In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of J.J. Abrams’ Spielbergian small-town alien mystery movie “Super 8,” we’re looking at Steven Spielberg‘s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
–Theatrical Cut (1977): 135 minutes
–Special Edition (1980): 132 minutes
–Director’s Cut (1998): 137 minutes
Every cut of “Close Encounters” tells the same essential story. Indiana utilities company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) see a UFO one night while out on patrol. Afterwards, Roy is plagued by strange visions of a mountain and has trouble focusing on his job or his family, much to the chagrin of his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). Meanwhile a series of mysterious supernatural incidents all over the world — World War II planes in modern day North Africa, an steamship in the middle of the Gobi Desert — point towards an alien intelligence trying to make contact with our world. The two plotlines converge at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, the mountain of Roy’s visions, and the site where an alien mothership descends from the sky and attempts to make first official contact with the human race.
REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS:
According to Spielberg, the Theatrical Cut of “Close Encounters” was rushed into theaters by its studio before it was ready. In an interview included on the 30th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray box set Spielberg says he “was forced to finish it before it was really ready to be finished. I kind of felt like I was being pushed into finishing the movie based on huge corporate matters which I had no ability to comprehend; something about Columbia facing bankruptcy, ‘Close Encounters’ was either going to break the company or get the company out of the red that it was in.”
It turned out to be a smart business decision by Columbia — the film was a huge hit, and it did help save the company from bankruptcy — but in Spielberg’s mind, it still wasn’t a smart creative decision. So a year and a half later he went back to the studio and asked for permission (and money) to finish the movie to his satisfaction. They agreed, on the condition that he include a scene set inside the alien mothership that was previously only seen from the outside during the film’s dramatic finale. Spielberg didn’t like the idea, he agreed in order to finance the project, eventually titled the Special Edition. His dissatisfaction with the studio-demanded mothership scene eventually sparked the Director’s Cut almost twenty years later, which combines his favorite elements from the Theatrical Cut and Special Edition.
KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (SPOILERS AHEAD):
In the Theatrical Cut, Roy finds himself inexplicably drawn to Devil’s Tower where he risks his life several times just for the chance to witness the mothership landing. Sensing that he has been summoned there by the aliens, the lead UFO scientist Dr. Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) invites Roy to join the astronauts who’ve volunteered to enter the aliens’ ship. The E.T.s select Roy to accompany with them, he walks up into their ship. In the Special Edition, against Spielberg’s better judgment, we get a glimpse of what Roy finds inside the mothership.
I don’t know whether Spielberg’s heart wasn’t in the sequence or this was simply the best he could do with the budget he was given, but it’s pretty anticlimactic. Roy stands around, does nothing, and sees not much of anything in particular. No wonder Spielberg left the whole thing out of the Director’s Cut years later.
Though Spielberg never wanted to show the inside of that ship. He saw it as a means to an end. Here is an example of a scene he wanted badly enough to acquiesce on the mothership stuff. Note that Truffaut’s character doesn’t appear even though his interpreter (Bob Balaban) does. That’s because Truffaut was busy shooting another movie and couldn’t participate in the Special Edition reshoots.
The Special Edition includes almost ten minutes of new footage, but its runtime is three minutes shorter than the Theatrical Cut because Spielberg also trimmed and completely cut scenes that had previously appeared in the film. Some changes are so small, you’d need you watch two versions side-by-side to notice them. If you’ll watch the Special Edition closely, for example, you’ll see an insert shot of a McDonald’s billboard in the sequence where Roy and the alien hunters stand on that hilly road and watch the UFOs fly overhead. The addition of the insert gives the scene a punchline: instead of just flying over the onlookers and zooming around a corner, it looks like the aliens fly over the onlookers, pause, read the billboard, and then zoom off to McDonald’s. It’s a cute gag, and it only appears in the Special Edition.
