Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition Review

The Film


One night average family-man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) experiences a close encounter which gradually leaves him estranged from his wife and children, consumed by the images that he sees in everyday objects and drawn to something he cannot quite get a grip on. Roy’s quest will eventually lead him into the midst of an international scientific investigation into life beyond our own planet…

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an interesting experience, one that falls in the realm of exploring the possibility of alien contact and the form in which it might take place, a film that delves into the effect this has on the people touched by the experience as opposed to a slice of sci-fi entertainment involving conspiracy theories and thrilling action sequences. With its two-hour plus running time and the meandering pace at which the narrative unfolds there is plenty of opportunity to lose interest along the way, and certainly now post The X Files and any number of sci-fi series and films the concept of shared experiences, power outages and lights in the sky do not provoke the kind of response I am sure they once did, but the direction Spielberg takes, a more philosophical musing as we witness these characters who are both enthralled and confused by what they’ve seen, but always compelled to strive for something they can’t quite put a finger on makes for a very different but heightened cinematic experience.

The convergence of the seemingly independent yet government approved research storyline and that of the Dreyfuss plot are where the film becomes a true adventure, and one that culminates in an often beautiful sequence that all the tricked out flying spaceships in the world couldn’t ruin. Released in cinemas today I could certainly imagine the younger teen crowd pointing and laughing at the use of sound to communicate, but once again the investigative and probing direction taken here is unexpected but thoroughly intriguing, while the sequence of events, the realisation of what those men and women in the orange jumpsuits we saw earlier are there for, and the open ended conclusion make Close Encounters of the Third Kind what it is, a piece of “what if” cinema that should resonate in anyone with a love for the unknown and the possibilities therein.

The Blu-ray Disc


The first Steven Spielberg film to arrive on a high definition format, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition also marks the first time the original 1977 theatrical cut has been released on a home video format. A two-disc set coded for all regions (A, B and C), disc one contains all three cuts of the film using seamless branching which I’ll discuss below…

--Please note there are spoilers in the text outlining the different cuts, and also some spoilers in the Storyboard Galleries paragraph in the Extras section--

1977 Theatrical Cut (135mins) – The original theatrical cut.

1980 Special Edition (132mins) – Spielberg shot some new material and re-edited the film for a second theatrical release and the first home video release, and subsequently the Special Edition was the only version available on home video formats until 1998.

The SE makes some strange cuts which early on removes any logical reason for why Roy is lost when he experiences his first close encounter, while just prior to that there is a greater emphasis on establishing the family unit through the inclusion of a previously deleted scene. Other additional footage at this point in the film is a rather poor looking shot where we see a shadow of one of the spacecraft following Roy (this actually replaces a lovely “keep watching the skies” moment in the original, breaking the theme of doing just that in the first quarter of the movie), while there are many minor trims which have a lesser impact.

The first of the newly shot material appears shortly after via a brief scene which shows the discovery of a lost ship (the “Cotopaxi”) in the Gobi desert and is both redundant (basically telling us the same thing as the earlier WWII plane scene does) but fairly welcome as it provides some additional balance between the two storylines.

Moving back to the Roy and Jillian storyline, the effect of their close encounters and the subsequent erosion of their home lives is markedly different in the Special Edition, with Jillian never seen to be shamed in the media after the abduction of her son. In fact, none of the sequences involving the press are included here while the departure of Roy’s wife and kids is startlingly different, injecting a more savagely emotional element to the night before through a rather uncomfortable breakdown scene, only to almost excise completely his little breakthrough/breakdown the morning after which in the theatrical version is what prompts his wife to take the kids and leave. While I prefer the theatrical version’s approach, both in these sequences and an earlier one at the dinner table (which shows a far more gentle and caring attitude between father and son than the SE) the SE does at the very least give the impression of a total breakdown in the relationship, making Roy’s quick decision to leave with the aliens at the end more understandable.

Beyond this point not much is altered, just a few trims until the finale where the fascination to look into the unknown is broken down as we see inside the spaceship in a sequence that feels indulgent and unnecessary, completely spoiling the wonderment of the theatrical version.

1998 Director’s Cut (137mins) – First released in 1998 Spielberg went back and not only removed the scene showing inside the motheship (a sequence we learn was born out of studio pressure, and never one Spielberg wanted to shoot, let alone show the audience) but he also re-edited the film again to arrive at his final approved Director’s Cut version.

