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Forty years later, ‘Close Encounters’ remains a unique film experience

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Photo: Columbia Pictures / Courtesy
Smith Galtney

This season marks the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so naturally Steven Spielberg’s second-ever blockbuster has gotten the royal re-rollout: a restored print opened in theaters Labor Day weekend; a three-disc, Blu-ray edition came out this week; the Alamo Drafthouse even hosted a screening at the base of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, site of the movie’s climactic scene. It all befits this irrefutable classic, a film Vulture.com once said was “the closest [Spielberg]’s come to delivering a pure, unfiltered expression of his artistic voice.” And yet, despite the $3 million the re-release has earned at the box office so far, it can sometimes feel like no one’s ever heard of it.

For those of us who happened to be breathing in the ’70s, the idea of someone not having multiple encounters with Close Encounters is utterly baffling. Back then, the lines to see it snaked around the block, and its famous five-note musical theme inspired even more disco versions than Star Wars, which opened six months earlier. Then, after the hoopla died down somewhat, a “special edition” came out in 1980, featuring new footage and a souped-up ending, thereby introducing the really bad idea that great movies are never technically finished. (Spielberg later deemed the upgrade “unnecessary,” and the 40th anniversary restores the original version as definitive.)

Something funny happened as I geared up to rewatch it earlier this month: Two friends I asked to join me had never seen it, and my personal trainer barely even knew what I was talking about. Sure, all those people are five to 15 years younger than me, but they still crack Jaws jokes when they go in the water. They still hum the Raiders theme any time they swing from a rope. They all probably cried when it looked like E.T. was gonna die. How had Close Encounters—one of the highest-grossing movies of its era—escaped their radars?

As it turned out, my friends and I were the only ones in the theater, and rewatching the movie I started to guess why. Despite several spectacular set pieces, Close Encounters lacks the consistent thrills, chills and spills of more popular Spielberg fare. It’s more of a long, slow build toward a mysterious arrival, and its jerk of a protagonist deserts his wife and kids along the way. Despite the grace of the movie’s most indelible moments—young Cary Guffey gazing at a spaceship through a doorway, Richard Dreyfuss making mountains out of shaving cream and mashed potatoes, the alien smiling at Francois Truffaut—they didn’t exactly make for lasting lunch box iconography.

And that’s okay, really. It means that the children of the Me Decade don’t have to share Close Encounters with everyone else. We can keep its bygone era of chaotic, broken homes and self-absorbed, otherwise-engaged parents to ourselves. If you plan on cueing up that new Blu-ray, proceed with caution: Aside from making all those old special effects shine like new, the crystalline 4K restoration makes one thing painfully clear: The ’70s happened a long, long, long, long time ago.

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