One of the great things about watching a beloved movie on the big screen is the chance to catch tiny details you might have missed. A bit of toss-off dialogue here, a hidden piece of obscure scenery there, a chance to read the story with a tiny bit more precision. It's geeky fun. And that's all I anticipated last night in Santa Cruz when Jenny and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a movie theater for the first time in two years. I've seen this flick over 200 times, so didn't expect too many surprises. I certainly never thought I'd see an entirely new ending. But that's what happened.
CE3K is my favorite movie of all time. Sure, there are technically better movies - plenty of them. Still, only one movie lit up my nine-year old imagination like Close Encounters. Even Star Wars seems to shrink in comparison (at least now). Steven Spielberg's depiction of ordinary people encountering extraordinary circumstances struck a more profound chord in me than George Lucas's blaster-happy space fantasy. Watching CE3K's slow-zoom moments of grownups looking heavenward, terrified and wondrously awestruck - those moments dug deeper in me than the rumble of a hundred Star Destroyers.
So we're watching the show in Santa Cruz last night, just like we did a couple years back, and I'm focusing on those tiny details that only a large canvas can reveal [Spoiler Alert, blah, blah, Spoiler Alert]. For example, did you ever see a guy rolling around the Project Mayflower landing site in a motorized wheelchair? Or have you noticed the peculiar way Ronnie cocks her head - just a microburst of disdain - when Roy makes his Mashed Potato Pronouncement? [Check out Jenny's version!] Yeah this flick feeds my inner geek.
OK, If you've read this far, you probably dig Close Encounters too. I therefore hope you won't mind a bit more background before I get to the point of this post. As you likely know, Steven Spielberg has fiddled with CE3K regularly since releasing the flick in late '77. Studio pressures to rush production forced him cut corners, and the results disappointed him. Some of film's original effects were sloppy, and the pacing didn't feel right. Version 1.0 contained scenes that Spielberg thought to be extraneous. And it failed to convey the international breadth of the aliens' message. Even so, the movie made buckets of money. So Spielberg pestered Columbia Pictures for some of that cash to buff out his movie's rough edges. And they agreed.
They agreed, that is, with one important proviso. Columbia Pictures promised to finance Version 1.5 - as long as Spielberg would take the audience inside the Mothership. He did, and CE3K fans have debated the decision ever since. In the intervening years, Spielberg has disavowed his "Special Edition" ending, and subsequent versions have relegated the Mothership-as-Las-Vegas finale to the scrapheap of "additional scenes." But as far as I'm concerned, the 1980 version makes it clear that Roy Neary was an alien. He didn't search for aliens. He didn't become an alien. He was an alien all along.
To understand why, let's go back to that infamous Special Edition conclusion. Roy is walking alone into the ship. He's sporting those sexy seventies-sideburns and some gnarly beard scraggle. The spaceship's interior seems weirdly sterile, though, like a corporate disco. It's now 1980 and Steven Spielberg is giving the suits at Columbia Pictures what they want. Anyway, Roy is looking around, taking it all in. Then he stares upward into the fiery neon chandelier of that vast floating city. Above him, tiny aliens twitter and gawk. He's welcome; he's been expected. Suddenly a shower of pixie dust pours upon him. [Yeah, if you've read this far without seeing CE3K, there's no other way to describe it. Roy Neary is covered with pixie dust]. The scene then cuts back to original footage. A third kind of alien exits the ship. It's not one of the childlike rubber-skin moppets we saw a few minutes earlier, and it's not that creepy spindly thing that announced the visitors' greeting. It's something new. As many folks have wondered, maybe the aliens transformed the human Roy Neary into an extraterrestrial. So, in that way, Roy could now be one of "them."
Maybe. But I'd prefer to take this thesis one step further.
I think that the 1980 version of CE3K indicates that Roy Neary was an alien all along. How could that be? Well, first, we know that the visitors have been messing with humans for decades. They've kidnapped some people and implanted visions in others. Their reasons remain inscrutable, but their methods suggest tremendous power. I mean, heck, they can float a huge oil refinery-type vessel low over Devil's Tower, flip the thing over, and not scratch a single lightbulb on the tarmac. As one dude intones, "They can fly rings around the moon" [though we've got 'em beat on the highway]. Regardless, it's clear that they can levitate objects ["Non-ballistic motion" is a technical term used by one character]. I'll bet they can mutate objects. And people? Sure, they can do that too. I mean, come on, they're aliens!
