Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a very good movie with a gaping hole in the center of it. Not everyone agrees, of course — about the hole, I mean. Ray Bradbury, for instance, called it the greatest science fiction film ever made. It certainly has some of the greatest scenes in the history of science fiction films. There’s the one with electrical lineman Richard Dreyfuss, lost and alone in his truck late at night, who stops to consult a map. He notices another vehicle pulling up behind him and he waves it around. But it doesn’t go around, it goes up. And there’s the one with little Cary Guffey, the young son of Melinda Dillon, who hears noises in the kitchen and goes to investigate. Spielberg turns a scene nearly impossible to render with special effects into brilliant cinema as he keeps the camera on Guffey, whose reactions to the aliens we can’t see tells us everything we need to know about them. And on and on.
Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary and Dillon plays Jillian Guiler, two of several people whose encounters with UFOs leave them obsessed with vague visions of some kind of mountain. The visions are important, they know, but they don’t make any sense. Not until the government stages a chemical disaster in Wyoming, evacuating everyone in the area, and news reports show The Devil’s Tower in the background. Roy and Jillian still don’t know what it all means, but they know they have to go there. Jillian has nothing holding her back because her son, Barry (Guffy), has been kidnapped by the aliens. Roy is free, as well, since his obsession has cost him his job and his family.
The government, meanwhile, is dealing with its own mysteries, like the appearance of the airplanes of Flight 19 in the Sonoran Desert and the abandoned SS Cotopaxi in the Gobi. Flight 19 was a squadron of five Navy Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in late 1945. The Cotopaxi, a tramp steamer, disappeared in 1925 with all 32 hands. (Interestingly, the 13 poor slobs in the PBM Mariner flying boat who went searching for Flight 19 and also disappeared get no mention.) What does it all mean?
What it all means is the black hole of this movie. It really means nothing, or anything. I like mystery, but I’m not so fond of mystery for its own sake, which is what we get here. On the one hand, the aliens seem pleasant enough. On the other, they’re kidnappers. Significantly, we learn so little about them that we can’t even guess at their motives. Or, worse, we can, and their motives are so simplistic that it only proves that evolution is wrong, and it doesn’t in fact lead to greater complexity. Show me marvelous aliens and I want something marvelously different about them. I don’t want my kid kidnapped by Mister Rogers.
But what we see here is what we get, and for Bradbury (as well as for millions of others, evidently), that is enough. It’s enough for me to highly recommend this film, for much of what Spielberg shows us is so wonderful, but not enough for it to join the truly great movies already in my heart.
I saw the Collector’s Edition, which is the third and last version of the movie. I had previously seen the other two — the original theatrical release and the Special Edition, which showed the interior of the alien mothership. Proving how well marketing works, Spielberg was allowed to make the Special Edition on condition that he showed the ship’s interior: the distributors wanted a hook for it. I fell for that hook. But Spielberg didn’t like it — he thought the interior should remain (another) mystery — and he was right. Rather, he was right because his vision of the interior was so pathetically bland. Here, in the Collector’s Edition, he has taken out that scene, but kept in other scenes added for the Special Edition, such as the discovery of the Cotopaxi. This edition is unquestionably the best of the three.