Sunday, December 4, 2022

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In some ways, this is a bit of an easy job.  In others, however, it's a lot more complex.  Writing about the work of a guy like Steven Spielberg is one of those topics that offers a multitude of places to begin.  It's one of those ironic blessings, inasmuch as you don't quite know just where to start.  Another challenge in writing about perhaps the major director of American cinema in the last four decades is how to figure out you avoid running over the same old ground?  One pitfall to keep in mind when  talking about Spielberg is just how easy he can make the critic's job.  One of the perks of becoming a brand name, or public institution is that it means its now possible for most for most commentators to phone it it all in, and not have to bother at all with giving a single amount of serious thought to the filmmaker, or the actual artistic work that has long since turned him into a household name.  It's the sort of trap I'd like to avoid, if I'm being anywhere near honest.  There are two interlinked reasons for this.  The first part of it has to do with the conviction that Spielberg's works do count as the product of a genuine artistic talent.  The second is the growing conviction that, in many ways, an actual, critical understanding of the director has yet to make its full appearance in terms of his cinematic efforts.

A lot of the reason for that last point stems from a stigma that has haunted the filmmaker ever since his early days.  Even today, critics still like to bash him with the label of Escapism, or popcorn entertainment.  The good news is that as the years have gone on, this attack has lessened a great deal over the years.  It's helped in no small part by two other factors.  The first is that what might be called "the critical consensus" has shifted over time to the point where Big Steve is able to enjoy a more favorable reception.  This has happened in no small part by the way both audiences and critics have shifted around over the years.  As of this writing, an entire generation of 80s kids, the original target demographic that made Spielberg famous, has come of age, and is now more or less in the driver's chair of pop-culture.  Since they're the ones on whom the director has left the biggest impact, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise to learn that his popularity and acclaim would sky-rocket as a result.  

The cynic, of course, would point to all this as an example of the bad taste of theater-goers, yet I maintain that view is a mistake, as it continues to give Spielberg's actual talents the short-shrift.  My problem with such a mindset is that it's coming from a perspective that has no real interest at all in finding out why this particular artist was able to carve his name in stone for all time.  My own consistent discovery is that this continued lack of curiosity on the part of a lessening minority stems from a fundamental disregard.  The kind of folks who still like to bash Spielberg for what he does, even today, all share one thing in common.  They're too suspicious of words like enchantment, even when the term is used in its proper context.  That's why I find the second reason for the director's continued fame to be so reassuring on some level.  The discontent with Spielberg's work has always been relegated to a dwindling minority opinion.  The real kick in the teeth is that while this negative reception has been thankfully small in number, for the longest time, it has been frustratingly influential, at least among those critics and pundits who consider themselves "The Real Film People".  It's a minor headache that both the director and audiences in general have had to put up with for what was the longest of times.

The good news, like I say, is that this disenchanted view of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T. has continued to shrink, and is growing less with the passage of years.  Right now, the growing consensus opinion is that the films of Spielberg constitute a genuine contribution to the realm of American arts, and the director himself appears to be recognized as a legitimate artist in his own right.  That's all well and good.  Though there's still a lot to be done.  As of now, the greater work of in-depth, critical examination still remains to get off the ground.  The time will most likely come when the director's entire filmography will get its full and proper treatment.  Right now, all I can do here is provide a bit of a nudge in that direction, by trying to find the proper starting point for discussing just what kind of filmmaker Steven Spielberg is, and what he is up to with the film's that he likes to make.  For  now, I think the best thing to do would be to provide a kind of capsule biography of the artist, and then take a brief- deep-dive look into one of the film's that helped solidify his popular reputation.

When dealing with a figure like Spielberg, the first issue is to get as good a reading as possible of the growth of the artist's mind.  In his case, there were a hell of a lot of factors to take stock of.  The most important ones seem to hinge on two interlocking elements.  The first was the way his parents seem to have nurtured the young boy's Imagination.  The second is how their later divorce appears to have determined his entire career, including the particular stories that same Imagination would go on to tell.  The truth about Steve is that he was just this average, suburban kid.  He was born, perhaps fittingly, in the month of December, 1947 to a middle class household.  His parents were named Arnold and Leah, and by his own accounts theirs was this outwardly ordinary, almost Leave It To Beaver style existence.  

This appears to have been Spielberg's first big impression.  The relative comforts of the suburban neighborhood.  The funny thing is how this same basic setup has managed to prove a breeding ground for some of the best artistic voices out there.  In this way, it makes sense to claim that an important element of Steve's childhood growing up is that he was part of this almost informal, collective growing experience for nascent young storytellers.  Along with Arnie and Leah's kid, you had youngsters like Joe Dante, Dennis Muren, and John Carpenter who instead of, or in addition to the regular kids routines of games, sports, and mowing the lawn, would also carve out time for themselves devoted to pouring through the pages of curious periodicals, with titles like Analog, Tales From they Crypt, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Galaxy Magazine, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  

In addition to personal quirks like this, these same groups of kids from all across the Eisenhower Era nation would schedule their lives so that they never missed an episode of TV shows like Flash Gordon, Tales of Tomorrow, John Ford Westerns, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Twilight Zone.  They were just a bunch of die-hard geeks is all.  It was that simple.  The first example of a pop culture mindset.

It's the kind of thing that happens all the time, really.  And to this day it remains as natural as it is puzzling, and sometimes downright inscrutable.  Such is the irony and nature of artistic creativity.  Spielberg might have been something of a minor, special case.  Where in most households of the time, if you wanted to hold on to your copies of Sci-Fi and Horror comics, you had to be extra careful to stash them out of sight of any and all grown-ups, less they soon make their way into the back of a garbage truck.  Such was the unofficial law of the pop-culture landscape in those days.  By contrast, young Steve appears to have won some kind of existential lottery.  He didn't just have the luck to grow up in a household that encouraged an interest in the arts, he also had a Dad who regularly bought copies of Analog home to read, both for himself, and to anyone else who was interested in that kind of thing, and this in turn served as one of the key bonds that were established between father and son,  He still had to find a way to sneak into the Horror pictures if they were showing at the local theater, though.

