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With E.T. and Close Encounters, Spielberg Told the Same Sad Story From Different Eyes

Photo: Universal Pictures; Columbia Pictures

Later this year, Steven Spielberg will take audiences somewhere he has never taken them before. The Fabelmans, his next movie, is the semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in suburban Arizona, falling in love with cinema while his parents, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, fall out of love with each other. It’s being billed as the most personal film ever from the world’s most famous filmmaker — a trip down memory lane into the formative years of a one-man dream factory.

Of course, if you ask Spielberg himself, he is quick to insist that all of his movies are personal. “I still carry my childhood along with me,” he confessed in a 2002 interview, before noting how its aftershocks run through his entire career. This is a major part of the mythology of Spielberg: the child of divorce who grew into Hollywood’s biggest kid, forever building crowd-pleasers from the rubble of his broken home. The Fabelmans may simply be his most direct attempt yet to address the foundational event of his young life, the one that looms over so many of his blockbusters. At this point, it would be easier to count the Spielberg movies that don’t address his childhood and the splintering of his family in some indirect way.

Still, in a body of work that spans half a century and nearly three dozen features, there are two films that — when viewed together — seem especially informed by the experiences Spielberg will explicitly dramatize this fall. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, which hit theaters 40 years ago today, and the earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind have more in common than just a hopeful vision of first contact with friendly alien visitors. Looked at one way, they’re companion pieces that tell the same story from opposite perspectives — that is, the story of a father who leaves and the family he leaves behind.

Inspired, in part, by Spielberg’s memories of watching a meteor shower with his dad, Close Encounters largely adopts the POV of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrical lineman and family man whose ordinary, cozy life in small-town Indiana takes a turn for the extraordinary when a UFO zips right over his head. Neary, who initially fits the profile of the loving, devoted suburban father, is profoundly changed by the experience. He is a man born again through newfound belief, and as his obsession grows (eventually taking the form of a pathological need to depict the strange structure he is seeing in his mind), it begins to eclipse any sense of responsibility he feels toward his wife and three children.

The movie eventually rewards Neary’s fanatical, single-minded pursuit of the truth. The big finale of Close Encounters grants him a front-row seat to humanity’s first meeting with life from another planet. And then Neary, with nary a second thought, follows the little green men into their Douglas Trumbull spaceship and presumably joins them for a tour of the universe. It’s a fantastical, triumphant ending … but also a troubling one for those who remember everything (and everyone) the hero is leaving behind: the terrified family that speeds out of his life, out of his mind, and out of the plot at almost exactly the halfway point of the movie.

Spielberg would later claim, after he became a father himself, that if he made Close Encounters today, Neary wouldn’t get on the ship. But that would be a vastly different movie, easier and less emotionally complex. The power of this one lies in the ambivalence lurking behind its awe and wonder — in the acknowledgment that Neary’s big priority shift, a kind of religious conversion, comes at the expense of the people who once gave his life meaning. Spielberg isn’t interested in condemning the man as some kind of interstellar deadbeat dad; he empathizes with his intense curiosity and maybe even his willingness to throw it all away in search of a higher calling. All the same, long after Neary’s family has disappeared from the movie, we remember the distraught look on his adolescent son’s face as he watches his father melt down over a plate of mashed potatoes.

Perhaps that moment lingered in Spielberg’s mind, too. Five years later, he would essentially pick up where his sci-fi smash left off. E.T. is not, in any literal sense, a sequel to Close Encounters — though it did grow out of the scrapped plans for one, a thriller called Watch the Skies that Spielberg briefly considered making, before pivoting to a more sentimental and family-friendly tale of interspecies communion. Nonetheless, it’s possible to see this second alien-centric hit from the director as a dramatic continuation of the first. After all, it focuses on the lives of a single mother and three children not so unlike the family Roy Neary abandons in Close Encounters.

The father in E.T. has not left Earth in a spaceship; he’s just on vacation in Mexico with his new girlfriend. But his departure is the defining trauma in the life of young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his siblings. His absence haunts the movie, just as the other Nearys haunt the second half of Encounters. The film imagines, with detail and sensitivity, what the world might look like to kids whose home recently got a little emptier — how they’ve grappled with the adult heartache their mother is experiencing, how they’ve learned to rely on themselves and one another. Perhaps Spielberg didn’t need to do much imagining on that front: Where Close Encounters suggests a speculative stab at the unknowable psychology of a man who goes searching for meaning outside his family, E.T. has the texture of memories merely embellished by the presence of a lovable space critter. (The production design, filling a cozy domestic space with piles of clutter, might look awfully familiar to any latchkey kid or any single parent with experience trying to balance a career with the responsibilities of raising an unruly brood.)

This movie has always been widely understood and celebrated as a therapeutic exorcism — the closest this director has ever come (pre–The Fabelmans, anyway) to probing and filling the crater his parents’ divorce left on his heart. Spielberg modeled the character of E.T. on an imaginary friend he invented as a coping mechanism during that difficult chapter of his life. In a way, the little guy ends up serving a similar function in the movie, falling from the stars to make this shattered family whole again. Caring for him, and helping him get home, becomes the proof that they’re not lost even though they’ve lost someone. (Spielberg, at a recent anniversary screening of the movie, underscored this notion of redistributed responsibility.)

What’s beautiful and heartbreaking about E.T., all these years later, is that it’s really about Elliott accepting and getting over his father leaving. Because of E.T.’s diminutive frame and the bond of magically shared feelings he develops with his preteen companion, he has often been characterized as a buddy or even doppelgänger for the boy. But by the movie’s tear-jerking climax, it’s clear that the alien’s true role is filling the void at the center of Elliott’s world that opened like a black hole when his unseen dad exited it. Just like Close Encounters, the film closes with the spectacular image of a colorful spaceship taking off and returning to the cosmos. Yet Spielberg generously rewrites that earlier film’s ending. He allows Elliott the good-bye the Neary children never got.

Still, there’s something rather comforting about both movies. The real fantasy of Close Encounters isn’t that there is intelligent life in the universe and that it will come in peace; it’s the idea that if your father leaves, it will be for very important reasons. (The film almost feels like a child’s explanation for divorce: Daddy’s gone because he had to go to space!) E.T., meanwhile, concludes that there’s no breaking the connection between a father and son; whether the former runs off to Mexico or to the other side of the galaxy, he’ll still be … right there. And his children will be okay without him. In the end, are these films shows of forgiveness for absentee fathers?

Either way, they only grow in meaning when placed in dialogue with each other, like the billboard trading messages with the alien vessel at the end of Close Encounters. We’ll have to wait until November to see how Spielberg finally looks head-on at the separation that bifurcated his family and provided creative fuel for decades of soulful multiplex fare. But there is plenty of insight, too, in the fables he made from his pain, which may be as autobiographical in spirit as his new film is in plot. They look to the stars and find the outline of a broken family in the constellations.

E.T. and Close Encounters Told One Story From Different Eyes