Not too long ago, Steven Spielberg went public with his regrets about the climax of his 1977 science-fiction masterpiece ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. As a husband and father, he says he no longer believes in the story of a man who abandons his family to explore the stars. And he’s got a point. For all its dewey-eyed optimism regarding creatures from another world, ‘Close Encounters’ is pretty uncomfortable with the inhabitants of this one.
Everyman hero Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) may be a loveable, star-gazing dreamer, but his wife is a nag who doesn’t understand him, his kids are shrieking pre-pubescent lunatics and let’s not even start on the shady military types who start nosing around following Roy’s night-time run-in with a flying saucer.
This lurking emotional discomfort is just one of the fascinating things about ‘Close Encounters’. Sure, the story’s thrilling and the set-piece special effects are still unrivalled – the mothership cresting Devil’s Tower stands as one of the few literally jawdropping moments in cinema. But all these years later, it’s the tricky personal stuff that makes the film remarkable: the depiction of a man crumbling under the pressure of forces he can’t understand; the riotous, relatable scenes of madcap family life; the sense that it’s a film as much about the pressures of creative inspiration as alien contact.
Those pressures may be why ‘Close Encounters’ remains the only film credited to Spielberg as sole writer and director. Given that it’s his greatest work, we can only imagine what could’ve resulted if he’d sharpened his pencils more often