For some reason, the special edition of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the version in regular circulation growing up, and I had nothing to compare it to: it was what it was, and that was that. Now, thanks to Columbia TriStar, we have the director's cut, which arrives at a particularly interesting point in this director's career, just after the release of War of the Worlds (again: watch the skies). Revisiting CE, a contemporary viewer is bound to be struck by the quiet eerieness of its opening stretch; it's very different to the unrelenting bombast of Spielberg-doing-Wells, which kept having to insist something of thunderous import - A Major Motion Picture Event - was about to take place before our very eyes.
Rather than noise and fury, the earlier film is powered along by that beautifully crisp, no-nonsense form of 1970s editing - you'll have witnessed enough of it in The Conversation and All the President's Men for it to qualify as a style in its own right - which maintains that just when a scene is on the verge of a crescendo, the most effective choice is to cut to silence, or something approximating it. (Would that 21st century blockbusters were so understated: the new normal is to try and sustain that crescendo for as long as technologically possible, at risk of monotony and/or tinnitus.) My father walked into the room just as Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary was commencing work on his mashed potato mountain, and - not unjustly - wondered whether I was watching with the sound off.
In the modern blockbuster, built on equal parts chutzpah and insecurity, everything has to be front and centre - partly so the audience can be reassured we're getting exactly the right amount of bang for our bucks. But the Spielberg of Close Encounters keeps throwing in background jokes that very nearly go unseen: the lights that first appear in the rear windscreen of Neary's electrical repair truck, the TV coverage that gives away what the hero's obsessive-compulsive mountain-making has been geared towards. Were audiences really this much sharper back then? Or have we just got dumber, and lazier? War of the Worlds, for one, assumed its viewers were drooling morons who'd miss stuff - the hero's Everymannish nature, a 9/11 allusion, complex CG effects - were it not dangled in their faces.
If there is movement and madness in Close Encounters, it's both recognisable and, in the main, realistic: the clutter of an all-American household, with toys lining the floor and kids creeping about with first-wave video cameras. This is at once further confirmation of why Spielberg (and in particular his early work) was and is so popular in the West: that he had broadly the same childhood so many of us were lucky enough to have had. The same backyards and brand names; the same shows, interrupted by the same adverts. More of that bedrock of innocence was preserved in him than in his fellow 70s moviebrats, who surely eroded much of theirs - while gaining other, harsher life-insights - with every shot of bourbon and each nostril of coke.
Still, for all the film's reassuring familiarity, there remains a lot of weirdness, and a lot of displacement here - ships in the desert, an opening sequence that has much in common with The Exorcist, one shot late on of a soldier crouching among helicopters that prefigures Apocalypse Now - all of which perhaps explains why, however blockbusting, the film didn't quite post E.T. numbers. (As a child touched by otherworldly forces, the spooky Cary Guffey doesn't have the Reece's Pieces sweetness of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas; when playing the five-note musical motif on the xylophone, he appears genuinely possessed.) Nonetheless, Spielberg cleaves to the wondrous point-of-view of a child to see us through, which is why Guffey's first response to the aliens' flashing lights is not to duck for cover but scream for ice cream; and why, perhaps, Dreyfuss has to pitch this extraterrestrial intervention to his offspring as "better than goofy golf". Almost, Roy Neary; almost.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - The Director's Cut returns to selected cinemas from Friday.