It was this bond between Arnie and his only boy that got put to the greatest test over the course of several decades, at least once Leah fell in love with someone else, and rather than let Steve grow up hating his mother, Arnold Spielberg apparently decided the best course of action was to leave in order to salvage something for the sake of a family that it seems he never really stopped caring for.  It is one of the central ironies in the growth of Steven Spielberg's creative mind, and it remains one of the key mainsprings of inspiration for him to this very day.  The other is the way his shared artistic interests (both between his parents, as well as future peers and collaborators such as Robert Zemekis and George Lucas) planted his imaginative leanings firmly on what has to be described as the Romantic side of the artistic spectrum, for better or worse.  His own strengths are still used as a cudgel against him on occasion today.  Though the good news is it doesn't happen quite as much as often.  The better news is also that most of these gibes have taken on a rote quality.  With any luck, these slurs are on the way out.

There was one early moment of influence in particular that happened to him when he was still just a kid.  Even at the time it was happening, when he was maybe no more than five or six years old, it's as if Spielberg still managed to recognize that the event had at least some kind of base level influence on both his way of thinking, and in particular, his Imagination.  As a result, it was a lot more than just the kind of circumstance that turns out to be important in retrospect.  Even as a kid, the future director was smart to realize this was going to leave some kind of an impact.  One of the legacies of the moment I'm thinking of, is that it lead to the creation of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Story and its Context.

On the very first page of his chronological study, The Films of Steven Spielberg, scholar and critic Douglas Brode relates the following real life incident:

"Once upon a time, in a...kingdom called Arizona during a mythical age known as the 1950s, six-year-old Steven Spielberg woke in the middle of the night to find his father, barely able to control his excitement, standing in the darkness by the boy's bed.  As soon as little Steven's eyes were open, Arnold Spielberg whispered that he should quietly come along.  He took the child by the hand and firmly dragged the boy out of the house to the family car.  Though the father's manner was kind and gentle, little Steven was terrified, so much so that he acquiesced to everything, even as Arnold wordlessly started the car and drove away from the home where his wife, Leah, and their three daughters remained fast asleep.  Unsure whether he was still dreaming in bed or if this was actually happening, Steven cast a backward glance at the house, wondering if he would ever see it or its inhabitants again.

"They traveled for half an hour, not saying a word other than the father's single-sentence explanation "I'm taking you to see an extraordinary show!"  They didn't arrive at a theater, a circus tent, or a theme-park pavilion, but at an isolated stretch on the desert outside Phoenix, where about a hundred people (though there must have appeared to be a thousand to the frightened but now fascinated child) were lying on the ground, on old blankets, staring upward.  To Steven, the sky must have looked the way skies do in the films he would begin making some twenty years later: immense, black, star-studded.  That is, a night sky filled with wonder, mystery, and the potential for magic and menace,

"My first conscious catharsis" is how Spielberg would recollect what he observed.  As his father spread out blankets and pillows, they joined the others.  People briefly glanced over, saying nothing but smiling knowingly at the newcomers, who likewise "understood," one way or another learning of the miraculous, metaphysical thing about to happen, attracted to this isolated place like pieces of metal to a magnet.  They observed a meteor shower that either was, or appeared to the child to be, "phantasmagoric."  While the city slept, a precious few witnessed proof positive that there was indeed enchantment in the universe.

"Two decades later, Spielberg - quickly rising amid the ranks of young Hollywood filmmakers - would recall that scene from childhood and re-create it for his third feature (the first he himself wrote as well as directed), Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In that UFO extravaganza, an equally giddy father, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), drags his family out to see just such a natural phenomenon.  By film's end, he realizes that, love them as he may, Roy must leave if he is ever to rediscover the child within himself, the child he has spent most of his adult working and parenting life denying (11)".

That's a pretty good working description for the setup of Close Encounters.  At least it counts as serviceable, anyway.  The plot summary is basic, yet it tells the truth, up to a point.  The punchline isn't just in what Doug Brode leaves out about the film in his bare-bones synopsis.  It's also in the way that time has shaped and modified the way both audiences, and even the director himself look at this early work.  It's an inter-connected subject that's worth looking into for its own sake.  A good place to start is with all the plot elements that Brode leaves out of his recap.  It's true the film centers around Dreyfuss's everyman working stiff, and the crazy circumstances he soon finds himself caught up in.  What he doesn't mention until later on in his book is all the other aspects there are to the movie as a whole.

For instance, there's the question of setting and technique.  Close Encounters is niether the first film that Spielberg ever made, nor is it correct to say that this is the picture in which the director began to find his "signature style".  That was a process which began way back in the late 60s and early 1970s, while working under the guidance of producers like Rod Serling and Richard Matheson.  In fact, if you want to get pointed in the right direction to the moment Spielberg can be said to have "found his voice", then you'll to go and have a look at a film like Duel (1971).  It's another subject that's well worth talking about.  However, all that needs to be mentioned here is that it was the beginning of the kind of modern, urban/suburban fantasy style that people today most often associate Spielberg with.  The truth from there on is that Jaws represented an advance, some might even argue an improvement on where he started.  The interesting punchline is that while Jaws appears to be the more fondly remembered film, it is with his immediate follow-up project that we begin to see traces of what nowadays counts as the sort of Classic Spielberg style.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the way he uses it to set the stage for the story.  Spielberg has often been labeled the Poet of Suburbia, and when you go and watch a film like Close Encounters, you maybe begin to see where the critics are coming from, at least on that score.

After a brief, and deliberately mysterious prologue set in the desert (and featuring the likes of Bob Balaban, along with some old, hot shot director named Francois Truffaut) we're thrust once again into what has proven to be Spielberg's signature stage set, a lower-middle-working class neighborhood, located in Anytown, America.  In the film's case, the state of Phoenix, Arizona forms the main backdrop against which the main action plays out.  And right away, the minute the plot switches to this primary setting, the director begins to show just how far his skills have matured.  The first traces of the now signature trademarks begin to show themselves the minute we arrive at the house of the story's two main secondary leads, Malinda Dillon's Jillian Guiler, and her son, Barry (Cary Guffey).  It's where the story almost seems to want to take its time in lingering on shots of an ordinary child's bedroom with this strange, loving, almost quasi-mystical detail.  These opening moments where the director takes us on what almost amounts to a guided tour of the minutiae of childhood is regarded now as one of the most familiar, and well remembered aspects of Spielberg's work.  This is its first major appearance.

