Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out in 1977 and promptly became one of the top five films in box-office history. Audiences flocked to see its m agical, optimistic story of a Wyoming mountain-visited by friendly aliens in fabulous spaceships.
Amazingly, however, filmmaker Steven Spielberg wasn't satisfied with this phenomenal success. He took a long look at the movie he had written and directed and decided the critics were right -- the middle portion was lumpy, some of the comedy was clumsy, and the whole picture needed smoothing out. So he declared his intention to revise the picture, giving us a new-and-improved "Close Encounters" that would be even more marvelous than the original.
Three years later, the "special edition" (to be the only edition henceforth) is upon us. To begin with the good news, it's still an enchanting story, glowing with a childlike faith in the future good of mankind and, indeed, the cosmos.
True, it leans rather heavily on shots of awestruck faces ogling futuristic chandeliers from the special-effects department. But this is part of the movie's charm. All the space-struck characters are echoes of the little boy at the center of the story, whose trust in the alien visitors makes an ideal metaphor for the film's message -- that childlike wonder is the only intelligent response to the most inexplicable mysteries of our universe.
Unfortunately, the new edition "Close Encounters" doesn't really improve the original. The center of the story is smoother and less chaotic, and that's to the good. But Spielberg hasn't managed to enhance the ending. In the first version, the yarn ended when our hero (Richard Dreyfuss) stepped aboard the alien's "mother ship." Now Spielberg takes us inside the spacecraft with Dreyfuss and shows us . . . nothing more impressive than a lot of bright lights, bug-eyed creatures in the distance, and Dreyfuss breathing hard with excitement. The only effect is to drag out the finale until its rhythm flags. One of the most dazzling climaxes in movie history becomes just a little boring, and one wishes Spielberg had left brilliant enough alone.
Still, it's good to have "Close Encounters" back in all its spaced-out majesty. Once more we can savor the artful simplicity of its vision, the economy of its story line, the energy of its characters. We can enjoy again the refreshingly unmannered performance of Richard Dreyfuss -- with credit of Spielberg, who tactfully cuts away every time the star begins to fall into tired habits. And we can take the occasion as another good reason for recalling the words of biologist Lewis Thomas, who dealt with a similar theme in his book "The Lives of A Cell." When we finally do meet our intergalactic neighbors, he wrote, "The main question will be the opener: "Hello, are you there?' If the reply should turn out to be 'Yes, hello,' we might want to stop there and think about that, for quite a long time."
That jibes with Spielberg's vision all the way. And the essence of "Close Encounters" is its visionary quality. But "vision" is not enough to justify a film, even when coupled with good intentions. For a rueful illustration of this cosider Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane. It was written and directed by William peter Blatty, who considers himself a "popularizer" of important ideas -- couching a theological argument, for example, in the dubious "thriller" context of "The Exorcist."
"Twinkle, Twinkle" takes place in an asylum for marines who have been driven insane by the Vietnam war. In these surrealistic surroundings, two men have an extended argument about the existence of God and "the problem of evil." Their debate is punctuated by rough comedy routines, weird personality conflicts, and sickening bursts of bizarre violence.
Blatty himself is a thoughtful man who sincerely wants the movies to spend more energy exploring religius and philosophical questions. In "Twinkle" he tries to combine this function with mass-appeal action and violence and fails on every level. At best, it is simply unoriginal, with its many echoes of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." At worst, it is ponderous, exploitative, manipulative, and logically incoherent. Blatty wants to probe the same subjects in at least two more films. Let's hope he learns valuable lessons from this failure.
Good intentions aren't enough in the latest from West Germany, either. It's a rambling historical analysis called Ludwig, and it was written and directed by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. He's the filmmaker who gave us "Our Hitler" not long ago , a massive seven-hour meditation on Germany's history, culture, and tolerance for very long movies.
"Ludwig" is subtitled "Requiem For A Virgin King," and Syberberg intends it as a requiem in the musical sense. In a splendid program note, he make his "declaration of war against the present forms of cinema . . . against psychological chitchat, against the action film, against . . . the metaphysics of the automobile and the gun. . . . " He says that "editing is an extension of life by other means," that "the great aim is to recover the aura of the myth."
Rarely have I seen so many good ideas in one program note. But you'd neve guess it was "Ludwig" we were talking about. Like "Our Hitler," this is a slow, fascinating, and infuriating film -- verbally, an endless monologue shared by a small cast of characters; visually, a glacier with a terminal case of interior decoration. Its sense of history is almost as impressive as its iconoclasm. Yet there is little life to be found here, and almost as little beauty beyond its densly fabricated surfaces. Syberberg may be an ingenious philosopher of film, but he fails to find the vitality that should grow from his provocative theories. "Ludwig" is a sterile movie.