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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The earth has gone around the sun 30 times since Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out, and the picture still holds up as superior humanist science fiction, with something for everyone. Steven Spielberg's talent really bloomed on his first self-generated feature. He allowed free reign to his childhood interest in all things wondrous, re-inventing the flying saucer movie not as an invasion, but as a visitation by enlightened beings. If movies about people from space are really about us, Spielberg's aliens reflect the benign spirit of Man at his best.
I reviewed the Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Collector's Edition disc back in 2001 and will let that review stand as my general take on the film, the better to concentrate here on the format and extras for this new 30th Ultimate Edition. What do we get, and is it worth it? The old disc presented Spielberg's third and to date final Director's Cut of the film, placing eleven deleted scenes on a second disc as an extra. This new 3-Disc set presents all three Close Encounters versions (1977, 1980, 1997) separately, allowing us to choose a preferred cut. It's a little more complicated than just choosing whether or not to see inside the giant alien mothership.
In his interviews Steven Spielberg says he was forced to finish Close Encounters in a rush, and that the 1980 Special Edition with its expensive re-shoots was his chance to 'fix' the film. I remember that CE3K was originally to come out much earlier but was pushed back several times to allow the special effects to be finished. The big compromise for the Special Edition was the scene of the Mothership interior. The feedback from focus groups held by Columbia marketers indicated that many people were curious about where Roy Neary goes when he enters the giant alien black box, and unwisely decided that the issue needed addressing in the re-do. Spielberg knew that whatever he might show would be a disappointment and spoil the film's mystery. As the film stood, viewers could relate Neary's next step to their individual imaginations: Neary finds a 2001 monolith, Neary goes to heaven, Neary gets to learn all of Wak Wak's "secrets of the universe". So the Special Edition only honors the letter of the request, taking Neary about twenty feet further into the ship and putting on a glittery light show.
Hollywood always thought of Science Fiction in terms of hardware. The tendency toward literal thinking is a familiar result whenever abstract ideas hit the committee rooms. Disney's dum-dum The Black Hole fiasco fizzles when the amazing dimension beyond the title vortex turns out to be an image from a Sunday school rendering of Hell. Three years later Brainstorm fell into the exact same trap when it pictured the Great Beyond as a Christian greeting-card vision of Heavenly Angels. The Special Edition cuts from Richard Dreyfuss being showered with Tinkerbell dust in the mothership interior, to a new-type alien emerging from the ship and communicating with François Truffaut. I always thought that the shot order inadvertently implied that the alien is Neary, and that the pixie dust had transformed him! 1
The 1977 Original Theatrical Versiondiffers in more important ways. Roy Neary clearly screws up at work, going AWOL and proving himself undeserving of the trust put in him by his superiors. In the later versions Spielberg abridged several early Neary scenes, substituting the effective 'shower breakdown' moment. Neary's firing from the power company doesn't seem as justified. After screenings in 1977 I remember complaints that Neary's arts 'n' crafts madness, throwing things in his window and chasing geese around the neighborhood (fluttering birds = madness) was too long. Spielberg must have thought so too because he cut most of it. All three versions work, but on this score only the original fully addresses the tension between Neary the helpless victim of alien brainwashing, and Neary the irresponsible dope. When Neary goes on his cross-country quest, he's already been reduced to a total loser in the grip of an infantile obsession -- an insecurity that science-fiction addicts surely identify with.
Spielberg re-shot a number of small effects moments, making previously subtle hints grindingly obvious. Before we get a good look at the flying saucers, the first version showed a single star shadowing Neary's truck. In the revision, the star is replaced by the unmistakable giant shadow of a large flying saucer, again literalizing what Neary's up against and undercutting suspense. One gets the feeling that Spielberg was tailoring The Special Edition to audiences that had already seen the first version. The other changes are all details, like cute dialogue line from the hillbilly-ish Roberts Blossom. The only one I really miss is the bit where Carl Weathers advises Neary, "We got orders to shoot looters, Smith." It's important to establish that Neary is going out on a limb when he ignores the mass evacuation.
