When Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out in 1977, a young Steven Spielberg was coming off of the unexpectedly phenomenal success of Jaws. This was the director’s chance to solidify his career as a well-respected filmmaker, and build a lifelong career. While most directors would have either gone the route of making Jaws II or picking up a no-brainer script from a proven scriptwriter, Spielberg wagered his success on the odd tale of a possibly mentally deranged individual’s belief in extra-terrestrial life. What he came away with was a film that won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, was nominated for four Golden Globes (including Best Picture and Best Director), and has become synonymous with the legacy of the famed director.
Normally I would take this opportunity to go over the basic plot of the film, but this is a classic. Most film buffs are already well versed in the plot of this film, and those who are not should be ashamed of themselves. The real story here is not the fact that this film has been released yet again. The story is the manner in which it has been released. In addition to Spielberg’s original version of the film, he also re-cut the film into a Special Edition in 1980. In 1998, the film was re-cut yet again, in a version that the Director considers to be his definitive cut. All three versions are included on this three-disc set, so there is plenty here to warrant a purchase for any Close Encounters fan. All versions have been completely remastered, and the set is packaged in a box that reminds one of the excellent packaging of The Soprano’s sets.
As much as I enjoy this film, I always found the picture quality to be a bit dull and faded, even when it was originally released. The results of the remastering process are immediately evident, but the picture quality is still not as sharp and vibrant as I was hoping it would be. This set was also released on Blu Ray, so I can’t help but wonder if some corners may have been cut on making the standard DVD release look stellar, to drive people toward the purchasing the High Definition option. This is definitely as good as I have ever seen this film look, but it’s just not the jaw-dropping transfer I was hoping for. Blacks are not as deep as they should be, which is a shame, considering the fact that the vast majority of this film takes place at night. Details and colors on the spacecraft are clearer than I have ever seen them before, but I would anticipate that they would be truly breathtaking on the Blu Ray release.
This is the first time I have noticed how little audio there is in the majority of this film. Only Spielberg would have the guts to hire John Williams, who had just won an Academy Award on Jaws, and then shoot a film that is full of quiet scenes with little or no score. Ironically, Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for this film as well. The scenes that are light on music (such as the famous railroad crossing scene) are even more tense and realistic when presented in this “documentary style”.
The audio that is here, however, is powerful. The most noteworthy feature in my mind has to be the rich bass tones that are emitted from the spacecraft. This newly remastered audio track transforms these scenes, and really gives a sense of power and tension to these scenes that did not exist in previous releases. Surrounds are also used with great effect, as they only speak up when there is something to present, such as a helicopter flying overhead. All told, this is a first rate audio restoration.
There aren’t exactly tons of special features here for a three-disc set, but what is included is absolutely fantastic. Each version of the movie is given its own disc, and the special features are spread out as well. In 2001, a 100-minute documentary called The Making of Close Encounters was shot for the film’s original DVD release. It is presented here, split across the three discs. I really like this decision, instead of putting the documentary on a fourth disc. Not only will it keep the set’s cost a little lower for the consumer, but it also allows viewers to have a break between watching each of the three versions of the film. It is a great documentary, and it should be required viewing for serious film buffs.
Also on disc three is an all-new documentary segment called Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters that was produced specifically for this release. There is not a ton of new information here, but it is a well-made piece that is a perfect companion to this set. Finishing up the digital extras are a set of trailers and a six-minute short that is essentially an early electronic press kit.
As for the not-on-disc variety of extras, this collection also includes a 64-page book of facts and production photographs that I had a great deal of fun flipping through. Finally, they have also included a very cool small reproduction of the film’s original theatrical poster. The back of the poster is printed with a timeline for each version of the film, to allow viewers to see exactly what changed with each edit. For me, this was a brilliant move that is very much appreciated. On multi-version films (such as the Alien reissues), I often find myself distracted by trying to figure out the differences in each version, instead of just enjoying the various edits for what they are. This simple poster eliminates that problem, and allows me to just sit back and take in each cut on its own merit. Good stuff all around.
Spielberg or Close Encounters fans should feel no shame in picking up this film yet again. All three cuts of the movie, the feature-length documentary, remastered trailers, a book and that all-important poster make this set a real bargain at most retailers. I might recommend that viewers pick up the Blu Ray version for the superior video quality instead, but that aside, this is a fantastic set that I am proud to have in my collection.