Watching it, the Director’s Cut is basically an amalgamation of the Theatrical and Special Edition versions, with nearly all of the choices made for the better. The one scene which is completely different across all three versions is the introduction to the Neary family, which here is more in keeping with what we saw in the Special Edition, but still a different take. The scene showing Roy going into work before setting out for his first close encounter is still lost, while the shadow of a spaceship passing over Roy’s truck and the Gobi desert sequence are also held over from the Special Edition. The Director’s Cut also maintains all of the minor trims found in Special Edition, but re-inserts the scene involving the press after Barry’s abduction. The two sides of Roy’s breakdown from the Theatrical and Special Edition are this time both included, and although I’m still not entirely fond of the shower scene pairing it with the morning-after gardening sequence does go a long way toward fully removing him from the family unit previously established, showing just how consumed he has become.

Lastly of course, the trip inside the mothership from the Special Edition is removed.

At the end of the day the choice is yours, but if you want my opinion stick with the Theatrical Cut. Both the Special Edition and the Director’s Cut really do feel unnecessary, though of the two the Director’s Cut is by far the superior version.

The Package


One of the more elegant packages I’ve seen recently, this Blu-ray Disc set is housed in a sturdy cardboard slipcase with a glossy finish and great choice of artwork. This theme continues inside where you’ll find a gatefold package which holds the two discs and a fold-out feature comparison chart which compliments the “A View From Above” extra found on Disc 1, showcasing the various changes between each cut with images, text and a handy timeline chart. It’s quite a treat for Blu-ray owners and doubles up as a film poster if you turn it over (which in size terms is roughly A3). Also inside the slipcase is a 60-70 page glossy booklet which is predominantly made up of behind-the-scenes photographs and the occasional quote by Spielberg (lifted straight out of the making-of documentary), but you’ll also find biographies on the key cast and crew. Largely superficial in terms of written content (the imdb is quoted as the main source), the photos and overall presentation make this a welcome inclusion.

One flaw in an otherwise lovely package then, is the disc holders, which instead of the standard circular shape and holding mechanism, have a design which is no doubt intended to continue the Close Encounters theme, and while the shape of the plastic and the mechanism design have a unique look I did find them to be generally terrible for taking the discs in and out. This also counts as my first high definition release where one of the discs was loose upon opening it up…coincidence?

The Presentation


Being that this is the first time I’ve ever seen the film I feel quite privileged to have watched it on Blu-ray, as the transfer and the restoration job are both excellent with it quite often looking like a film shot far more recently. In terms of the restoration quality, I’d simply point you in the direction of other Spielberg fare such as Indiana Jones, while the transfer does it a great justice with oodles of detail and superb colour depth. In stark contrast with any modern film the only time when the picture is not quite up to standard are in some of the effects shots, where the matting and other work going on often softens the picture. Combined with consistently heavy grain there are very few instances where this is jarring, while some other sequences do show reduced shadow detail, but when every other aspect of the presentation impresses for a film of this age I doubt many will find much to quibble over.

Offering a choice of English Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround mixes this viewer opted for the latter, but only because I’m restricted to the legacy or “core” Dolby Digital (448kbps) and DTS (1.5mbps) tracks on my system. The latter provides an engaging sound mix, one that features good separation across the front soundstage with the rears used effectively (and most notably in the sequences involving the spacecraft) and always creating a real sense of spatial awareness. Dialogue is always clear while John Williams score is projected well though can sometimes be a little overbearing (probably more a complaint with the score as opposed to the mix though).

Subtitles (Main Feature): English, English HOH, Dutch, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovene, Swedish, Turkish.

The Extras


A View From Above (available in English or Dutch) – The only extra on the first disc is also a Blu-ray exclusive. Described as an “Editor’s Fact Track” on the packaging, what you actually get is a feature which highlights the differences between each version of the film via a series of icons which pop up as you are watching your chosen cut. They are usually accompanied by a small piece of text which further explains the edits made, which I personally found very useful and as long as you expect nothing more, then I’m sure everyone will find this to be a useful reference point.

Disc 2 holds the bulk of the extra content…

Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters (21:22mins, HD) – A new retrospective interview, Spielberg is a good talker and touches on a variety of topics and speaks fondly about the film. He also talks about the Special Edition and the Director’s Cut though beyond this there really is nothing here which the making of documentary doesn’t cover in greater detail, though you do get a good selection of production photographs which are displayed in 1080P.