The good news about this most familiar of tropes is that I don't think I've ever seen it devolve into a useless cliche.  Or if it has, I'm lucky enough to have never seen the film it happens in.  Instead, these lingering shot's of a child's bedroom are utilized on both a thematic and plot based level.  What starts as a series of random, yet semi-related shots (a set of toy cars, a children's record player, an airplane, one of those creepy looking monkey dolls with bashing cymbals) are all brought together as signals, or harbingers of both approaching change, and the possibilities of enchantment that might just come along with it.  In a sequence that could very well have been cribbed from Gepetto's animated workshop from the original Pinocchio, Spielberg grants Barry's toys a kind of pre-Pixar half-life as they start on their own, waking the boy, and drawing him downstairs into the living room/kitchen area, where he makes one of the few, silent discoveries that is never really disclosed to the audience.  All we're left with is a series of reaction shots where the little boy appears to have discovered a secret that makes him happy.

It is just possible this whole sequence, almost a silent film unto itself, might be able to stand as one of the director's tour-de-force moments in his career.  It's certain to count as just one of a number of stand-out scenes that dot the rest of the picture.  The second one to come not long after that opening is when Richard Dreyfuss's main character is treated to the adult version of this same experience.  Here is where Spielberg went on to pretty much help set the tone for all future alien abduction encounters in the vast majority of Sci-Fi films that followed in his wake.  The key difference is that while this same idea has gone on to get the most use out of the Horror genre, here Spielberg frames it as a moment of eerie enchantment.  It has an element of fright to go along with it, yet this is not the scene's dominant note.  Instead, it is handled as a moment of shock that, on paper, at least, is meant to send the Roy character on a trajectory back to the same rediscovery of happiness and meaning that Barry already embodies.

From there, the rest of the story details how their separate yet related close encounters together serve as a catalyst that both changes and helps unite Roy and Jillian, even as it also helps first drive a wedge between Dreyfuss's protagonist and his family, before more or less ripping the whole thing to shreds, just in time for the start of the movie's third act.  It all culminates in the final great set piece of the film, which is when the the UFOs make their grand appearance at the site of Devil's Tower.  It's the last great hat trick of the film, and its a testament to the production's technicians who worked on it that their efforts created a major turning point in cinema history.  There is more than plenty to write home about on this film.  The curious thing is it's that one middle section, and maybe even a final bit about the ending that I keep turning over in my mind.  It's lead me to a hell of an interesting conclusion about the story as a whole.  And the real issue is I'm not sure if I'm about to get in trouble for it, or not.

Conclusion: An Almost Successful Trial Run.

When discussing Close Encounters at the end of a retrospective documentary on the film, Spielberg had the following observation to make.  "Twenty years later, I look at my movie.  And I see a lot of naivete, and I see my youth.  And I see my blind optimism.  And I see how I've changed...I'm dealing with seven children in a very practical world, with practical decisions.  Things that have to be done on time.  I'm now a movie producer as well as a director.  Whereas in 1975, or 76, I was just a director, and I was much more idealistic then.  So I look at Close Encounters, and I see a very sweet, idealist odyssey about a man who gives up everything in pursuit of his dreams, or his obsession.  In 1997, I would never have made Close Encounters the way I made it in 1977.  Because I have a family that I would never leave.  I would never drive my family out of house and home, and build a paper-mache mountain in the den, and then further leave them to get on a space ship, perhaps never to return.  I mean, that was just the privileges of youth.  When I see Close Encounters, it's the one film I see that dates me.  I really look back and see who I was twenty years ago, compared to who I am now".  It's an interesting admission on his part.

Let's go a step further, and bring in another critical voice.  Here's how YouTube vlogger and critic C. Everett Magill sums up his own thoughts on the film.  He says it's "always been a weird movie for me.  Spielberg's intent was to create something uplifting that cut through adult skepticism to reveal a universe of childlike wonder.  And though he does succeed in that, the film isn't as heart-warming as he wanted it to be.  The most problematic thing is the ending, in which Roy happily leaves his wife and kids behind.  Spielberg admits he wouldn't have ended the film this way after he had children of his own, and it gives the whole story a disturbing thematic angle.  Where normal American life and the nuclear family are portrayed as banal and miserable things to be transcended.  Though Spielberg's youth was marked by a relatively stable home, his parents did divorce when he was nineteen, and it traumatized him as surely as if he were much younger.  As a result, his view of children and marriage was pretty skewed when he was in his twenties.  

"The main themes of the movie is one of communication.  With the film focusing on the different ways we communicate, and the barriers between them.  There are linguistic barriers demonstrated by Lacombe (Truffaut's character, sic) needing a translator, the hand signals to help the deaf understand music...the way the aliens communicate through music, and the inability of Roy and Bonnie to effectively communicate what's happening to their family as a result of Roy's experiences and deteriorating mental state.  On that note, I can empathize with an over-worked housewife with multiple children and a manchild of a husband.  But I have a hard time understanding why Bonnie doesn't try harder to get Roy the professional help he needs.  Especially in the Special Edition and Director's Cut version of the film, in which Roy is seen literally begging her for help.  Instead, she just straight-up abandons him, and that feels even more unforgivable to me than Roy getting on a space ship (web)".

In complete distinction from Magill's take, here are the words of Stephen King describing the same film in his non-fiction book, Danse Macabre.  "By contrast, consider the other end of this telescope.  The children of World War II produced The Thing...years later a child of Vietnam and the self-proclaimed Love Generation, Steven Spielberg, gives us a fitting balance to The Thing in a film called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  In 1951, the soldier standing sentry duty...empties his automatic into the alien when he hears it coming.  In 1977, an old guy holds up a sign reading STOP AND BE FRIENDLY.  Somewhere in between the two, John Foster Dulles evolved into Henry Kissinger, and the pugnacious politics of confrontation became detente.

"In The Thing, Kenneth Toby occupies himself with building an electric boardwalk to kill the creature; in Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfuss occupies himself with building a mock-up of Devil's Tower, the creature's landing place in his living room.  And he would be just as happy, we feel, to run up around there placing those landing lights.  The Thing is a big, hulking brute; the creatures from the stars in Spielberg's film are small, delicate, childlike.  They do not speak, but their mothership plays lovely harmonic tones - the music of the spheres, we assume.  And Dreyfuss, far from wanting to murder these emissaries from space, goes with them.

"I'm not saying that Spielberg is or would think of himself as a member of the Love Generation simply because he came to his majority while students were putting daisies in the muzzles of M-1's and while Hendrix and Joplin were playing the Filmore West...But events determine point of view and point of view determines politics, and CE3K seems to me every bit as preordained as The Thing.  We can understand that the latter's "let the military handle this" these was a perfectly acceptable one in 1951, because the military had handled () the Nazis perfectly well in Duke Wayne's "Big One," and we can also understand the former's attitude of "don't let the military handle this" was a perfectly acceptable one in 1977, following the military's less-than-startling record in Vietnam, or even in 1980 (when CE3K was released with additional footage), the year when American military personnel lost the battle for our hostages to the Iranians following three hours of mechanical fuck-ups (160)". 

