Something of a Portrait of Steven Spielberg as a Young Auteur, revealing his strengths & weaknesses in what was only his third feature, first as writer/director. Detailing a government hush campaign on UFOs and the ‘chosen’ believers who try to break in, it flirts with daring structural form, especially in its first hour, less First Act then series of extended prologues, with Spielberg effortlessly integrating state-of-the-art F/X with his multi-pronged storyline, but then selling himself short with cheap audience identification beats, tossing in wheezy gags & character tics when he grows scared of his own ambition and the sheer size of the thing. No wonder he put out three different cuts, including the disastrous ‘Special Edition’ that (anti)climaxed with an added mini-tour inside the alien mothership. (Thankfully removed in the presumed 'final' Director’s Cut.) Yet, watching the film now, you can see Spielberg was right to be dissatisfied, he just misdiagnosed the problem. It doesn’t stem from anything missing in the climax, but comes earlier; a noticeable dip when UFO convert Richard Dreyfuss goes overboard with his mountain building obsession, bringing it into his little suburban house. For 40 minutes, the film searches for the divine madness Dreyfuss succumbs to, a fever dream beyond Spielberg’s range of empathy. And the movie doesn’t relocate narrative focus till Dreyfuss & fellow believer Melinda Dillon find the UFO landing site. (Their rocky mountain crag visually reminiscent of THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39, the scene that had Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion waiting before daring to enter the Witch’s Castle.) Yet the faults don’t hurt too much, thanks largely to John Williams’ György Ligeti-addled score (the part that sounds like 2001) and what must be the greatest line up of cinematographers ever to grace a single film: Vilmos Zsigmond, John Alonzo, William Fraker, László Kovács, Douglas Trumbull, Allen Daviau (uncredited) and Douglas Slocombe.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In the final scenes, all the Americans tower over 5' 6" François Truffaut, perfectly cast, touching, positively radiating French humanist charm as an extraterrestrial research scientist. Did Spielberg come up with this plus perfect casting idea? Truffaut apparently jumped at the opportunity, eager to see a huge Hollywood production from the inside; it’s 20 mill budget probably enough to cover his entire output up till then.