What movie does a director make when he can make anything?
You can make a solid argument that the most important (and revealing) movie on a director’s resume is the next film following that first blockbuster — when the artist is soaring with confidence and creative ambition and the studios will literally greenlight anything the genius du jour brings to their lot. Stanley Kubrick spun Spartacus into Lolita. After The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation. The success of American Graffiti allowed George Lucas to launch Star Wars.
After delivering the biggest box-office hit in Hollywood history, 29-year-old Jaws director Steven Spielberg chose to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the story of a suburban dad (Richard Dreyfuss) who becomes obsessed with what might have been a UFO encounter and a desperate single mom (Melinda Dillon) whose adorable infant son was abducted by aliens. Together, they defy a government conspiracy and commune at Devil’s Tower, the Wyoming landmark that has inexplicably dominated their every waking thought since their close encounters.
Ray Bradbury considered Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which opened in theaters 40 years ago, the greatest science fiction film ever made, making favorable philosophical and religious comparisons to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece. But for Spielberg, the film didn’t even qualify for the genre. “The movie that I made was not intended to be a science-fiction movie.” Spielberg says in an exclusive clip (above) from the new 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray of the film, available Tuesday. “I really believed that there was something up there. I still believe we’re not alone in the universe.”
Spielberg later returned to the world of aliens, most famously with E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and War of the Worlds, but Close Encounters — which enjoyed a 40th anniversary theatrical release earlier this month — retains a key significance. Though Jaws became the summer blockbuster against which all would be measured, making that film had been a nightmare for its director, a near fiasco on the seas that would haunt Spielberg’s nightmares for decades. Close Encounters, which he’d conceived before Jaws and wrote in the nighttime hours while he spent his days editing the shark movie, was no doubt a catharsis. There are practically clues in nearly every frame, pointing to the director he would become and the boy he had been. In a 1999 episode of Inside the Actors Studio, host James Lipton reminded Spielberg that his father was a computer scientist and his mother was a musician, and that the scientists in Close Encounters communicate with the aliens by playing music. It might be as close to a Rosebud moment as you’ll ever find for Hollywood’s greatest storyteller.