For me, all these observations are like clues, or pieces of a puzzle pointing to a greater whole.  It's clear we're dealing with the kind of film that manages to leave an effect on those who view it.  The thing to notice is the way the very exact scene, or same line of dialogue can often send people's reactions veering off into wildly different directions.  One thing that I think King's input helps explain is the initial cultural focus that might have helped make the film so much of the success it is.  At the same time there are the complaints about certain aspects of the film's character motivation.  And after giving the film another re-watch, here is what I came away with.  The first thing that jumps out about the film, and perhaps the element with the most promise to it, is its setup.  In the strictest sense, you could say the plot of the movie is almost bare-bones.  And yet Spielberg seems to be able to locate all the events necessary to fill out this most basic of ideas.  The opening sequence where a group of researchers comes upon a collection of World War II era bi-planes lying abandoned, yet intact and fully functioning in a farmer's field in the middle of a Mexican desert is a great way to build up a sense of mystery.

The next scene involving what sounds like a near-air collision between a passenger jet plane and an Unidentified Flying Object (or UFO) is yet another set piece in which Spielberg is able to demonstrate his skills as a storyteller.  Hiss method here is the knowledge that sometimes less is more, and so without showing us the encounter from the airline pilot's point of view, we the audience are able to create the suspense necessary for the scene to work in our minds.  The best part is that it is also possible the director has been able to plant the first, faint impression of the mothership in the audience's imaginations, and its all done through a careful, and well-executed narrative sleight-of-hand.  The film goes from one strength to another in these opening act moments.  We go from the bigger, macrocosmic picture to focus in on the microcosm of Barry, Jillian, and Roy as they each have their respective encounters with similar alien craft.  And again, all of these moments help to build both character and a proper sense of suspense around the film's greater mystery.  And then the movie's second act begins.

It's here, in what should be a crucial middle section, that I think we begin to notice a subtle shift in the not just the movie's tone, but also its ability to maintain a proper focus on its own narrative.  This can be seen in the way the film appears to be struggling with what kind of story it wants to be.  We've started out with a group of disparate people making a series of initial contact sightings with what appear to be spacecraft from another world.  The implication here is that sooner or later all of these players will have to come together somehow in their search for answers.  That's the basic story the opening leads us to expect.  In the second act, however, things switch gears, as the plot begins to zero in on Roy as the main protagonist.  Now, to be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with this choice of direction.  When done right, it can help get things a bit more focused in terms of narrative advancement.  Granted, there are books and films out there which can succeed without focusing on any single cast member to tell the story.  However, Spielberg's best efforts are when he's doing the opposite, and is instead zeroing in on a lone, and sometimes isolated individual trying their best to understand the world around them.

This at least appears to be what the director is trying to do with the Neary character and his family dynamic.  The trouble is that it is just this exact setup that the movie appears to be struggling with the most.  A lot of the complaints viewers have about the film stems from these crucial moments at the movie's heart.  We're meant to focus on this one character who has this remarkable experience, and the ways it changes his relationship to those around him.  This might be a good idea on paper, and yet it's execution is marred by this strange inability of the plot to ever quite make up its mind about where it wants to go with Roy's dynamic between his wife and kids, and it leaves the sense that all of a sudden, the film doesn't quite know how to handle its own plot anymore.  The audience is left with this weird, and jarring sense of what seemed like a tight narrative suddenly beginning to lose its cohesion at all the exact points where it should matter the most.  In fact, it could almost be argued that the best bits in this middle act are the ones that don't focus on Roy at all.  Ever so often, the story cuts away from the Neary household in order to see how Malinda Dillon's character, or the group of ufologists lead by Truffaut are doing.  Here are the scenes in which it almost appears as if the script is starting to regain its footing.

These moments either help expand on the mystery promised by the opening, or else serve to advance the plot a step further, such as the scenes in which Truffaut is able to learn that the aliens are speaking through musical notes, or when Jillian's own son goes missing after he's been kidnapped.  The trick with that last scene, however, is that while it isn't exactly disconnected from the main story, it doesn't do much to effect a change, or even leave anything like a major impact on the main character.  Here's an interesting true story.  The first time I saw this film, I somehow fell under the mistaken impression that Dillon and Dreyfuss were playing man and wife.  So in my own mind, when Barry gets abducted, I was thinking that it was one of Roy's own sons that had been taken away by the flying saucers.  It's perhaps an honest enough mistake if you watch this movie as a young kid.  And yet the irony is that this is exactly the kind of plot development that might have helped give a better sense of weight to the film's main family unit.  It would then make perhaps a better kind of sense when Roy's wife leaves him once their son is gone, as that would serve as a perfect straw that breaks everyone's back.  It would also have strengthened the ending if it were about a man and wife reconciling in an effort to get their son back.

Instead, the real truth of the matter is a film of disjointed parts.  You get the sense of a story wanting to coalesce together into a greater whole, and yet it keeps struggling to find whatever imaginative glue is necessary for it to hold together.  The real sad part is that all of this seems to rest on the shoulders of the movie's director.  Spielberg needed to find the right way to bring all of these plot elements together, and it's just not something he was able to accomplish with any great deal of satisfaction.  Perhaps the most curious thing about this is how the more you know about the actual life of the artist, the better you're able to understand the nature of this film, and the reason its turned out to be such a rough beast to complete.  I think the real truth about this film is that it might have been the type of story that Spielberg needed to tell, in one form or another.  And yet I don't he was ever quite ready for it at that point yet.  A lot of the material in the story was still a bit too close to home for him in the 70s.  It was a subject on which he still had a lot of growing up to do.  This explains the weird, borderline schizoid quality in the middle act.  It's best exemplified in a scene during which Roy basically pleads for help from his family, and then the scene degenerates in several directions at once.  You can tell the director is having a hard time keeping all these inner conflicting elements together in his own imagination, and the story suffers.

