A note on Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition

At the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition, Roy walks up into the base of the Mothership, alone, and stands in the middle of some kind of room. A bunch of doors open and he looks up in awe at the magnificent interior of the vast ship. What he sees, narratively speaking, is an interior city of little aliens, all “indoors” as it were, looking out at him from above and going about their business. There are no aliens there with him at the base of the ship, they’re all waaayyyy up there, a world removed.

He sees dozens of smaller UFOs whizzing about, all heading into a kind of enormous central pillar that’s closing. All the smaller UFOs we’ve seen so far get appearances as they enter this central hub, including the little red UFO that brought us so many laughs earlier in the movie. The central hub closes its hatches and then Roy is all alone at the base. The narrative impression is that the aliens are packing up to leave, and we are witnessing their final closing-up-of-shop. Then Roy, overcome with emotion, gets showered by some sort of magic glowing UFO pixie dust.

The movie then reverts back to its original ending, showing the lone alien traipsing down the landing ramp to say hello to Lacombe, an indelibly touching moment in the original, now reduced to an afterthought. The little last alien then traipses back up into the Mothership and it takes off.

Sitting in a theater watching this back in the day I remember thinking “There’s something wrong with this, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.” It bothered me that we got to see the inside of the Mothership, partly because I thought that if one is making a truly religious movie (and Close Encounters is certainly that), one oversteps one’s bounds when one chooses to depict Heaven. No vision of the interior ofthe Mothership could possibly match the vision that any member of the audience has in his or her imagination. The new ending rankled, it smacked up hubris and spectacle, not faith.

Then, as I’m leaving the theater, I hear a young lady turn to her date and say “So they turned Roy into an alien? Huh.”

And I realize that not only is the “Special Edition” flawed, it’s a serious work of sabotage on a masterpiece. I go see it again and I realize that, objectively speaking, there is no other possible interpretation of the new ending. There’s Roy, there are are the aliens, nowhere near Roy, there are the aliens closing up shop, there’s Roy getting showered with magic UFO pixie dust, there’s an alien coming to say goodbye to Lacombe. Oh. My. God. The young lady with her date isn’t confused, she’s interpreted the ending the only possible way it can be interpreted. So not only is the Lone Alien’s hello-and-goodbye not the first face-to-face communication between an alien and a human, the Lone Alien isn’t even an alien, it’s ROY! And, by extension, the aliens in the movie must all be transformed humans as well! And the Mothership becomes nothing more than a gigantic human-into-alien transforming machine.

The “Special Edition,” quite apart from adding illumination to the original, completely ruins the original. And I spent the next couple of decades trying to figure out how a director as clever as Spielberg, someone with such a firm grasp of cinematic language, could make such an obvious blunder. When the 2002 “Final Edition” (or whatever they call it) DVD came out, I gave an elated sigh of relief to find that Spielberg had come to his senses and relegated the “Special Edition” ending to the dustbin of “Deleted Scenes.” In an accompanying interview, he mentions that the interior of the Mothership was a cinematic mistake, made because the studio pressured him into including it.

I note that the Gobi Desert scene is still in the “final cut,” which does not please me, partly because Lacombe is not in it, which makes it seem ersatz, and partly because the tone of the scene is off — it is jokey and antic while the other UN scenes are mysterious and a little scary — and partly because Laughlin’s beard doesn’t match his beard in the other scenes. I can let this scene go if Spielberg likes it, and the other little additions don’t offend, but oy that ending.

Now I find that they’ve released a three-disc “Ultimate Final Comprehensive Edition” that gathers together the three different cuts that have been issued over the years. Which I suppose is harmless, but as Sheryl Crow teaches us, the first cut is the deepest.



12 Responses to “A note on Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition”
  1. Ha, I never got THAT from The Special Edition, that Roy had been changed into an Alien. Though I’d only seen The Special Edition once, but I agree 100%, it was never needed.

    I’m sure that the studio wanted that included (so I’m to assume Speilberg had originally filmed this scene and wisely cut it from the original?) so that they could sponge a few bucks off the rerelease.

    But I guess I’m not your average moviegoer though. I don’t need to see the inside of the spaceship in CE3K, or know why the aliens attacked in Cloverfield or know why the birds attacked in The Birds. I usually leave that up to my imagination thank you very much.

  2. gazblow says:

    Imagine that. Studio Executives decide to force a filmmaker to screw up a masterpiece so that they can get everybody who saw and loved the film to see it again and hate it. Those Businessmen sure know what they’re doing!

    • schwa242 says:

      Imagine that. Studio Executives decide to force a filmmaker to screw up a masterpiece so that they can get everybody who saw and loved the film to see it again and hate it. Those Businessmen sure know what they’re doing!

      I think they do, because not only do they get money off the “Special Edition” with random things thrown in by committee, but then they get more money off the following director’s “No This Is What I Really Meant Final Cut I Mean It This Time” that will correct the problems of the previous edition.

  3. Was this the cut that aired on TV for years afterward? And, if so, did Spielberg remove some of the scenes depicting Roy’s more manic attempts to build a Devil’s Tower model in his den? Because I saw the original theatrical cut in the theater when I was six or seven years old–meaning the memories of its specifics were distant when I saw it on TV years later–but I’m pretty sure I remember having to explain to a friend who’d never seen it before the TV cut “no no…wait…there’s something missing…he throws all kinds of dirt and crap through his kitchen window and goes crazy…doesn’t he?”

    • Todd says:

      In the Special Edition Spielberg cut the scenes of Roy throwing the dirt in through his kitchen window and getting the chicken wire from the neighbor lady. It was a stupid cut and he sensibly restored it later, but it’s entirely possible that for the “TV cut” (which I have not seen) it remained gone.

      • sheherazahde says:

        I totally agree with you.

        Roy throwing the dirt in through his kitchen window and getting the chicken wire from the neighbor lady is one of the scenes I found memorable. It must have had some power or resonance to it to stick in my memory like that.

  4. moroccomole says:

    It’s fascinating how you can change the entire meaning of a movie with just a few cuts. On the Criterion Brazil, they include the hideous “Allen Smithee” TV edit, which represents the version Universal wanted to release to theaters, with a great commentary that points out how that version completely guts and alters what Terry Gilliam was trying to say in the first place.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    No! Roy! It’s an EZ Bake oven!

  6. Well…

    Sure, but the 2 hours leading up to that moment are still AMAZING! The unmaking of a family man by something unexplainable.

    Oh, and… according to Wikipedia, Cat Stevens tought us the first cut is the deepest, and Sheryl Crow simply repeated the sentiment…