December 27th, 1977. It was my ninth birthday, and I was about to become a pariah on the playground. How, you may ask? Simple: after seeing Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my friend Eric, I proclaimed that I liked the movie more than another sci-fi epic from 1977: Star Wars. Not the most controversial of statements, but for a nine-year old boy in 1977 to say such “incendiary” things to his fellow fourth graders, well, this was akin to blasphemy. But that is how I felt then, and three decades later, it is a statement that I still stand by proudly. There may have been more fun and adventure to be had in Lucas” iconic epic, which I love immensely, but it was Spielberg’s mesmerizing follow up to his 1975 masterstroke Jaws that was the one that made the most impact on me.
Close Encounters is the story an Indiana electrical worker named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who is among scores of other everyday folks around the world who have a close encounter of the first kind: the sighting of a UFO. Following his encounter, Roy repeatedly sees strange, mountain-like formations. These images continue to haunt him, creating an obsession that eventually tears his family life apart. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, a team comprised of government agents and scientists, including French scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) are traveling around discovering physical evidence (close encounter number two) of the aliens” arrival on Earth.
Along with a single mother named Gillian (Melinda Dillon), whose young son has been kidnapped by the extraterrestrials, Roy follows his obsessive visions to a remote part of the United States, where he, Gillian and the globe-trotting team of scientists and agents will all convene to experience a close encounter of the third kind: contact with the alien visitors.
Prior to 1977, if you made a film dealing with aliens from outer space visiting Earth, chances are that it was one similar in style to War of the Worlds: the extraterrestrials were pure evil, and they were here not to visit their neighbors, but were here to wipe us out. A notable exception, of course, is the 1956 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Close Encounters is the movie that changed all that. Spielberg’s extraterrestrial epic isn’t a bombastic and simplistic B-movie sci-fi action flick. It is an intelligent, idealistic tale of wonderment and discovery, written (by the director) and directed with a sense of wide-eyed, childlike wonder and mystery. The story is populated with emphatic characters, brought to life by a terrific cast, and filled with believable situations, all culminating in a magnificent 35-minute conclusion that is a symphony of sight, sound and emotion. That emotional and uplifting impact only seems to grow stronger as time goes on.
A film whose impact remains intact no matter how many times its director tinkers with it. Long before George Lucas began to piss off the fanboys with his edits the original Star Wars trilogy, Steven Spielberg was changing around his 1977 sci-fi epic not once, but twice. I thought the original 1977 cut was just fine the way it was, but Spielberg didn’t. Two and a half years later, Spielberg released a Special Edition of the film that dropped certain scenes and added new ones, including an awkward and absolutely unnecessary sequence that takes place inside the alien mother ship. Smacking of corporate greed, this cut is the one I all but refuse to watch. Fortunately, Spielberg still wasn’t satisfied with the film, and for the 20th Anniversary of the movie, the director and editor Michael Kahn took another editorial pass at the film. The crappy “inside the mothership” sequence from the 1980 cut was dropped and a few scenes from the original cut were put back in, making the “97 cut the best of the bunch.
Each version has its fans and critics, but all three versions have never been available on the market all at once. And the ones that have been out have been less than ideal. Well, the long quest for a great home viewing experience of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has finally come to an end. Sony Home Entertainment has released a 30th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of the film on Blu-ray, and the results are nothing short of terrific.
Disc one of the two-disc set contains all three cuts of the film, accessible via seamless branching. Given the movie’s age, the print used is in great shape as the transfer apparently was supervised by Spielberg. The 1080p/AVC/MPEG-4 encode does a terrific job replicating Vilmos Zsigmond’s Oscar-winning cinematography. Colors and black levels are pretty solid, and the amount of picture detail present on this edition is excellent. You may notice varying levels of film grain and times when parts of the frame are slightly out of focus. Don’t freak out: these are not authoring issues. The grain is the result of the film stock and the slight blurriness on the outer frames the result of the anamorphic lenses on the cameras.
