For my taste, the first hour and a half of this movie is the greatest stretch of filmmaking ever. Up until Roy and Jillian reach the "dark side of the moon" on Devil's Tower, this movie is perfect. No, it's beyond perfect -- it's sublime. It takes me to a level of bliss that no other movie can do.
Many critics and viewers -- including a number on this site -- don't like this movie at all. Those who do like it almost uniformly like the final sequence, the "alien landing," the best. For me it is the rest of the movie that is the most remarkable. Some of my favorite sequences:
1. The blinding flash of light that ends the opening credits and leads us to a sandstorm in Sonora Desert, Mexico -- Present Day, with various team leaders, Bob Balaban, and Francois Truffaut speaking three languages as they find a whole bunch of old Navy planes lost in the Bermuda Triangle and an old geezer who saw something very strange. "El sol salio a noche. Y me canto," he keeps saying. Translation: "He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him." Then Balaban translates for Truffaut: "Il dit que le soleil etait venue ici hier soir, et qu'il chantait pour lui." Then Balaban disappears in a cloud of dust. The mystery created in that sequence is incredible -- the greatest opening of all time, if you ask me. Trivia note: that sequence was the last Spielberg filmed before the movie's release. The shooting script opens with Indianapolis Flight Control, but Spielberg decided he wanted a new opening and shot this after production had wrapped. Supposedly this sequence was inspired by the Iraqi prologue in the Exorcist.
2. Roy's first encounter with the aliens in his power company truck -- a brilliantly conceived and edited sequence. I love the dolly in to Roy's window as he pants in shock in the shadows, then the comedy of his reaction when the lights in the truck come back on.
3. The "sky speeders" disappearing into the clouds over Muncie, followed by lightning and then the lights of the city coming back on, bit by bit. Spielberg's use of miniatures here is breathtaking -- as it was in 1941 and as it is later in CE3K when the UFO believers gather again to await another encounter and the lights from the government helicopters move toward them across the plains below.
4. The entire sequence of Roy going crazy. This was controversial with critics -- Pauline Kael, who loved the movie generally, hated Roy throwing the bushes into the kitchen -- and Spielberg actually cut the entire digging up the garden sequence from the so-called "Special Edition." To me, though, this is the absolute heart of the movie. Ask people what they remember from CE3K and the first thing they'll say is "mashed potatoes." To my mind, the garden sequence is one of those magical moments that is so funny and so sad it's just perfect. I believe every second of it, every time. The reactions of the kids are perfect -- the oldest son is big enough to be angry, while the middle says, "Dad, when we're finished with this can we throw dirt in my window?" (In the dinner sequence, little Sylvia has arguably the best line in a movie full of them -- "I hate, I hate these potatoes. There's a dead fly in my potatoes." An ad lib, of course.)
In recent years, Spielberg has expressed concern with the fact that Roy leaves his family to pursue the aliens, and has said that if he were to make the movie over again, he would change that part. To my way of thinking, if you take that out, there is no movie. What this movie is really about is Roy's obsession, and that, I think, is why it has such a hold on me personally. This movie is about what it's like for a person whose life has lost its meaning suddenly finding there is a really important purpose, and pursuing that purpose at all costs. Is it right for him to turn his family's life upside down and ultimately leave them behind to do that? No. But his obsession is understandable, I think, and the purpose Roy finds is something a lot of people would like to feel. Also, it's clear that Roy is not acting entirely of his own free will -- he has been "commanded" subliminally to make his way to Devil's Tower.
I am not aware of any other movie -- or book, or any other source, for that matter -- that portrays 70s suburban life so accurately. The street, the house, the cars, the toys, the furniture -- it is like an archeological document. And the way the kids act, and the family conflicts -- to my way of thinking, they are all portrayed with unerring accuracy and realism. Some have contended that Ronnie is unflatteringly portrayed, but to me that's not fair. She can't be blamed for reacting the way she does to Roy -- many people in her shoes would. Garr's performance is brilliant; she and Dreyfuss are magical together. Melinda Dillon, too, is brilliant in her role. In the shooting script, the sexual attraction between Roy and Jillian was more overt, but Spielberg wisely downplays it in the finished film. It's only hinted at, although it is there.
The actual "alien landing" sequence, in my opinion, is a letdown. It's brilliantly photographed and realized, but once Roy and Jillian make it to the dark side of the moon, the primary tension in the story is gone. If I could edit this movie, I'd take a major pair of shears to the final sequence, cut it down to maybe half its current length. I do get choked up when I see Roy in his red suit at the end of the line of astronauts, though, and Jillian wiping tears away as she clicks away with her Kodak.
As with the original Star Wars, my other all-time favorite movie, I have a problem with the way this picture has been hacked and altered from its original release through various special editions. I understand it's possible to watch the original 1977 cut on the DVD, and I'm glad of that. That original version is the best. I first got to know this movie on ABC in the early 1980s, when it was shown with all the original and Special Edition footage edited together. Personally, I don't think the special edition footage adds much (even the Gobi desert sequence, which is an interesting concept that was in the shooting script, stands out because it was obviously shot by a different DP and doesn't have Truffaut in it).
Anyway, I will always cherish this movie. "You tell Crystal Lake we're going to candlepower in ten minutes!" "Zey belong here more zan we." "There's always some joker who thinks he's immune." "You can't fool us by agreeing with us." "What the hell is going on around here? Who the hell are you people?" "Ronnie, everything's fine. All this stuff is coming down."