OK--so even though I'm posting this as a NetPix, I have to be honest and tell you that I actually saw this on the big screen. It was the movie at Bryant Park on Monday night. It was also the first time I'd seen the film in some 20-odd years. I remember being fascinated by CEOTTK when I first saw it as a kid so I was curious to see what I'd think of it now as an adult and also a filmmaker.
In some ways, even though I know what happens in the end, I found CEOTTK even more fascinating this time around for a number of reasons. First off, I didn't know who Francois Truffaut was in the 70's and seeing one of the true geniuses of cinema in a Spielberg movie playing a French scientist is borderline bizarre. Then there's the fact that CEOTTK boasts not just one but two Spielberg moms, Melinda Dillon (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role) and Terri Garr (who is the more traditional of the two, harried and unintentionally funny). The film features some gorgeous cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (DELIVERANCE, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER), not to mention Laszlo Kovacs who shot some of the pickups.
As if that isn't enough to keep a film geek occupied, the movie also serves as something of a rough draft for two two future Spielberg classics; RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and, of course, ET. The discovery of the WWII planes in the desert and the scene of Indian's chanting the famous alien call play like outtakes from RAIDERS. However, the similarities to ET are more obvious in that CEOTTK shares a similar story but tells it from the adult's perspective. In some ways, this is a much more adult film than ET in terms of its intensity and darkness. The famous abduction scene of Melinda Dillon's child (one of Spielberg's personal favorites) is both beautiful and horrific at the same time, much more scary than I recall the first time around. Also, watching Richard Dreyfuss become increasingly obsessed with his encounter of the second kind to the point that his marriage starts to fall apart is actually painful to watch. His wife and kids eventually move out when he starts building a replica of Devil's Tower in the living room. If there is any flaw in this movie, it's that this sequence goes on a little too long. We sorta get it after the first couple of shrubs go flying through the kitchen window.
What was groundbreaking about this film at the time of its release is that, up to that point, mainstream Hollywood movies about alien visitation usually did not end so well. Spielberg was one of the first to posit that maybe visitors from outer space would not arrive with their guns blazing or harboring some secretive plot to take over the planet and/or destroy mankind. This is a theme which gets an even more thorough working out in ET as the alien actually serves as the romantic lead in a boy-meets-alien, boy-loses-alien love story. And it makes the Spielberg's later super-violent WAR OF THE WORLDS look like an even more mystifying mess.
There are three versions of the CEOTTK available on DVD...from 1977, 1980 and 1997. All of these are part of the "Ultimate Edition" which is on Netflix. I would recommend watching the most recent cut, which is the one screened at Byrant Park. Even Spielberg himself has admitted that the special edition from 1980, with footage inside the mother ship, was a mistake. Finally, an interesting fact to consider when watching this sci-fi classic: Spielberg's inspiration for the film was the song "When You Wish Upon A Star" and he desperately wanted to use it somewhere in the film but was denied by Disney. Strangely enough, the aliens' call, written by John Williams, has a similar tonal progression to that song...not exactly a rip-off but clearly a homage of sorts.