Making of Documentary (101:48mins, SD) – Part of the special features for the original Collector’s Edition DVD release, this is an exhaustive yet never tiring documentary put together by Laurent Bouzereau. Covering the film from inception through to casting, pre-production, production, post and special effects, music and finally the Special Edition release, the narrative is driven by recent (at the time) interviews from everyone involved (with a huge contribution in particular from Spielberg). The combination of stories from the set, the genesis of ideas and a retrospective look at the production from everyone involved makes for an entertaining watch and one that presents a wealth of information in an easy to digest fashion. Highlights include the inventive manner in which the effects team achieved the results you see on film, Spielberg on the casting process, Dreyfuss on doing what it took in order to get cast, and learning where you can see R2-D2 in the film. The only aspects I found myself questioning were the contributions of Cary Guffey, who played the young boy Barry in the film. Aged just 3years old when he was cast, his recollection not only of the shoot but in particular of his feelings during certain aspects of the shoot never quite sit right. Generally I simply find it hard to believe he remembers it all that well, and the stories he’s telling seem more like rehearsed tales he’s developed over the years from what he does remember and what others have told him. Of course I never worked on a film with Spielberg at the age of three so maybe he does have a great memory of that time, but for me what is presented as fact seems to be a little closer to fiction…albeit a fiction very close to the truth.

1977 Featurette “Watch the Skies” (HD, 5:54mins) – This old fashioned behind-the-scenes featurette is led by a commanding voice-over and made up of footage from the production, film clips and production photographs. I was pleasantly surprised to find this presented in 1080P.

Deleted Scenes – There are nine excised scenes, all presented in SD non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and all largely unnecessary with the main theme being that of fleshing out the characters and their backgrounds. Particularly annoying is the lack of a Play All option, meaning you have to select each one individually.

Storyboard Comparisons – New to this set (and exclusive to the Blu-ray release), there are five sequences – Roy’s First Encounter (4:52), Crescendo Summit 1 (2:16), Crescendo Summit 2 (3:13), Barry’s Kidnapping (5:52) and Landing Site (6:23) – which compare the finished film to the original storyboards. Presented in HD with the storyboards filling up the whole screen and the film running in a window at the bottom, these not only look great in HD but it’s often quite fascinating to see the work that has gone into the boarding of this film, with numerous notes accompanying the artwork on camera moves and visual direction.

Storyboard Galleries – Two galleries, End Sequence 1 and End Sequence 2, cover the film’s final act with the former consisting of storyboards (again complete with notes outlining camera angles, tracking shots and stage direction) while the latter features the colour paintings that were created to help visualise the colour palette and use of lighting during the final act. Both are presented in HD, so the images look superb (particularly the colour paintings) while you can also see some of the abandoned concepts which are discussed in the documentary through both sets of images. These include the cuboid probes and how the lights on the alien ships form imagery familiar to humans (although this goes beyond the MacDonalds sign, with plenty of happy face alien ships), while there is also evidence of an anti-gravity field the mothership creates when it lands (which although not directly referenced in the documentary, it is covered as an option explored for when Roy enters the ship).

Photo Galleries – Presented in HD the images in these galleries look fantastic, and are plentiful in number, with 16 separate galleries dedicated to “Behind the Scenes”, 5 galleries to the “Production Team”, 8 different subjects in the “Portrait Gallery”, 4 sections for “Marketing: The Original Release” which include poster concepts, opening day pictures and trading cards, and finally 2 sections on the “Special Edition” which include some behind-the-scenes shots from the additional material Spielberg shot and some lobby cards. Easy to navigate and with a choice which suggests quality over quantity (there are easily 100 images, but not much over that number) my only gripe is how there is no “View All” option, particularly when some of the galleries in each section literally have between one and three images in them.

Original Trailers – Also presented in HD, the trailer for the Original Version (6:01) is pretty much just the “Watch the Skies” featurette edited differently and with some additional footage from the film, while the Special Edition (1:57) trailer is more traditional, with a focus on the new footage which Columbia were using as their marketing hook. Finally there is a trailer for this Ultimate Edition (1:34) DVD/Blu-ray Disc release which has the added bonus of DD5.1 audio.

Subtitles (Extra Features): English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese (Brazil), Portuguese (Portuguese), Korean, Thai.

Overall


Watching three not-all-that different versions of Close Encounters over the past week has proven to be a mixed experience, with the first encounter quite a fascinating and cerebral affair, the second encounter somewhat disorientating and lacking the charm of the first, and the third encounter a return to form but one where the leisurely pacing started to grind and prompted a skip-to-the-end urge. Spielberg’s film is one that he got pretty much spot on the first time around, and because it offers a very different cinematic journey in comparison to more traditional sci-fi fare it’s one that is best viewed occasionally.

That said however, you really can’t fault this Blu-ray Disc release from Sony who have shown once again they are now at the top of their game when it comes to film encoding while the overall package and fine selection of extras make this an easy recommendation.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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