I’ve resented “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” ever since I was a kid.
I admire it, of course. If you’re a movie fan, or a sci-fi fan, it’s hard not to. Many people see the movie, which has been remastered and is being re-released in theaters this Friday, as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. The sheer scope of the movie, and the hopeful vision of alien encounter it represents, was a singular achievement both 40 years ago and in the much more crowded sci-fi landscape of today.
It’s a movie of quiet, surprisingly realistic, carefully wrought details that pulls you in so subtly you don’t even realize it’s happening. The grand finale is just as stunning for audiences as it is for the characters, the curtain finally pulled away as Spielberg delivers on every promise he’s ever made throughout the film. As an adult movie critic, I’m a little in awe of how beautifully constructed it is.
The remastered version makes the most of every ounce of the movie’s physical beauty, leaving it crisper, clearer and more sparkling than it’s ever been. If you love the movie, seeing it look this good on a movie-sized screen is a treat you owe yourself.
But I was a kid the first time I watched it, and back then I didn’t care about things like pacing or cinematography. My family has always been big science fiction fans, even back then, so I’d already seen “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” and several other less high-quality sci-fi adventures meant for the whole family. I believed in aliens quite thoroughly, and would have been delighted (and not at all surprised) to find them hiding in my closet or under my bed.
So when my parents first put in the VHS for “Close Encounters,” I was looking forward to it. It was a quieter movie than I was used to – for most of it, the aliens are almost more of a philosophical concept than they are characters – but in its own way it’s still remarkably exciting. I wanted to see who was in those space ships just as much as all the characters did.
(Technically, spoilers follow, but since this is a 40-year-old movie I’m hardly the first person to spoil it for you.)
But when we finally got to the end, and we saw Richard Dreyfuss go off in the spaceship, I wasn’t feeling a sense of magic. I was thinking about the three kids he had left at home, some of whom were about my age. The ones that, even then, I already knew he was never going to see again. Most of the sci-fi movies I’d seen had kids at the heart of their adventures, but here they’d been left in the dust. More than that, I knew they’d spend the rest of their lives knowing their dad thought aliens were more important than being with them.
I understand now that “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” isn’t really a movie for kids. It’s a movie for adults who would like to be kids again, which is a different matter entirely. Adults remember childhood as a time of freedom and adventure, and many yearn for the kind of adventure that will let them throw off the trappings of adulthood and let them go off and do all those crazy things they dreamed about as kids. For those people, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a masterful sort of wish fulfillment.
But somewhere in my heart, the movie will always make me feel like that little kid who watched a dad walk away from his family because he felt his dreams were more important. No matter how well Spielberg tells that story, there will never be anything magical in it for me.