Sunday, April 24, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 3 versions

Spoiler Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the endings.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three versions
Director: Steven Spielberg

Richard Dreyfuss-- Roy Neary
Francois Truffaut-- Claude Lacombe
Melinda Dillon-- Jillian Guiler
Teri Garr-- Ronnie Neary

The DVD has made it possible for directors to continue fiddling with their films, much as some writers revise and revise and revise, until they finally tire of the project and put it aside. I recently found that there were now three versions of the popular SF film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I had seen what I thought were the first two, so I was curious about what changes had been seen necessary to put forth a third and, presumably, an improved version. Fortunately I was able to get all three versions at home at the same time. I, therefore, settled down for my own version of a "Close Encounter Marathon."

I found some differences which I will bring up and some that I'm not sure about. I got the feeling some scenes were shortened a bit, but lacking a stop watch and the inclination to get that detailed, I can only speculate. Therefore, I'll leave those for more serious and dedicated observers.

I see the film as having three distinct parts:

The First Part--Strange Events

The Second Part--the trek to Devils Tower, Wyoming

The Third Part--the Encounter

Here are those that jumped up off the screen at me as I watched the 1977, the 1980, and the 1998 versions:

The First Part--
The first changes occurred during the early part of the film, the part that depicted several strange events that happened around the world. In the 1977 version, the strange events took place in Sonora, Mexico, where WWII military aircraft suddenly appeared; in India where the musical theme seemed to come from the heavens; and in the US, where sightings occurred which introduced the two characters played by Richard Dreyfus and Melinda Dillon. A new "strange event" was introduced in the 1980 version and appeared also in the 1998 version. This time the UFO researchers traveled to the Gobi Desert where they saw a Russian freighter stranded in the desert thousands of miles from the nearest ocean.

The second change involved Roy Neary, the Dreyfuss character. We first see him at home, with his family, when the phone rings. In the 1977 version, he goes to the power plant where he learns of the strange things that are happening to the power grid. He is then sent out to investigate and resolve one of the problems. It is while he is driving to the trouble spot that he has his first encounter with the UFO. The scene at the power plant is dropped in the 1980 and 1998 versions. Instead, we see him at home and the phone rings. In the next scene, he is headed for a problem area, and it is at this point that he again has his encounter.

The Second Part: The Trek to Devils Tower

I recognized no significant changes in this part.

The Third Part: The Encounter

The most interesting change took place at the end of the film. In original version, we see Roy walk into the UFO, but can't see anything inside because of the bright light. In the second version, the 1980 version, the viewer steps inside the UFO with Neary and gets a chance to look around for a short period. What I saw was mostly inexplicable to me, which, being an alien craft, was appropriate. However, that scene was dropped for the 1998 version, and it ends, as far as I could tell, the same way as the first version did, with Neary walking inside and disappearing in the glare.

Some questions inevitably arise. I haven't heard or read anything that explains the thinking of Spielberg or whoever was responsible for the changes. All I can do is make guesses. If you have information or a different guess as to why the changes were made, I would love to hear about it. Please make a comment.

Why wasn't the Gobi scene in the first version? Scenes are dropped frequently because it's felt the film is too long and needs to be shortened. Then, why was the Gobi scene added to the 1980 version? Perhaps it was felt that something more was needed to reinforce the sense of something inexplicable was going on. In the version, the scene at the power plant was dropped. That scene really didn't forward the plot but it did convey the feeling that something strange was going on, which the experts couldn't figure out. That sense of the bizarre disappeared as Neary just finds out there are problems and he's sent out to do something about them--this was his job, after all.

That brings up a second question--why was the scene at the power plant dropped? Now that I think about it, a better question might be--what is the relationship among the various changes--the addition of the Gobi scene, the dropping of the scene at the power plant, and the addition of the scene inside of the UFO, all of which took place in the second version, the 1980 version. Were the changes made independently or possibly, was the power plant scene dropped to make room for the Gobi scene and the scene inside of the UFO.

Finally, why was the scene inside the UFO dropped from the final(?) version which emerged in 1998?

At times I have disagreed with those who made the changes in various films (for example, see my comments on Blade Runner), but this time I do agree with the changes, even though I'm not exactly certain why they were made.

One side point: my favorite scene occurs near the end when the UFO touches down and engages in a light and music communication sequence with the humans' computer. Great stuff--could have gone on longer.

Overall Reaction: an enjoyable SF film with friendly aliens to counteract the usual SF stuff featuring fanged, drooling monsters with an inexplicable wish to wipe out humanity (although I must admit, after reading the daily headlines, I frequently don't find it that inexplicable).

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