It almost reminds me of a scene in Breaking Bad where Hank can't decide if he wants to either punch Walt's clock out, or else give him a brotherly hug.  I get the impression Spielberg's mind was in more or less the same place as he was constructing the Neary family, and their plight. Except in his case, it was really sort of his own father, and the then strained relationship between the two of them that was giving the director such difficulty.  The difference between that fictional scene between Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris is that it involves a sense of deliberate, and purposeful choice that sets greater things in motion.  In real life, however, all Steven could think to do at this juncture was to just cut and run from a situation he really couldn't handle yet.  I can understand if working out personal family issues takes a great deal of time and effort.  The trouble is that's maybe not such a good time to be trying to write a script and film it under a tight schedule.  In that kind of situation, something's bound to break, and if it isn't you, it could very well be your story.  So I think that's the real problem of the film as a whole.  It's good idea that was hampered in its execution by the artist's inability to tackle it's main subject.

Basically, what it seems we're dealing with here is like the bare outline of what ought to be this pretty good idea for a story.  It's just that even in it's finished form, there's this vague, lingering sense that something about it remains incomplete.  While most of the narrative beats appear to happen where they should, you can't shake the idea that other vital plot points have gone missing.  A lot of it appears to be down to the way the movie handles its main cast.  There's a lot of relationships, and connections between the characters that never manage to arrive on-screen the way they should.  Nowhere is this error more glaring than in the way the Spielberg handles his main protagonist.  It's clear that Roy Neary is meant to be a more sympathetic character than the personality we wound up with.  Instead of a simple Everyman figure we can get behind, cheer on, and root for, Spielberg's own personal problems cloud the issue, and we're presented with a character who's nice on the surface, and yet closer inspection reveals a blunder the director probably didn't intend to make, though his own mental-familial baggage sort of made it an all but guaranteed inevitability.  The mixed results speak for themselves.

All of this culminates in one of the grandest ironies I've ever seen in a movie.  At the very apex of the picture, just as the story is ready to reach it's absolute moment of dramatic epiphany, it's almost like the plot decides to forget about its own main lead.  The instant the aliens emerge from their ship, it's like the Roy character has been reduced to this extra bit of plot surplus, something the film just needs to get out of the way as quickly, yet with as much dignity as possible.  I think the reason for this odd, jarring shift of tone and focus is easy to explain.  The minute Spielberg reached that mothership sequence, both on page and screen, it's like the narrator forgot all about the road that lead to this moment, and in particular the characters who should have been vital in helping us get there.  There are two main reasons for that, and they're sort of interconnected.  In order to understand why Spielberg seems to forget the plot of his own movie near the end, it's important grasp the way the director probably saw the inhabitants of that mothership, even if he knew they were just pictures in his head, and nothing else.

When talking, later on, about a character like E.T., Spielberg made a comment that I think is somewhat telling and helpful here.  The gist of what he said is that everyone's favorite intergalactic castaway started life as an imaginary friend that the cinema storyteller once invented for himself, as a way of coping both with his parents divorce, and also maybe as a way of dealing with the loneliness that resulted from being shunned by his peers, on account of his being Jewish.  What makes this bit of trivial information important is that we're not just talking about the growth of the artist's mind, anymore.  We're also discussing the appearance and elaboration of one of the key imaginative symbols that he would return to, and continue to elaborate on in various ways throughout his career.  What I'd like to suggest is that while Spielberg is telling the truth of the origins of E.T., so far as he knows, there's also a tad more than meets the eye about it.  My own theory is that when Spielberg first encountered this "imaginary friend from space" he was actually uncovering an unconscious archetype.

In other words, all artists have to excavate their stories out of the soil of the Imagination.  What Steven was probably doing way back then, even at a very young age, was giving his latent artistic talents an early form of training exercise.  In that sense, the appearance of this childlike, E.T. archetype might count as his first major poetic success.  It's not a complete picture, by any means. At the time, all the director could have been doing was digging out the first, faint outlines of a much larger story fossil.  Also, there's the fact that he was still just an amateur journeyman at such a young age.  His artistic abilities still had yet to mature at that stage.  He'd done a good bit of growing up by the time he reached CE3K, and yet what the final product makes clear is that he still doesn't appear to have uncovered the archetype in its entirety.  The filmmaker's understanding of this "transcendental friend" figure is still being molded into a state of completion.  As a result, its no wonder that the ending of Encounters has this odd, patchwork, rough hewn quality that might come off as less than satisfactory to an audience.

The reason all the characters and plot get thrown away is because Spielberg had arrived for the first time at any major artistic expression to a creative idea that obviously meant (and probably still means) a great deal to him on a personal thematic level.  On the personal level, I suppose its easy to make the assumption that the mothership and its its occupants are supposed to act as something that psychologists refer to as "transitional objects".  Items or concepts weighted with meanings of personal comfort and reassurance for the patient.  I can see how some of that is in play here. However, I want to stress something here that I regard as important.  Even if Spielberg was looking for some sort of mental equivalent of a teddy bear, something tells me he got more than he bargained for.  Even if that's what the director wanted, or how it started out, something tells me it never really stayed that way.  Instead, the creation or discovery of this "imaginary friend" figure and its history all point to it being the arrival of a proper poetic image that was meant to guide, regulate, and order the minds of both artist and audience.  The difference is that a teddy bear can only be itself, a poetic image, on the other hand, means business.  A comfort object is a static thing, while an archetype is dynamic and evolving.

At the time he first filmed this archetype for the big screen, both the image, and Spielberg's understanding of it were still evolving.  Which brings us to the second aspect of the "E.T." figure.  At it's most basic, the image acts as a representation for a state of wholeness that both the director and his characters are always trying to strive for in every film he's ever made.  It's also possible this continuing image is meant to be a symbol for the striving after some level of transcendence, for lack of a better word.  If you want to go further up and in with this line of thought, I suppose it would be interesting if someone were to investigate the influence of the director's own Judaism on his art as a movie maker.  This is something that I'm not all that familiar with, however, so I'll just say that it's perhaps something to be taken into account.  The major issue with the image as it appears in this film is that it remains in a state of incomplete expression.  As a result the story has no choice but to suffer from poor execution.

It's the major over-arching flaw of the whole picture, and its something of a real shame.  We know now that Spielberg would go on to find a much better expression for this poetic image when he began to ask himself what would happen if one of the visitors from the mothership got left behind.  I'd argue that appears to be a demonstrateable case of the same archetype speaking up in the artist's Imagination, and asking him for a better, fuller expression of it's creative potential.  While that's all well and good, the fact remains that Close Encounters will always remain the story idea that just got away somehow.  It's a shame, because it really does seem as if there could have been something to work with here.  Spielberg's view on the film now is that if he had a chance to do it over, he'd have never allowed the character of Roy Neary to get onboard that space ship, and just abandon his family like a common latch-key dad.  One of the interesting things about such a theoretical, alternate version, is that there are a goodish number of scenes that can stay the way each of them exists in the finished product as we have it now.  These would include the opening, and almost every scene involving Truffaut.  Another scene that could remain intact is Barry's iconic abduction sequence, where the house comes alive around him.

