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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Sony Pictures // PG // November 13, 2007
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 10, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) doesn't exactly lead the sort of life that'd make for much of a holiday blockbuster. He's an undistinguished technician for the power utility in suburban Indiana, returning home day in, day out to an easily annoyed wife (Teri Garr) and three rowdy kids. Roy doesn't seem to mind. It's not the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, no, but it's tolerable and familiar, and all in all, he looks to be a solid guy content with his lot in life. When the sleepy town of Muncie finds itself plagued by waves of blackouts, Roy's dispatched to give some apparently obscure system the once-over. He never really gets around to it, though; hopelessly lost and wading through stacks of awkwardly folded maps, he finds himself bathed in the light of a flying saucer. After frantically chasing these vivid, candy-colored lights he sees soaring across the night sky, Roy is a changed man. He becomes obsessed with the image of some sort of...mountain, plateau, or whatever term he'd learned in 5th grade and had promptly forgotten, a jagged, rocky formation he's wholly unable to shake out of his head and starts to see in everything, from mashed potatoes to shaving cream to his bedroom pillow. Roy's family is mortified as the husband and father they know and love is consumed by this mania. They watch helplessly as he lapses into a sort of trance, carving out this cragged shape into whatever he can get his hands on and becoming further and further detached from both them and, seemingly, his sanity.

Roy's hardly the only one transformed by this sort of close encounter. There are scores of others, including Gillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother whose life is upended after these unseen creatures take an unhealthy interest in her young son Barry (Cary Guffey). Roy and Gillian are drawn to each other by this shared compulsion, gradually drawn to a desolate stretch of land out west. They may not quite understand what's driving them or what they hope to find there, but the government clearly has some idea. Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Fran├žois Truffaut) and cartographer turned interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) are part of an international team investigating a series of anachronistic anomalies brought about by these otherworldly visitors, taking a different view of the intensely driven men and women who've received these psychic invitations than the secretive, overprotective military. Not just content to suppress what evidence they have, the government belittles anyone who claims to have seen a flying saucer, masking whatever plans they're soon to execute behind corporate banners and the threat of a toxic epidemic.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a remarkable follow-up to Jaws. While Steven Spielberg parlayed the incomparable success of that film -- the movie that defined what a summer blockbuster is -- into this globetrotting effects spectacle he was writing, these two movies at their core share quite a bit in common. It's a thread seen throughout a number of Spielberg's films: an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. What has made Jaws such an enduring film isn't its iconic score or a seafaring search for a great white, no matter how skillful and legendary so many of those sequences are. No, what makes Jaws so engaging is its emphasis on characterization. For instance, we get to know Martin Brody. We get extended looks into his homelife, and Spielberg has a particular knack for incorporating that suburban mundanity into his films...subtle touches of everyday color that make everything seem so much more real and convincing. I see a lot of that in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well. It's about a man seemingly content with his thoroughly unremarkable life at home, and his relatable, convincingly drawn world is irrevocably shattered by a brief encounter with something truly exceptional. Even with Spielberg sending Laughlin and Lacombe across the globe, and despite the sensational design of the nimble, colorful alien craft, Spielberg doesn't let the visual effects overshadow the heart of the movie: his characters.

The event itself -- an encounter with something hailing from another world -- is a life-changing experience, but as a viewer, what's of the most interest in Close Encounters of the Third Kind isn't what happens so much as how its characters react. Barry is scarcely more than a toddler, not mired in the same sort of responsibilities and cynicism that come with being an adult. He reacts to these fantastic situations with an awe and childlike wonder that neither his mother nor Roy can comprehend. Barry embraces the light without question or hesitation; the adults, meanwhile, are terrified at what their subconscious is driving them to do. Roy has wholly alienated his family and friends. His children weep at the sight of him, alternating between fits of frantic screaming and just staring through teary eyes at a father they barely recognize. His life as he knows it is over, but Roy really doesn't seem to have any choice in the matter. He knows this is important. He knows this means something, and he has to see it through, if only to prove to himself that he hasn't gone mad.

Science fiction is so frequently a label devoid of any real meaning, far more often than not just a horror or action movie in disguise. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is among a select few deserving of the term, though. To me, science fiction, at its core, is about discovery, and if I had to condense Close Encounters... down to a single word, that would be the one I'd choose. Admittedly, Close Encounters... is a slow burn -- a character-driven piece with very little in the way of action, and viewers weaned on more kinetic fare may find themselves dozing off. As many times as I've seen Close Encounters... over the years, though, I continue to find myself wholly engaged, drawn in by its awe and fascination with the seek answers to questions that themselves escape its characters' grasp. In the wake of Jaws' unparalleled success, Spielberg could've seized the reins of any movie he wanted, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a daring choice for him to have made. It's a film I think quite a bit of, and it's incredibly heartening to see it lavished with such extraordinary treatment as the first of the director's films to arrive on one of these high-definition formats.