On the audio front, Sony has given the viewer several lossless audio choices: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks in English, French and Spanish as well as a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. For this review, I only compared the two English tracks. I don’t have the proper equipment to decode DTS-HD properly, but the 1.5mbps DTS core audio that comes across the speakers is mighty satisfying. Sound effects and music are conveyed with great clarity, while the LFE channel comes to vibrant life when required. In comparison to the TrueHD track, which is also impressive, the overall sound is a bit lower on the DTS track but the DTS has a more spacious feel to it. The only real area where the audio is a bit on the underwhelming side is in the center-channel for the dialogue, and that is strictly due to the limitations of the 1970s recording equipment.
Disc two houses the supplemental material, and is a mix of old extras previously seen on the 2-Disc DVD edition from 2001 and 1998 Laserdisc set, and new, all amounting to a package that certainly lives up to the Ultimate Edition moniker branded to this anniversary release.
Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters is a 22-minute recollection by the filmmaker about the film’s production and legacy. Spielberg talks about the inspiration for the film, production origins, the producers initial thoughts about the film’s title, casting, and the various versions of the film over the past three decades. The director also mentions that he still considers the film a work in progress”but vows that there will not be a fourth version of Close Encounters forthcoming, to which I say”Thank God.
A lot of the topics covered in the 30 Years of” documentary were examined at greater length in the 1997 feature-length documentary The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Running 102 minutes and filmed on the set of Saving Private Ryan, this documentary features interviews with Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull among others, all offering recollections about the efforts that went into making the film. Deleted scenes and a fair amount of behind the scenes photos are also included. This is a comprehensive documentary that is essential viewing for CE fans. The documentary is presented in a fairly decent 4×3 full screen and 480p standard definition video.
There are two things included on this edition that you would normally not find on either a Sony Blu-ray release or any sort of DVD release for a Spielberg film these days: deleted scenes and theatrical trailers. The collection of nine Deleted Scenes, not used in any version of the film, are presented in 4×3 widescreen and 480p standard-definition. The scenes are in fairly rough condition and, for the most part, were cut for good reason. Some run no more than 30 seconds, while others go on for about five minutes. They’re interesting to watch, but overall their inclusion would have wrecked the pacing of the movie.
The three Trailers, one for each edition of the film, are presented in 1080p and are in very good shape. We get the 1977 trailer that ran a whopping six minutes, combining film footage as well as interviews with Spielberg, Dreyfuss and others. The 1980 Special Edition trailer runs about two minutes, focusing mostly on the addition of the scenes inside the mother ship, while the final trailer is one created for this new anniversary edition. More like a commercial than an actual theatrical trailer, this one is in the best shape. Also included, I assume just for the sake of completion, is the five minute feature Watch the Skies. A short from 1977, this mini-doc mainly covers the same material found in the original theatrical trailer.
An exhaustive collection of Production and Marketing Photos, Concept Drawings and Storyboard to Scene Comparisons can be found under the Explorations section. There is so much to go through here that you may need to devote an entire afternoon to it. Heck, even the film’s trading cards, which include ones packaged with loaves of Wonder Bread, are included here in their entirety.
Sony has even seen fit to include one Blu-ray exclusive to this release: a pop-up trivia feature entitled A View From Above. When activated, a bit of text trivia will appear on screen that informs you about a particular edit to the scene in the edition you are currently watching. Nice little bit of interactive fun, although I wish there were more bits of production trivia included here.
Not enough for you? Well, Sony has also included a very nice Collector’s Book filled with production photos and notes, as well as a 2-sided Mini-Poster. One side of the poster has a reproduction of the original movie poster and the other is a companion poster to the “View From Above” text feature on disc one.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterpiece of American cinema. The sense of wonder, imagination and impressive levels of filmmaking brilliance that wowed audiences worldwide back in 1977 hasn’t faded a bit. I am really, really happy that Spielberg chose this film for his first foray into the next-generation DVD formats. Sony has really delivered one hell of a special edition with this Blu-ray set, one that should make for essential, if not required, ownership for each and every person that owns a Blu-ray Disc player.
– Shawn Fitzgerald