The New York Times had some suggestions for movies to watch this Labor Day weekend – but they are movies about the workplace! That seems like an odd series for a weekend that may be about labor but is usually a time to celebrate not being at work.

Admittedly, these are odd “workplace” films.  Office Space is a satire that should help disgruntled workers vent. Desk Set is a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy  romantic comedy. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a good film, but not holiday viewing for modern viewers. Sing along with the Newsies9 to 5 is a good office takeover by the workers. The Wall Street workers with big hair and big shoulder pads rule in Working Girl. And in Clerks, Dante is forced to work at the convenience store on his day off.

The Times gives info on where you can stream all those films, but if you want to see something on a big screen as a film should be seen, I recommend the escape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The encounter of the third kind occurs at Devil’s Tower

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind  came out about six months after the original Star Wars but Close Encounters was about real people dealing with visitors from distant stars. Suburban Middle America is “invaded” when Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary experiences a close encounter with a UFO. But no one, including his family, believes him.

The New York Times ran an article on the film’s re-release making the argument that the film’s original release was when “the movies got new-age religion.” That is not my recollection of that time, but J. Hoberman points out that some Catholic and conservative Christian reviews of the film were surprisingly quite rapturous about it.  New York Magazine‘s film critic questioned “who is Spielberg to define religion for us?” My take on it then was that it was good sci-fi with much better effects than what had come before it.

More than any theological connection I might have had to the film in 1977, I connect more with Baby Boomer Spielberg watching the Disneyland TV show and hearing Jiminy Cricket sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” which he said was his inspiration for the feeling he wanted in the film.

The film started out in several more sinister versions  with UFOs and a post-Watergate scandal government trying to keep the lid on the real UFO and ET incidents that were in Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s very real study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s. That script was called Watch the Skies. There was another version that was more government whistleblower on the cover-up of aliens that was a political thriller written by Paul Schrader with the title Kingdom Come.

Spielberg was coming off the giant hit Jaws and five years away from making E.T.  He gets sole credit for the final script, though a handful of writers worked on earlier versions.

I saw it in a theater 40 years ago and loved it. I watched it when my sons were 8 and 10 years old and it wowed them and scared them in all the right places. Hey, a three-year old kid gets taken by the aliens. That’s scary. (Spoiler: He gets home seemingly unhurt at the end – as he should in any Disney-inspired movie.)  These aliens didn’t attack like in War of the Worlds (which Spielberg directed in 2005) but they weren’t toy-doll huggable like E.T. either.

Those were my two encounters with the film, and I just may go back and have a third encounter with it this week.

As part of the 40th anniversary of the film, it was presented at the Venice Film Festival this past week in its even shinier newly remastered and digitally restored version. It will open this weekend for a week-long run in theaters across the country.

Of course, the best screening will be tonight at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming which is the location of the film’s finale and the encounter of the third kind. That finale was actually shot in a hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, but don’t let that movie trivia ruin the Wyoming experience. Maybe some real UFOs will buzz the site tonight.

I don’t think the film really goes into explaining the title but it has some science behind it. Spielberg got the title and some ideas from the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book and a ufologist.  Hynek’s alien close encounter classification system made a close encounter of the first kind be a sighting of a UFO. The second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien. The third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

Hynek was a technical advisor on the movie and he shows up as the man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens in the final scene of the film.

I’m not sure which version of the film is in this re-release. Spielberg originally wanted a summer of 1978 release but was pushed by Columbia Pictures to have it ready for a November 1977 release. Spielberg was not really happy with that version, as he was pushed to do the effects faster than desirable.

In 1980, Columbia let him finish what he had wanted to do as long as he added a sequence inside of the mothership so that there was something really new to market.  Spielberg added that and other new scenes and cut some scenes and it was promoted as the “Special Edition.”  Spielberg was not thrilled with the mothership scene and later cut it for the “Collector’s Edition” home video release.

This is a film to see on a big screen, but if you’re doing a home viewing, you can choose the original version, the director’s cut, the collector;s edition,  and the Blu-Ray or 4K Ultra-HD editions. That’s a lot of encounters.

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