Columbia Pictures was floundering in the late '70s, and as they marched towards bankruptcy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind looked to be the buoy that could keep the studio afloat. Spielberg may have been eyeing a release date for the following summer, but he was under the gun to make a November release, and the initial theatrical cut he was rushed to complete fell short of his expectations. The film's colossal box office take gave Spielberg enough leverage to get another million and a half out of Columbia to re-edit the film and shoot a few additional scenes. There was one string attached, naturally: Columbia wanted a marketing hook to get audiences back into theaters to see Close Encounters... a second time, and they agreed to fund Spielberg's "special edition" so long as he shot a sequence set inside the mothership. It was a compromise Spielberg quickly regretted but wouldn't be able to correct until he completed his third and final edit of the film in 1998. This director's cut used the 1980 re-edit as a starting point, reinstating some scenes from the original theatrical release and dropping some of the brief moments from the special edition, most notably those unwelcome extensions to the climax.

What are some of the differences? A complete list would be somewhat daunting for a review like this, but the original theatrical release has several scenes that run a bit longer than necessary, and these have tightened up in the later cuts. The special edition replaces a lingering look at a Pinocchio figurine and a tracking shot of Roy's elaborate train set with a family squabble about Goofee Golf. Roy staring at a pillow in the general shape of Devil's Tower got the axe in the subsequent re-edits, along with Roy trying to slink his way past a soldier (played by Carl Weathers) at the army barricade in Wyoming. The theatrical release also includes a rather unnecessary setup fleshing out Roy's life-changing dispatch to investigate a blackout, some bickering at the dinner table that Roy's dejected presence abruptly halts, and the salesman shilling gas masks using a less memorable pitch. These don't appear in any of the two edits that followed.

Along with the well-intentioned extension to the climax set inside the mothership, the special edition introduces another impossible discovery -- this time in the Gobi Desert -- and further expands on the strain Roy's compulsions are having on his family. Some extensions are so brief that you could blink and miss them, such as a fleeting shot of a Big Mac billboard during the first encounter and some additional applause at Lacombe's presentation of the tones. On the other hand, this cut of the movie trims out Roy's almost frenzied rampage as he plunders his backyard and his neighbor's duck pond to build a room-devouring junk sculpture. It loses the dismissive press conference that some of the witnesses -- Roy included -- attend in the feeble hope of finding some answers. These have been reinstated into the 1998 director's cut, which is a compelling combination of the two previous versions. There are a few scattered shots here and there that I miss, but Spielberg's latest revision of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the strongest of the three.

Sony celebrates the film's thirtieth anniversary by impressively providing all three versions in high definition on this two-disc Blu-ray release, going the extra mile to ensure that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is among the flagship titles on either of these next-generation formats.

Video: All three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrive on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using AVC, Sony's preferred codec. Admittedly, the film's photography is unlikely to dazzle the way glossier, more modern effects spectacles so often do; both Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond favor ample film grain, and contrast and the presence of fine detail are both erratic, with the image noticeably degrading during its many optical effects shots and these particular anamorphic lenses occasionally leaving the edges of the frame softer than the rest. None of this is particularly unexpected, and, frankly, this is the way Close Encounters... ought to look. A more sparkling appearance wouldn't be true to the original photography.

The transfers themselves are wonderful; black levels are deep and substantial, detail and clarity may be uneven but are often striking when the camera closes in, and the palette is rich and vibrant when given the opportunity, particularly the candy-colored lights of the spacecraft and throughout the sunnier exteriors. There's no noticeable speckling or wear at any point throughout the film, and the AVC encode boasts a sufficiently healthy bitrate that the film grain never devolves into an overcompressed, blocky smear. It's also worth noting that the scenes unique to certain cuts of Close Encounters... aren't noticeably better or worse than any of the footage from the rest of the film, as consistently inconsistent as anything else.

Again, Close Encounters of the Third Kind's somewhat grainy photography and extensive use of optical effects mean it's inherently an uneven looking film, and its high-definition release on Blu-ray does not -- and should not -- approach reference quality. Considering these limitations, though, Close Encounters... looks sensational in high-def, fully living up to my expectations.

Audio: This Blu-ray release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind includes a pair of lossless 5.1 soundtracks in its native language: one in Dolby TrueHD and the other marking Sony's first outing with DTS-HD Master Audio. The film sounds even better than it looks, with John Williams' score roaring from every speaker and bolstered further by a colossal amount of bass. The low-frequency tonal communications and otherworldly hums of the spacecraft keep the subwoofer rattling, particularly the almost devastating resonance that accompanies the arrival of the mothership. The surround channels are used to strong effect as well, from the pans of ships careening across the night sky to the chaos of Gillian's kitchen being upended. My only real complaint -- and this may be unavoidable -- is that the dialogue stems sound somewhat strained. The line readings are reasonably clean and discernable, but they don't seem to be in quite the immaculate condition the soundtrack and effects are.

One other lossless soundtrack -- a French TrueHD track -- has also been included, alongside a traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in Spanish. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Thai.