In fact, most of the main scenes in the beginning don't need to be changed at all.  The one exception, of course, would have to revolve around the proper introduction to Roy.  One possible way this could be done is to have an additional number of establishing shots for the scene where the mothership aliens start to wake up Barry, and bring his room to life.  Either before the scene begins, or else while its happening, we can have shots of family photos on the wall which in this version establish that it is Roy and Jillian who were once husband and wife.  It would be important to feature shots of pictures on the wall showing both how Roy and Jill met each other and fell in love (something along the lines of their high school photos, along with pictures of them as a young couple clearly smitten over each other, holding hands at a diner, partying together on prom night, etc), coupled with photos of their wedding day, followed by shots of each of them as a new mother and father, cradling Barry in their arms.

In addition to this, we would also keep photos of Jill that can be seen in the film, showing her time as a campus hippie and protestor.  These are clearly badges of honor for her, and they are a nice background element that act as character commentary for those who are paying attention.  Once we've followed Barry out into the field surrounding his house, we'd have our new introduction to Roy.  It can go one of two ways.  The first would be to have the sound of a phone ringing in pitch blackness, before light is turned on, revealing Roy in bed answering a phone call.  However, a better version, I think, is to start off with a tracking shot through Neary's own house, including once more, a series of portraits on the walls.  It would include copies of the same copies, or else variations of photos between him and Jillian, as previously seen in her home.  The major difference comes in when we are giving shots of Roy in an army uniform, dating from around 1973.  From there, the pictures would give us a capsule summation of this new version of the protagonist.  The basic gist is that he and Jillian were doing fine, until Roy got served his draft notice, and was unceremoniously shuffled off to a place called Vietnam.

There should be a matching pair of "Before and After" snapshots of Roy's brief stint in the service.  The first one showing him all bright, cheerful, and optimistic.  His last army photo, meanwhile, should make clear that a lot of that youthfulness has been taken away by his time as a conscript in an undeclared war.  These passing photos should make clear the backstory between the three suburban main characters that we've been newly introduced to.  The basic gist is that everything was fine until Roy went to Nam, and Jillian stayed behind, joining the anti-war and early women's lib movements.  By the time Roy got back, however, it is clear that something only he has seen up close has torn apart their once inseparable bond.  After Roy got back from the jungle, the story between him and Jillian became almost a cliche.  They tried to give each other a chance, because they couldn't bring themselves to stop loving each other.  They even stuck together long enough to have Barry.  And yet, the cost of the "war" took its toll, and the marriage fell apart because of it.  Hence why they are now living in separate houses from one another.  It is after this brief backstory tour that Roy is woken up by the phone.

It's Jillian on the other line.  She's frantic, pleading with Roy to come over, because Barry has run off, and she needs help finding him.  At first, Roy is puzzled and confused.  The minute he hears that Barry is missing, however, his parental instincts kick in, and he makes a mad dash race to get dressed and over to his wife and child.  This change of narrative would give an added sense of suspense to the film's main cast introduction.  We'd then cut back to the scene in the film of Jill trying to corral Barry as he keeps on trucking toward a destination only he seems to know.  Here is where we would have to play around a little with the film's original introduction to the UFOs.  Rather than encountering them almost by accident, the power in Roy's first begins to flicker, then stutter, then stall out altogether.  Neary starts to grow frantic as he realizes he may have just gotten stranded out on a back road, with no way to reach his son.  This version jumps out of the car, pops the hood, and tries looking for a way to fix the problem.  Soon a pair of headlights start to crest the horizon.  Seizing a potential chance, Roy rushes out into the road, one hand raised in anxious waving "emergency, pay attention" gestures.  The other meanwhile is raised with the thumb sticking out in the familiar gesture of hitchhiker's everywhere.  

As the headlights approach, they grow brighter and seem to focus in on Roy, who starts jumping up and down, shouting, trying make sure he has the other driver's attention.  The approaching vehicle begins to slow down as it comes toward him, and Roy starts to shout thanks of relief to the driver of the oncoming motor, which as now ground to a stop just a few feet from him.  As the worried father races towards the unseen car, however, something curious happens.  The closer Roy gets to the supposed transport, the more the head lights continue to fade, growing dimmer with each step the closer he gets.  Just as Roy is about to move right next to the headlights, and make beeline for the passenger side window to ask for a ride, the unexpected occurs.  The headlights don't just turn off, it's as if they've blinked out of existence.  There one minute, gone the next.  The whole thing happens in such a seamless hat trick motion that it actually brings Neary to a stop.  He blinks his own eyes for a minute, as he begins to realize that for all intents and purposes, he might as well be stuck out on the road all by himself.

There's a pregnant beat as Roy looks around in a sudden, dazed confusion.  Then right behind him he hears the door ajar alarm from his own car, as it somehow regains battery power.  For a moment, Roy almost spares a look back and forth between his own care, and the one that was and then wasn't there at all.  His concerns for his son begin to take over, however, and we watch the worried dad as he makes his way from out on the side of the road and back into the waiting cab of his truck.  Roy slams the door, turns the key once more, and guns the engine.  The truck sounds like it wants to start, yet it won't for some infernal reason.  Roy smacks the dashboard like its insulted him, then goes back to trying to turn the motor over.  It is at this point that things can segue back into the actual track of events from the movie as we have it in real life.  Starting with the curious behavior of the nearby mailboxes, followed by the power in both the car and the flashlight failing once more.  Then, bam, first encounter!

