduced to the wonders of the heavens by his father. At sixteen he parlayed that interest into a two-and-a-half-hour 8 mm movie about scientists investigating strange lights in the sky. Some years later, he wrote an unpublished short story on a similar theme and at one point intended to launch a low-budget UFO film immediately after his first feature, The Sugarland Express. Then Jaws—still a novel in galley form—came to his attention, and Spielberg’s winning campaign to claim the film adaptation for his own completely altered the course of his career.  The UFO project was set aside. Even so, during idle, waterlogged moments in the making of Jaws, Spielberg and actor Richard Dreyfuss would toss about ideas for an epic film chronicling mankind’s first full-blown contact with beings from another world.

    With a green light from Columbia Pictures to develop the big-budget project, Spielberg commissioned a script from screenwriter Paul Schrader. Unhappy with the results, the director decided he could do a better job himself and over the next two years wrote half a dozen drafts on his own. Central to his vision were two concepts all but alien to science fiction films. Virtually without exception, extraterrestrial contact as depicted in motion pictures had been of a strictly hostile nature. Spielberg felt that any alien race capable of interstellar travel would be more altruistic in its motives. Indeed, there was little in the literature of UFO sightings to suggest otherwise. Also, he was determined not to tell his story through the studied empiricism of learned scientists—another cornerstone of the genre—but through the wide-eyed emotionalism of an ordinary blue collar worker whose life is cast into dizzying disarray as he struggles to cope with the unknown.

    With a title derived from the terminology employed by those who observe and investigate unidentified flying objects, Close Encounters of the Third Kind went into production at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming and then relocated to Mobile, Alabama where a giant dirigible hangar was transformed into the largest indoor set in motion picture history. Later, there would be location sequences shot in India and the Mojave Desert. But it was the UFOs and their inhabitants that would consume the greatest amount of time and energy. A full year-and-a-half would be needed to complete the optical and miniature work.

    Douglas Trumbull, engaged as visual effects supervisor for the production, was as much a wunderkind in his own field as Spielberg was in his. Employing newly developed technology to create precisely repeatable camera and model movements, Trumbull and his Future General organization managed to simulate on film the kinds of sightings commonly reported by UFO observers—brilliant, multicolored shapes of light capable of speeds and aerial maneuvers beyond the realm of human technology.Building to a grand finale in which a gigantic mothership and its cosmic voyagers are revealed to a select group of observers at the Devil’s Tower site, Close Encounters electrified audiences around the globe. Within days of its 1977 release, it was apparent that, for Steven Spielberg, lightning could indeed strike twice—and had. But the film still fell short of the one he had sought to make. Time and money had imposed limits on his aspirations.

    Two years later he was able to fulfill his original vision. In a move unprecedented for a film already released to popular and critical acclaim, Spielberg excised sixteen minutes from his original cut and replaced it with seven minutes of previously deleted footage and six minutes of new material generated specifically for a “Special Edition” reissue. It is this revised version of the film—highlighted by a breathtaking look inside the alien mothership—that has predominated in the years since its unveiling, and it is this version only which has been available to the home video market. For years film buffs have debated which one is the “best.” Now home video viewers will have the chance to decide for themselves, with the Criterion Collection offering the definitive presentation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—complete and intact as originally released and supplemented with the “Special Edition” material which can be viewed either separately or in proper sequence within the film.

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