Close Encounters with ‘Close Encounters’: The Sci-Fi of Multiple Versions

Personal interpretation of landmark events is what bonds us over everything from aliens to movies.
By  · Published on August 31st, 2017

Personal interpretation of landmark events is what bonds us over everything from aliens to movies.

A digitally remastered 40th Anniversary edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is returning to theaters for a week starting on September 1st. It’s great, you should go see it. But it might not be exactly the film you remember.

That’s because, like Blade Runner, another sci-fi property revisited this year, a plethora of different versions of Close Encounters have been released over the years. There was the original theatrical release, Steven Spielberg‘s initial director’s cut (The Special Edition), the bevy of options put together for home release, and the different edits for television. Everyone has a slightly different memory of the film. The various viewing media and altered text gave audiences unique experiences with the same basic information.

This new re-release is a remaster of the 1998 “Collector’s Edition,” which is Spielberg’s definitive edit that initially cut for home video and LaserDisc. This puts some of the fun scenes from The Special Edition (like the discovery of a vanished ship in the middle of the desert) into the original while taking out the interior shots of the alien spaceship that came along in the later edition. These shots were, according to The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, part of Columbia’s deal with Spielberg. They get mothership shots for their re-release marketing campaign while Spielberg gets more time to re-edit his baby. This version is my favorite (and my argument for the canonical best) because it adds depth to the film without undermining any of its sublime mystery. But that’s not really the point here. Picking one over the others erases audience experience that echoes the film’s universal themes. With all of Close Encounters’ versions come an incorporeal beauty.

The very act of remembering different versions of the same movie is a science fiction event in itself, akin to the mixed reports of UFOs that still unite believers. “I saw something last night that I can’t explain,” is both a quote from Richard Dreyfuss’s lead and a conversation starter for midnight movie devotees. In a pre-screening introduction video, Arrival director Denis Villeneuve said the film, to him, was about common communication through culture. In other words, especially for a Québécois director discussing an American film starring French legend François Truffaut, Close Encounters is about the universality of the movies. It can also be about the untranslatable and particular elements of those movies that stick with some people more than others or affect them in more personal ways.

Shared, exclusive experiences of global occurrences – made meta by the multiple released versions of the film and made text by the alien “invitation” of Dreyfuss’s character and a dozen other strangers (one of which introduces himself as the leads scramble up a mountain) – is celebrated by the film. These experiences can be universal as long as people are open to belief. This potential is the basis of the film’s cultural hypothesis. The different media those plagued by visions of Devils Tower use to interpret that which afflicts them is the kind of connection and magic described by the idea that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 [records] started a band.” To most of the population, the film’s news broadcast warning people to evacuate the area of Wyoming was nothing special. To a select few it was life-altering, even lifesaving; it justified the madness that had been steadily consuming their lives. I can imagine a young Spielberg seeing a movie with this effect on him and I don’t have to imagine the young filmmakers for which Close Encounters was that movie. It’s important. It means something.

People coming together, sharing (or not-quite-sharing) a common influence, are made better by their different takes on the film. They snuck the film in the middle of the night on the living room TV, ear cocked towards parents’ bedroom upstairs, or saw a theatrical re-release that took them aboard a spaceship that’s interior lived only in the imaginations of others. No matter how you saw it, it was an encounter. The same images, the same sounds, the same language-independent culture infected them and excited audiences in different ways. But if any of them asked another about Close Encounters, it would be an instant bond. They’re believers. Now that it’s back in theaters, more people are primed to add their experiences (slightly different still from everyone who’s seen it so far) with Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the ranks of the obsessive and add their re-interpretations to all the art that owes a debt to Spielberg’s masterpiece. That it may be different than your memory of the film is all the more reason to revisit the mashed potato altar.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).