Maybe the biggest but least commented upon difference between the various versions of “Close Encounters” is the portrayal of Roy’s wife Ronnie. Though the ending of “Close Encounters” is superficially uplifting — man and alien make a peaceful connection — it also carries a dark undercurrent: by joining the aliens on their journey to who knows where, Roy ignores his responsibilities as a wife and father. Yes, he’s a brave guy. But he’s also a deadbeat dad. I think many of the changes in the Special Edition (and to a lesser extent the Director’s Cut) are made to try to justify, or at least explain, Roy’s irresponsible actions.
The Special Edition inserts two scenes that weren’t in the Theatrical Cut that involve Ronnie yelling at Roy. One scene is particularly harsh: after Roy loses his job and then ruins a family dinner by turning his pile of mashed potatoes into a miniature Devil’s Tower, Ronnie finds him sitting in the shower, crying and moaning “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” But instead of comforting him, she screams that his “bullshit is “turning this house upside down!” From there, the Special Edition immediately cuts to Ronnie leaving with the kids the next morning, as if the argument was the last straw.
That fight is missing from the Theatrical Cut. The morning after the mashed potatoes scene, Ronnie wakes up and tries to apologize to Roy (apparently for the mashed potatoes thing, but really for the fight that wasn’t even in that version of the film!). Then she watches him spaz out in a fit of alien-fueled inspiration, stealing the neighbor’s chicken wire and plants. Out of fear instead of anger, she finally packs up the kids and leaves. In the Theatrical Cut, Ronnie is a frustrated, confused woman. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her husband, and she’s frightened for the safety of her kids. In the Special Edition, she’s a mean, shrewish wife. I don’t think Spielberg blames her for Roy getting into that spaceship — he was going to do that no matter how she behaved — but I do think he’s trying to explain why he doesn’t even give his family a second thought.
The Director’s Cut synthesizes the two versions of the sequence. It includes the shower scene and the fight and it also includes Roy freaking out the following morning. It’s a more believable representation of the ups and downs of a marriage. As a result the tone is a little more uneven — the shower scene is incredibly dark and the morning after freakout is borderline slapstick comedy — but it does also give you a good sense of the roller coaster of emotions that Ronnie is on. One minute her husbands bawling, the next he’s throwing ferns through their kitchen window. What else could she do with this nutjob but leave him?
IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS,” WATCH:
The Director’s Cut. This was actually a tough call, because there are things I like about both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut. It was not a tough call to say you should definitely avoid the Special Edition, which has the pointless mothership scene and the demonizing portrait of Ronnie. The Special Edition is also the only version of “Close Encounters” without my favorite scene in the film: an army press conference designed to debunk the Indiana sightings. I love that sequence for the attitude of military officers (who claim they want to believe Roy because they’ve spent years looking for concrete evidence of aliens) and for the way it transitions brilliantly from the officials reassuring the public that UFOs pose no threat to a secret military installation where Lacombe and his team are inventing a phony threat in order to evacuate the area around Devil’s Tower.
The Theatrical Cut and Director’s Cut are very similar, but each has good scenes missing from the other. I like how Roy is introduced in the original version of the film: playing with his model train set alone while a music box plays a twinkly version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the song is later echoed by John Williams’ score as Roy walks into the mothership). The Theatrical Cut also has one of the cooler WTF moments, when Roy lays down on his bed after getting fired and becomes entranced by the shape of one of the pillows.
Neither of those beats are in the Director’s Cut, but that version does retain the great Special Edition scene with the boat in the Gobi Desert and it has the most heartbreaking version of Roy and Ronnie’s breakup. And while it’s also the longest cut of the film, the Director’s Cut is actually the best paced. As we do more installments of this column, we’re going to find instances where a director’s instincts about his own film were proven incorrect. But that’s not the case here. The third time was the charm for Spielberg. I don’t know if he got it “right” with the Director’s Cut of “Close Encounters.” But he definitely got it “best” with that one.
All three version of “Close Encounters” are available in a 3-disc Blu-ray or DVD 30th Anniversary Collection. Which is your favorite cut of the film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!