This time, when the power comes back on, Roy's nervous hesitation lasts for a second before his original mission comes back to him and, first at a crawl, then picking up speed, he resumes his journey to Jill's house.  This time, however, the news coming over the car radio gets half of his attention, as people begin calling in reports of a UFO sighting in the vicinity.  Despite his frantic desire to get to his wife and child, Roy has been sufficiently weirded out enough to wonder what in the hell is going on here?  Also different in this alternate version, when the lights in the sky do reappear, this time it almost looks as if they are following Roy, or maybe chasing him?  As the light continues to follow him, Roy grows increasingly more freaked out, until a different kind of panic sets in, and he puts the peddle to the meddle.  To his growing concern, the light begins to keep pace with him.  Soon the chase is joined by the familiar sound of sirens, as the pair of police cruisers join in the chase.  This time following the UFO that's following after Roy.  It's a minor variation and reshape of the same idea as executed in the real film.  Here, however, the light at last begins to bank away, leaving Roy enough time to see the upcoming bend in the road, letting him make a desperate, last minute turn which allows him to avoid the same crash which the cop cars are still not so lucky at.  Roy continues barreling down the road.

He casts one last look at the smashed cruiser and the broken highway barrier without slowing down.  When he turns his attention back to road ahead of him, his eyes go wide, and he slams on the breaks, bringing the car to a complete stop in from of the exact same lights he first thought were a truck.  Now there's no mistaking what he's really looking at, however.  The UFO hovers in the air in front of his car for a second, then it begins to emit a number of five strange, melodic notes.  It marks the first appearance of John Williams' iconic mothership theme.  Here it has been repurposed to much earlier in this alternate draft than it did near the midpoint of the released film.  It's debut near the beginning serves at least two purposes.  One is to leave a clearer narrative hook, so that when Truffaut's character does reveal it later on, a greater sense of connection is established between the two plot points.  This time the audience will be anticipating that once Williams' theme is heard from a second time, they will be queued up to expect that both sets of characters will have to meet up sooner or later in the story.

Right now, however, after giving the audience and Roy the first hint of things to come, the lights simply lift off into the air, revealing Barry to be standing there, right behind them.  A possible implication of this turn of events is that the UFO was acting as a shield to prevent a father from accidentally running over his own son.  None of this obvious in the moment, however.  Instead, when Roy sees his own child standing there happily waving to him in the middle of the road, all he can think of is to protect his offspring.  Roy kills the engine, jumps out of the car, and heads straight for Barry, who cheerfully allows himself to be swept up in his dad's waiting arms.  As father and son embrace, Jillian is heard calling Barry's name.  She emerges of the crest of highway, and sees the two men in her life huddled together.  For a minute there, each of them exchanges a look which almost harkens back to the good old days.  Jillian walks up to Roy, and gives him a sheepish thanks.  It almost looks like Roy is about to leave things off with a humble "Don't mention it", until suddenly the whole situation brings him out of the mood.  He starts to give Jill the 20 Questions treatment.  What's going on, here?  How could she just let this happen?  It looks as if the two could start up an old argument, with Barry looking back and forth anxiously between his parents.  Then before a fight can start, both hear a whistling voice nearby

Roy and Jillian look about to discover they are surrounded on all sides by the same group of UFO watchers, including old Mr. "Stop And Be Friendly".  He's the one whistling She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain.  Also just like in the film, he gives Barry, this time accompanied by both his parents, a knowing wink.  Barry grins at Mr. "Friendly", while both Neary parents just look on, confused until someone else gives a shout and points.  What would then happen is that everyone would turn and look to notice that some of the stars in the sky appear to be moving.  As the Nearys and the watchers continue to look, the stars begin to come closer to their gathered group, until we conclude with one of the original film's signature shots, with the two UFO scouts flying over Jill and Barry.  The scene would then end with Roy's delivery of the line, "This is nuts".  We then pick up on the next alternate scene.

This would involve both Neary parents back at Jill's house.  Roy's power company truck is parked outside next to Jill's slightly beat-up looking jeep.  There ought to be this cozy sense of closeness between the two vehicles, if that makes sense.  The audience ought to get the sense that this is the way they used to live, close together.  This should further be mirrored by the scene inside, showing Roy and Jillian tucking their son back into bed.  Before they let him go to sleep, however, each of them tries as calmly as possible to try and get Barry to answer what made him decide to get up and go out for a walk in the middle of the night?  Barry does his best to comply, yet his answers just raise more questions.  Barry claims that some new friends came to into his room, and they invited him to go and play.  The young boy seems very pleased with this turn of events, while each of his parents are doing their best to hide just freaked out he's making them feel about all this.  After Barry has fallen asleep once again, Roy and Jillian would be seen sharing a moment together out one the front porch.  From their body language, and the way they speak to one another, its clear some time has passed since Roy has left the place he once called home.  Indicating this is the first time the couple has been together for a very good while.  Both also show just how good it is to be with each other again, even if it's just for the moment.

Their conversation should run the gamut from how all this got started, to what on earth was that each of them saw out there.  This last topic is the one that has each of them the most frazzled.  This is the point where Roy shows a more fun-loving side of himself for the first time, and he does it by asking Jill a question.  "Wouldn't it be kind of funny, don't you think?  I mean, if it were real?  That there really were little green men out there"?  This brings a laugh from Jillian who can't help being amused, despite the oddness of the whole situation.  This draws a grin from Roy who helpfully points out that she's the one who used to go on about all that kind of stuff.  To which Jill gleefully responds only because of that one time he successfully snuck some good weed past her parents that one time he stayed over.  The former couple share a good laugh between them, and for a moment a brief spark of their old love comes back.  Jill then mentions that Barry has his heart set on catching a re-showing of Pinocchio down at the local theater in town, next week.  He wanted to know if daddy could come along as well?  At this, Roy begins to grow hesitant.  What his reaction should convey is that it wasn't just that Vietnam had divided them over anything like politics.  Instead, it's more that a fundamental belief in both himself, along with life in general, wound up getting left behind back in the jungle, somewhere.  As a result, Roy loses a bit of his spark, and starts to withdraw into himself, not sure any longer how to handle certain situations.

It should also be hinted that it was behavior like this which initially began to chip away at their relationship.  Jillian's reaction shows she's grown to expect this, and just sighs to herself.  She then wisely changes the topic to the question if Roy thinks it might be right to at least stay the night.  Just in case something else happens.  This time, Roy's reaction is more positive.  After giving it a moments thought, he decides that, yeah, maybe that is a good idea.  Before anything positive develops further, however, Jill's phone rings.  It's Roy's boss at the power company he works for, whose been trying to reach him for some time now.  Something about a light show in the sky knocking out power across half the town.  Both Jill and Roy look crestfallen at this.  He tries to lighten things by say that at least this time he wasn't the cause of it.  This little jab earns him a familiar look that he instantly regrets.  He tries to make up for it by offering Jill the service revolver he's held onto ever since the army.  However, Jill's own beliefs overrule him.  Before he goes, however, Roy says he's sorry.  Jill says so is she.  The statements are meant to be loaded, suggesting both of them wished things had managed to work out.

