Hook’s Peter Banning is a bad dad, but he’s got nothing on Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary. And while Roy starts off bad enough – ignoring his family at the dinner table, his home a disaster indicating a life out of control – by the end of the movie, as he happily steps on to the mothership, he’s become one of cinema’s ultimate deadbeat dads. His kids will likely never get a goodbye, and if he ever does return to Earth relativity tells us he’ll be the same age and his kids will be old.
And yet he’s the hero. His moment is triumphant, the apotheosis of his life. The little ETs are his new children-but-also-parents, and the movie treats his domestic life as something he must escape, a prison of Altmanesque clamor that has been holding him back from his true destiny. He is the one human CALLED to the stars, and aliens have traveled light years to make his acquaintance. His kids? Pains in the asses we last see taking off in a station wagon, headed who cares where.
Close Encounters ends with Dad going to Neverland (scored to a non-Peter Pan Disney tune, When You Wish Upon A Star, but the song is close enough – Peter Pan doesn’t have a big, wistful dreamer number like that). But Hook is all about Dad coming back from Neverland, returning to be with his kids for the first time ever. Peter Banning rejects the wonder for the (upper class) every day, the kind of life Roy Neary turns from with gusto.
To me Hook is answering Close Encounters, and it’s part of a journey that Spielberg was on with his own father. While it’s vital to separate the art from the artist when it comes to how we watch – good works come from bad people! – getting intimate with the artist can open up new areas of analysis of the work, allowing us to see the entire filmmaker’s canon as a personal journey set against their own autobiography.
Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was 19; he was older but the split hit him hard. Some of that certainly came because of the relationship he had with his folks – his mother, an eccentric free spirit, was someone Spielberg worshipped like a cool older sister. But his father, a workaholic electrical engineer, was often absent or distant (worth noting that while Roy Neary is not an electrical engineer, he works for the power company, and he’s called in when there are massive blackouts). When the couple split, Spielberg turned against his dad and eventually the two stopped speaking altogether.
Some of this came from a lie of omission – Spielberg assumed his dad left his mom, but the reality was that his mom had fallen in love with his dad’s best friend. His father thought it was best to keep this from the young man, but it seems to have only created more confusion and anger for Spielberg. The scene in Close Encounters where Roy’s son is shouting ‘Crybaby!’ at him as he weeps in the tub? That’s based on something Spielberg actually did to his own father – it’s clear that he just didn’t understand why his dad, who he thought was abandoning the family, was behaving in that way. Eventually Spielberg learned the truth, but he still sided with his mother, still blamed his father.
The absent father is a hallmark of early Spielberg. He has a good one or two – Chief Brody in Jaws is a great dad (and by the way, Spielberg cut out a subplot from the novel where Brody’s wife has an affair with Hooper. I wonder if this decision was made after he found out about his mother’s own affair) – but what we think of is a movie like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, where the father is just gone. That reflected the reality of the era – as a latchkey kid myself I identified with Elliot’s lack of a dad – but it also reflects Spielberg’s vision of his own youth.
There’s one thing worth noting about Close Encounters, the only early Spielberg told from the Dad POV – it was written by Spielberg himself. Of his professional films (ie, not counting the ones he made as a kid), he’s written two: Close Encounters and AI, another film about parent/child strife. That one is about a boy who over-lionizes his troubled, flawed mother. This one is about a dad who leaves his family behind.
It seems to me that Close Encounters is the work of a man trying to come to terms with why his father left. While Spielberg’s dad was a distant and workaholic man, he was still there for his son. The director began making films with his dad’s camera and assistance. The filmmaker clearly still has love for this man he pushed out of his life, and this movie reads like someone trying to invent a reason good enough for a father to leave his family. That aliens came calling seems like a pretty good one.
And this is Spielberg before fatherhood; the young man’s vision of family life is driving the movie. As a young genius filmmaker who had just broken all records and all concepts of what big movies could be with Jaws, Spielberg couldn’t imagine settling down for a regular life. The very thought must have been suffocating. At the same time, he recognized that world, having come from it. Close Encounters is a movie about communication – about how hard it is, about the thrill of learning to communicate, and about how special the moment of contact can be – and it’s a movie about a guy who is unable to communicate what’s in his head, and it drives him nuts. He finally finds first a woman who understands him, but even she can only go so far. He’s only sympatico with a whole other species – that’s how special he is. This is Spielberg’s vision of himself as an artist arising from pre-shopping mall suburbia.
But later Spielberg would distance himself from the film, saying this wasn’t the kind of film he could ever make again – having Roy leave his family behind didn’t gibe with who he became, a father in his own right. It’s a movie that pushes away fatherhood. Late period Spielberg is all about embracing that fatherhood, about repairing the kinds of fractured families he featured in his earliest films. And the gateway for that, in many ways, is Hook.
It’s strange that Hook is a favorite film of Millennials, as it’s Boomer through-and-through. It’s a movie about the original Peter Pan generation, the generation that didn’t want to grow up, and who saw that transform in adulthood not into a playful sense of joy but rather a selfishly me-centered yuppie drive for success. All the worst things about kids, all the reasons Captain Hook gives for not wanting kids – they’re all the things Spielberg’s generation took into adulthood. Hook is a movie not about kids finding out their dad is Peter Pan, it’s about Peter Pan (and the Boomers) finding out he grew up to be an asshole.