The way I see it, the visitors planted Roy onto Earth - maybe in 1944 [the year he says he was born] or some time afterward. Then, and this is important, they implanted human memories so that he would think he's an earthling. Now, you know they have that kind of technology because these dudes implant visions into people all the time. Remember how they use that process to convince dozens of folks, maybe hundreds, to make the dangerous journey to Devil's Tower? Typical interpretations of CE3K have us believe that aliens are implanting that same vision in Roy when his truck conks out at the railroad crossing. But I believe that the operation serves a different purpose. This encounter is designed to wake Neary up.
You see, Roy was planted on Earth, complete with "human" feelings and fears, to learn about us. He's a sleeper agent. When visitors read his mind, they can learn more about us than any probe could convey. Perhaps the aliens see their actions as part of a "foreign exchange program," a predecessor to when they announce themselves to technologically inferior civilizations. Thus when Roy encounters aliens at the railroad track, his fear is real. He has no idea that he is one of them. At that moment, a message is implanted in his mind. For other contactees, the message is, "Come to Devil's Tower." For Roy, the message is different. It says, "Come home."
Think about it. Roy Neary has always felt lost on Earth, especially when confronting adult responsibilities. He's done his best to follow the rules; he's got a job and a family. He pays his mortgage and has a hobby (model railroading, a signifier of travel and freedom). Still, the "real world" has always felt fake to him. That's one reason why he's drawn to Pinocchio. He wants to become a boy in order to become "real." That's why Roy relates so easily with Barry Guiler (the little boy whom the aliens abduct). While others try to manage and control their encounters with the visitors, Roy and Barry simply want to get close to them.
Compare this response to some other reactions to seeing the aliens at the landing site. Barry's mother looks for a while but then grabs a camera. Snapping picture after picture, she detaches herself from the scene, just like those scientists who barely look at the awesome spectacle unfolding around them. They too reach for technological distance. Meanwhile, standing nearby, Barry just stares and stares. Roy does too. Eventually, the others will come to understand what Barry and Roy know, that this is a moment which transcends science. It is, to quote François Truffaut's Claude Lacombe, "an event sociological," one best experienced as music, as play. Lacombe eventually admits that he envies Neary. A leader of an international group searching for evidence of alien visitation, Lacombe is the scientist who seeks a childhood fantasy - a reflection of Spielberg's next great alien fantasy, E.T. He is stymied by words and resorts to music and hand-signals. Yet he can only grasp so much. For Barry and Roy, such wisdom is child's play.
Oh, and we must consider the aliens themselves, especially those silly looking tiny gray ones that spill out of the ship once the other abductees are released. Not only were those creatures played by children, I believe that they are children. Or, more to the point of Spielberg's vision, they retain a childlike sense of wonder that attract Barry and Roy (and, to a lesser extent, Lacombe). The visitors possess ancient and frightening powers. But (as Barry explains in the novel) "they play nice."
Now we return to the Special Edition's finale, when the pixie dust begins to fall. For years I've wondered what that stuff was meant to represent. Was it some sort of bio-mechanical magic that helps humans survive the stresses of interstellar flight? Were the abductees coated with the same stuff, only to be re-humanized upon their return? Maybe. But the presence of that third alien-type - not quite the ancient-looking "greeter," not quite the childish-looking "grays" - tells me that Roy has been literally transformed. Maybe he's a hybrid. Or maybe he's a unique alien-type who is capable of such inter-species communication. I'll leave that sort of analysis to the truly obsessive CE3K-ophiles. As for me, I think that Neary has been returned to his old alien self. He is now going home.
I hope my hypothesis offers some insight into what Steven Spielberg was up to in 1980. In particular, this explanation responds to critics who couldn't abide the thought of a father abandoning his family to go play with aliens. Spielberg has often said that Close Encounters of the Third Kind dates him as a director, perhaps more than any other movie he's made. It signifies his younger, less mature self. After having children, Spielberg says, he could never again promote such selfishness. The Neary-As-Alien thesis represents a sort of half-step response to his guilt. I mean this guy chose Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon A Star" to accompany scenes of a father ditching his wife and kids! It's a pretty lousy thing to do, actually. I'm a middle-aged guy, and I understand that now. I'd never flee my family to fly with ET.
But what if Roy was an alien? How guilty would he be then?