From here, this alternate version would continue on in a similar vein.  It would feature a scene from the film that is either left unchanged and intact, or else slightly modified to guarantee a better script.  One further idea that I think should added is that making Roy and Jillian a couple would lend a greater weight to what each of them goes through, as the film reaches its lowest point.  That way, when Roy asks Jill (instead of Ronnie) for help, only to be rebuffed, the ensuing fight between the two of them not only makes better sense, yet it also carries more thematic and narrative weight as all the resentments and disappointment between the two ex-lovers begin to boil to the surface.  It also raises the stakes just a bit, as it offers the possibility that any hoped for reunion between the two is going to be ripped apart.  Of course, each of them finally learns about Devil's Tower at more or less similar times, and this in turn sends both the direction of the search for their missing son, as well as their own relationship into another course that I'm pretty sure none of them were expecting to happen in any possible lifetime.

Then again, whoever does, if it comes to it?  From here on, the rest of the third act can be kept pretty much as it is in the finished film.  You can keep the journey or race towards the Tower (no, not that one), the capture by the military, the escape and the final daring achievement of the goal as they reach the landing sight, complete with mothership finale spectacular.  The one change I would make to the ending is the one suggested by none other than Spielberg himself.  Just like in the film, Jillian is able to get Barry back, safe and sound.  The key difference is that this time Roy is there, as her newly reunited husband, in order to celebrate with his wife and son.  As for who, if anyone should get onto the mothership with the aliens?  Well, if I'm being honest, best alternate candidate I've ever been able to consider would have to be none other than Francois Truffaut himself.  I don't know if that sounds corny or trite.  It's just the best solution I could find.  For what it's worth, I'd have to claim its the type of ending that works well in retrospect.  When Truffaut died way back in 1989, the world lost one of its greatest creative talents.  

Looking back, it's easy to imagine all the what-if scenarios about the kind of films Francois could have made if he'd lived longer.  Maybe he could even have found a way to hold his own in the burgeoning era of blockbuster filmmaking.  Sadly, all this will have to remain speculation at best.  All anyone can do now is look for the best tribute that will keep alive a great name that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.  That's why letting Truffaut be the one to go up into the mothership, and sail off to live amongst the stars is perhaps the most fitting alternate ending that CEO3K will probably ever have.  It also makes sense on a more plot oriented level, as Truffaut's UFO hunter is the first of the major cast of characters we meet in the film.  So not only does it make sense that he be their at the end, it also kind of helps bring the arc of this figure's side quest to a perhaps fitting enough end.  As for Roy, in this version, he is able achieve a kind of understanding similar to that of Lacombe.  The major difference is that in this version, his encounter with the aliens have helped him to confront a lot of the trauma that he's been through, both as a Nam vet, and more importantly, as a father.  That's why in this theoretical elseworlds story, when the aliens extend a hand to Roy, offering him the chance to come with them, all he does is merely pick up Barry, hoist him into his arms as a loving father, and simply steps next to Jillian, and both proceed to put their arms around each other, a family committed to one another, this time for good ever after.

To their credit, all the aliens do in response to this is to smile, and give a kind of knowing nod.  They then invite Truffaut, who accepts, and he bids the Neary family a fond goodbye, and Roy wishes him the  best of luck.  Lacombe then says he hopes the same for all of them.  This different film would then end with the Neary family, together again after a long time, reunited and staring in wonder up at the mothership as it takes off into the great empyrean of the stars.  Roll credits.  At least that's all the best idea I've got.  There's really not all that much special about it.  The one thing it might have going for it is that it could have resulted in an overall smoother narrative experience rather than the finished product we got.  It really does seem to boil to what Spielberg himself has said above.  It's the work of a still relatively immature artist as a young man.  One who still probably had a few more steps of growing up to do before he could ever truly handle the actual material at the heart of Close Encounters.  The key thing to bear in mind, however, is that even the haphazard execution can't hide the fact that we're dealing with a genuine talent on display.  If this movie were a book, and I was the editor in charge, I'd probably hand it back to Spielberg and tell him something like the following:

"Why don't you go back and try and rework it just a bit more?  You've got a lot of skill in you, and it sounds like there's loads of promise in the idea you've uncovered.  Your only problem is you haven't got the entire fossil out of the ground.  Go back to digging just a bit further until a more complete picture begins to emerge.  Don't feel the need to rush things like this.  Take your time.  More than just trying to live with the idea for a while, see if you can get a better perspective on it.  When you've got a good idea on your hands, it just makes sense to make sure you can get it as right as any artist can". That's the kind of lesson I think Spielberg should have kept in mind as he was making his first big alien film.  It would have helped shore up all of the story's main shortcomings, and given us an altogether more cohesive narrative experience than what's left.  I think the best way to look at a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind is as an unfinished rough draft with a lot of good ideas and interesting concepts tucked away inside it.  It's also kind of a stepping stone project, if that makes any sense.  It was a story the director probably needed to tell in some form through the camera.  It's just that he had a little difficulty this first time around.  While this basic idea was given perhaps the best expression the filmmaker can ever grant it with E.T., that's not to say that CEO3K is just something that deserves to be forgotten about.

Far from being just a minor and forgettable trial run for the more famous flight across the moon, there is still a lot to like and enjoy out of it.  Everything about the film that works is enough to guarantee it a permanent place in the pop-culture landscape.  Things just literally wouldn't be the same without it.  This goes in particular for the modern face of Sci-Fi, which would probably be without all of the familiar landmarks we use to identify the genre in our minds eye.  We owe a great deal of that to Spielberg's efforts in films like this, just as much as to the glory days of George Lucas.  

By giving the genre of space and stars its modern face, Spielberg also helped to create this kind of permanent imaginary map or landscape that has helped fuel our current ideas of what Science Fiction Fantasy is, and what it is capable of in good hands.  That's almost a subject in and of itself.  And it all got started with this one little film with a lot of ambition and a big heart.  It just had a hard time finding its voice is all.  The good news is that Steven Spielberg got there in the end.  It might have taken him a while, yet all the struggle was well worth it.  As for this film?  Well, the author Ray Bradbury once referred to Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick, as "a masterpiece of bits and pieces".  I think that's wound up as roughly the same status of this early effort by one of the great artists in American cinema.  It may not be perfect, yet there's still a lot to like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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