Of course it would help if Peter Banning was more of an asshole. Hook, among its many problems, has the flaw that casting Robin Williams in the role has the same impact as casting Jack Nicholson in The Shining – his transformation feels like fait accompli. Of course Robin Williams will eventually be wild and fun and loose. In fact, Roy Neary – the protagonist of Close Encounters who does not need, by the film’s estimation, to be redeemed, only vindicated – is more of an asshole up front than Banning is.
But just as Roy Neary’s kids eventually lose him to a UFO obsession, Banning’s kids have already lost him to a work obsession. It’s always interesting to see Hollywood types – who work long hours on set and whose lives revolve around making what are often not very good films that take them far from their families for weeks on end – approach morality tales about workaholics. Banning’s version of workaholism is especially bad because he’s in mergers and acquisitions, the pirates of the corporate world, boarding other companies and stripping them for parts. He’s not creating, as all the Hollywood types are. He’s destroying, as all the people who fund the Hollywood types are.
Anyway, Peter is a lightly bad dad who does care but who is stuck at work all the time and misses his kid’s life moments (although honestly they should take a step back and ask themselves if they’d be willing to turn their backs on their suburban upper class lifestyle so they could have their dad around the house more hours in the day). Over the course of the movie he gets the yuppie exterior stripped away, bangarang style, and rediscovers who he used to be (which, frankly, was still an asshole. I’m not that fond of Peter Pan as a character). Then, returned to his childlike state, Peter has a choice – he can remain in Neverland with his Lost Boy buddies, or he can go home with his kids and try to be a better dad, integrating the lessons (I’m not sure what they are) that he learned during his adventures.
Where Roy Neary enthusiastically chooses Neverland, Peter forsakes it. He grows up, but correctly this time, and he embraces fatherhood and normal life as the greatest adventure of them all. Is this Spielberg rewriting his own father leaving? Or is this Spielberg, now a father himself, grappling with juggling his own career and his family?
Just as Spielberg put himself as a child in Close Encounters, shouting ‘Crybaby!’ at his father, he puts himself as a child into Hook. The relationship between Peter and his son Jack reflects the relationship between Spielberg and his father, down to Jack turning against his father in the most extreme way possible – becoming a little mini-Hook. Spielberg manages to be present in both sides of the father/son dynamic.
To be fair, it’s hard to fully analyze Hook as the work of anyone, as the film’s history was troubled as hell. Spielberg had been working on a Peter Pan film since the 80s, and at one point he wanted it to be a musical with Michael Jackson in the lead. Dustin Hoffman had been cast as Captain Hook, and right before the film was to go into production, Spielberg dropped out. He had just welcomed his first son, Max, into the world and he didn’t want to be away from him.
But the project chugged along, eventually ending up with Nick Castle (yes, the guy who played Michael Myers in Halloween, and who directed films like The Last Starfighter) who worked into a movie about Peter Pan growing up, and where Captain Hook survived. Spielberg came back to the picture, Castle got kicked off (with a major payday for his trouble) and then Hook started production – where it came in 40 days over schedule, double the original budget, full of acrimony on set and as the result of multiple writers turning in pages every day for different characters.
Still, the finished product is clearly all of this chaos (visible onscreen) channeled through Spielberg’s own obsessions. I think that part of what he’s doing is rewriting the story of his own father, finding the free spirit inside the workaholic, while also trying to chart his own version of fatherhood. In many ways Peter Banning, fixated on deals, isn’t that different from Roy Neary, fixated on spaceships (although Banning is probably the kind of guy who calls Neary’s wife and fires him over the phone).
It’s the similarity that allows Hook to respond to Close Encounters. No, the film is saying, the great adventure isn’t out there, past the second star on the left and straight on til morning, it’s right here. You can take the things that delight you and make you special and share them with your family. It’s much more of a Wizard of Oz ending – there’s no place like home – and one that fully refutes the ending of Close Encounters.
More than that, the healing of the relationship between Jack and Peter might be a transitional moment in Spielberg’s own autobiography. When taken with the healing of the father/son relationship in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the addition of Henry Jones Sr was Spielberg’s idea), we see Spielberg at a personal turning point – one that would come to fruition in the 90s as he reconciled with his father. That healing brought him to Saving Private Ryan, a movie intended partially as a tribute to his own WWII vet dad, and one of the two films that fully changed how Spielberg was perceived by the public (the other being Schindler’s List, a movie that grapples with his own Judaism and allows him to make peace with his own childhood shame at being raised Orthodox Jewish).
After Hook the focus shifts for Spielberg – Alan Grant goes from hating kids to becoming a father figure for them in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm tries to be a good dad in Lost World: Jurassic Park, Frank’s relationship with his father is central in Catch Me If You Can, Tom Cruise tries to be a good dad in terrible times in War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones goes from estranged son to dad connecting with his own son in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and his Lincoln is emotionally anchored by Abe’s relationship with his own doomed child. Families are broken, but healing, in these movies, even in Catch Me If You Can.
If Close Encounters is Spielberg beginning to work through his issues with his father, Hook is Spielberg coming to a new understanding as both a man and a dad. That one film is miles better than the other is just proof that an artist exploring is always better than an artist making a statement, but while Hook is a pretty bad movie the change it allows in Spielberg’s filmography gave us some of his most nuanced and adult work. And honestly, if Hook was a part of Spielberg coming to a place where he and his dad could reconcile, or the result of the early days of that reconciliation – well, not every work of art has to be made to move me. Sometimes art moves who it has to move. And it takes up seven soundstages on the Sony lot to do it.
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