Of the other new material, the really successful scene is the discovery of the Cotopaxi ship found aground but intact in the middle of the Gobi Desert. It's the mystery that kicks Monsieur Lacombe's investigation into high gear, the kind of jaw-dropper that would convince the Washington bean counters to approve the massing funding for Lacombe's Devil's Tower base camp. But we can see that in the space between the first release and the Special Edition Spielberg's directing taste has already altered. The Cotopaxi sequence begins with a bunch of unnecessarily hyped action shots. Large vehicles vault over sand dunes Rat Patrol-style, and helicopters inexplicably hug the ground and follow the trucks. This comic-book sensibility is way out of line with the rest of the film.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a wonder movie that projects an undiminished enthusiasm for the unknown. Spielberg's affinity for intimate storytelling is even stronger. We care about the emotional wellbeing of the characters, and the scenes with little Cary Guffey display some of the best direction of children ever. The Ooh-Aah combo of inspirational music and dynamic camera trucks into faces filled with wonder are perfectly judged, even if Spielberg would grossly over-use the device later on. The movie's optimism is infectious: even the technology works. During the last act's big flying saucer rodeo Lacombe's hundreds of recording instruments function without a hitch, marshaling the positive energy of a motivated team of experts. The Mayflower base camp works like Spielberg's idea of a perfect movie set. Two years later on 1941, he surely wondered where the magic went.
The Close Encounters of the Third Kind 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition is an impressive disc set. A heavy card box unfolds to reveal a three-disc holder and a fat booklet resembling an old-fashioned souvenir program containing photos of the filming and quotes from Spielberg and others. The movies are on separate discs. Each has been mastered from HD and encoded with clean enhanced transfers. The Original Version is a thing of beauty with accurate color values and good detail: I wish that George Lucas would treat his Star Wars originals with equal respect. Each disc has closed captioning and subs in seven languages. Tracks are in Dolby Digital in English, French and Spanish; and in English in DTS. 2
A long 1997 making of docu by Laurent Bouzereau is divided in three parts and spread out between the discs. It's still the last word on the film, with great interview input from Spielberg, Bob Balaban, Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey, Douglas Trumbull, cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond, designer Joe Alves, composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn, special effects animator Robert Swarthe, model maker Greg Jein, designer Ralph McQuarrie and mothership cameraman Dennis Muren. Dreyfuss considers the film to be an upgrade of the science fiction genre, while the creative Joe Alves remembers discovering Wyoming's Devil's Tower as the perfect alien landing site. The long section on special effects shows Trumbull's associates coming up with one clever effects solution after another, while complimenting physical effects man Roy Arbogast's terrific on-set work. Original concepts not used in the film are shown in George Jenson's storyboards, while unused footage illustrates several R&D approaches to the aliens that simply didn't work.
On the reverse side of a folded poster reproduction is a smartly designed and helpful chart to the basic differences between the three Close Encounters versions, that will help the uninitiated figure out which one they want to see. Also included are a trailer, a 1977 promotional featurette and a promo for this new boxed set.
Spielberg returns with more perspective and analysis in a new interview featurette. He explains that Close Encounters no longer reflects his personal philosophy; facing darker aspects of the world while raising a family tends to dampen one's idealism. The movie remains an ambitious, audacious and worthwhile epic -- how many science fiction films make us feel this good?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition rates:
Supplements: 1997 feature length docu, 2007 Spielberg interview featurette, 1977 promo, trailer, souvenir booklet, small poster.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 8, 2007
1. The Twilight Zone joke going around Sci-Fi and horror chat boards has Bob Balaban's interpreter character suddenly figure out what the lyrics are to the alien's five-note musical greeting: "THREE - FIF - TY - DEE - GREES!"
2. I took the liberty of watching the interrogation scene with the French track this time. Clever dubbing turns some of the repetition of statements into new phrases, but Bob Balaban's interpreter works overtime relaying statements between the Lacombe and Neary, translating French into French!
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