Extras: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first of Steven Spielberg's films to arrive on either of these high definition formats, and this is important...this means something. Sony clearly recognizes that this is a watershed moment, judging by the exceptional release that they've assembled for the film. First of all, Close Encounters... comes packaged in a glossy, sturdy cardboard sleeve. Inside is an attractive collector's edition book approaching 70 pages in length, overflowing with candid behind-the-scenes shots snapped during production, biographies for the key cast and crew, trivia, and quotes culled from some of the other extras in this set. The handsomely designed case opens to reveal both discs -- one with the movie and another containing all of the special features. Folded in another sleeve is a poster on one side and a timeline detailing the differences between each of the three cuts of the film on the other.

The "A View from Above" comparison on one side of that poster is incorporated as a feature on the first disc, using a series of icons to note what has changed from one version to another, what is unique to a particular cut, and what has been trimmed out. In the special edition and director's cut, these icons are often accompanied by a note of precisely what had been changed from the initial theatrical release. This is a fantastic concept, making it much easier to appreciate how the shape of the film has evolved over the years.

Like the movie itself, quite a few of the set's extras are also being offered in high-def. This includes the vintage featurette "Watch the Skies" (6 min.), although its high definition resolution isn't immediately apparent from the soft, grainy 16mm photography of its on-the-set interviews and behind the scenes footage. In a considerably more recent interview, the film's director speaks at length about the movie's legacy in "Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters". This candid 22 minute interview opens by touching on the origins of the film, whose concept well predates the colossal success of Jaws that was such an agonizing experience to shoot that it made the grueling production of Close Encounters... seem like a leisurely stroll in the park by comparison. Nearly every conceivable angle is covered, if only briefly: casting, the backwards screenwriting process, how Devil's Tower was arrived at as the setting of the film's climax, the extraterrestrials' five note calling card, the three distinct cuts of the film he's shepherded over the years, and even how the finale of this film directly inspired Spielberg to make E.T. This is a fantastic featurette, and even though quite a few of these topics are covered in greater detail elsewhere in the set, it's well worth setting aside the time to watch.

Also presented in high definition are several trailers for the various editions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, along with a sprawling set of still galleries. These extensive collections of high resolution stills run the gamut: five sets of storyboard comparisons, two storyboard galleries from the finale, slides snapped during location scouting before landing on Devil's Tower, paintings and rough sketches of the mothership by Ralph McQuarrie, a massive set of sixteen different behind the scenes galleries, shots of the cast and crew during production, poster concepts, French lobby cards, trading cards, the filming of the new sequences for the special edition, and some shots capturing audiences' enormous appetite for the film in its very limited initial release.

The remaining extras have been carried over from earlier editions in standard definition. Among them are nine deleted scenes that in total approach nearly twenty minutes in length. They include Roy getting some indecipherable directions at a powered-down Dairy Queen, a scene at O'Hare showing that the feds have as firm a control of the sky over Devil's Tower as they do over the ground below, Laughlin translating pages from a trashy romance novel (?!), Roy being bombarded with questions about his unevenly burned face at a barbeque, and the police struggling with how to fill out a report after the first encounter. This footage was deservedly gutted -- all of these additional scenes are inessential, and the worst of them are flat-out tedious, particularly the borderline-unwatchable "Roy on the Job". Their inclusion in the set is still appreciated, though.

Saving the best for last, this two-disc set also includes "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind". Helmed by Laurent Bouzereau, himself no stranger to feature-length retrospectives of Spielberg's films, this documentary clocks in at an impressive 101 minutes in length. As you would correctly assume from its runtime, "The Making of Close Encounters..." is remarkably comprehensive, interviewing nearly every surviving key member of the cast and crew, from Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss all the way down to composer John Williams, special effects director Doug Trumbull, and a now very adult Cary Guffey. I don't want to spoil everything that's discussed, but some of the highlights include Spielberg's notes about the very different protagonists he was initially toying with, Steve McQueen and a parade of other actors turning down the lead role, Melinda Dillon becoming intrigued by reading the script backwards, extensive discussion about the immensely likeable Truffaut's encyclopediac knowledge of film and fascination with the process from this alternate perspective, tracking down just the right five note combination from more than a hundred thousand possibilities, Close Encounters... marking the first ever computer graphics test for a film, the clever ways Spielberg would coax the perfect reaction out of "One Take Cary", mimes and a dolled-up orangutan being considered for the aliens in the finale, and some of the movie's most memorable moments not even being scripted until after the initial production. "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a phenomenal documentary and essential viewing for anyone buying or renting this set.

Conclusion: It's a watershed moment for these high definition formats that one of Steven Spielberg's most colossal, enduring successes has arrived on Blu-ray, and Sony has spared no effort in ensuring that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would stand out as one of the most compelling releases on the format. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that means a lot to me, continuing to stir some of the same awe and wonder in me despite having seen it time and again for decades, and I'm thrilled to see it arrive on Blu-ray in an immaculate package that matches its timeless charm. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is among very, very few releases on either next-generation format that I'd point to as essential. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.

The images scattered around this review have been culled from an earlier DVD release and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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