The new Blu-ray presentations--crafted with input from Spielberg himself--make the film look better than it ever has.

James Plath's picture

These days, movies have so many incarnations--uncut versions, extended cuts, director's cuts, unrated versions, colorized versions, computer-enhanced versions--that you almost long for the good old days when there was just one film to buy for your home theater. I mean television.

Of course, it's the combination of a lucrative home video market and a rapidly progressing technology that allows filmmakers to tweak and tinker with their films which has spawned this multiplex syndrome for single titles. But it can get confusing for the consumer and serious collector.

With "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the good Blu-ray news is that all THREE (currently available) versions are included in one package: the 135-minute theatrical release, the 132-minute Special Edition, and a 137-minute "Director's Cut."

But wait a minute, you're thinking. Spielberg himself played around with the theatrical version in order to create that second "definitive" print. Wouldn't that make it the Director's Cut? Well, it turns out that even chronic tweakers and tinkerers are realizing you can mess with a film too much. On the printed materials that accompany this handsome set, Spielberg admits that "when I had the chance to combine the two versions [theatrical and SE] to the penultimate version, the first thing I did was I excised Richard inside the ship. Because I really, really felt that the inside of the mother ship was the exclusive property of the imagination of the audiences everywhere, that I should never have gone, gone there."

So there you have it. We can now add the Penultimate Version of Spielberg's classic film to our collections. And this one includes all of the good things from both previous versions while removing things that have apparently been keeping Spielberg from getting a good night's sleep all these years--30, count 'em. As the fine print tells us on a full-color, small poster-sized "View From Above: Feature Comparison," "unless otherwise noted, the Director's Cut (i.e., Penultimate Version) retains all of the additions made to the Special Edition, while restoring some elements from the Original Theatrical Version." Confused yet?

Just consult the chart. It gives you three time-lines that span the movie's length, with pull-out information bars that show where shots were inserted, re-sequenced, re-inserted, and/or what was old footage versus new footage shot after the fact. Sometimes the differences are slight, as when we're told "in the Original Version, the camera lingers on Lacombe longer as Roy enters the mothership." Other times, there's a tonal change, as when we're told "Ronnie tearfully packs the kids into the station wagon, nearly running over Roy as she abandons her home to leave Roy alone with his obsessions. The Original Version of the scene contained a comedic coda: the clashing of dishes and debris being heard as Roy disappears back into his house through the kitchen window which served as his "loading bay" in the construction of his tower."

Still confused? No matter. My guess is that people are going to pick one version to watch over and over again, and these others will just be sitting on the 50GB disc like a new "Da Vinci Code" or "National Treasure" waiting for someone to crack. It's there for film students and scholars to compare, or for those whose own coda is to watch only those films they first fell in love with in the theaters. As for me, I prefer to watch Director's Cuts. Especially when you're dealing with an obvious auteur, it makes perfect sense to watch the version that best matches the director's vision.

But let's hope Spielberg stops here. If he were to remake or re-edit the film tomorrow, it would be decidedly different because the director says he no longer believes in UFOs and close encounters with extraterrestrial beings to the degree that he did when the film was made. Since digital cameras, he muses, we just haven't been getting the same number of "sightings" as we once did, so he's having his doubts. Again, no matter. There are enough believers out there, or just plan lovers of film to keep this one in the AFI Top-100 in perpetuity.

Young viewers might find it slower going, though, because Spielberg develops characters and relationships as much as he explores the kind of strange phenomena that leads human believers to a point in Wyoming that the U.S. government has been trying to keep top-secret. Or, as Spielberg describes, it's UFOs meets Watergate. "Close Encounters" is a quietly tense meandering thriller that in part follows electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) as he becomes obsessed with a shape, a mountain, that he knows he must travel to in order to make sense of all the unexplainable electrical phenomena he's been witnessing--all of which causes marital tension and eventually forces his wife (Teri Garr) to leave with the kids. But in part we're also drawn close to a mother "Melinda Dillon) who suffers every parent's nightmare: the abduction of a child. In this case, by aliens. Is she crazy? Is he crazy? Is the government behind it all? ARE there aliens? And why are so many people hearing the same musical notes in a mathematical progression, and, for that matter, why does it seem to be drawing them to the same place: Devil's Tower, Wyoming?

With "E.T." and "Close Encounters," Spielberg offered a view of aliens that was, well, alien to science fiction . . . or, as he prefers to call what he's doing, science speculation. Everyone else's aliens want to attack or conquer earth; Spielberg's just want to explore and communicate. It's thoughtful science fiction that's heavier on character than it is on special effects--though, of course, there's still plenty of those (many of which were added for the Special Edition and retained in the Director's Cut).

Spielberg removed a number of scenes from the theatrical release that made it seem as if the main characters were crazy rather than following a message they were receiving, and reinforced that notion with additional scenes which have also been retained for this Director's Cut. The biggest difference now is the scene inside the mothership that Spielberg removed. And that will probably be the biggest reason that some viewers may still prefer the Special Edition to the other prints. But hey, at least we have a choice in the same package, rather than having to decide between releases.

It's been 30 years, but with the new HD technology these prints look better than they ever have. There's still some atmospheric graininess, though, and it's a softer overall transfer than some of today's films. Yet the colors look natural and precise, while the amount of detail--detectable especially in spaceship scenes and in close-ups--is consistent with what we're seeing in other classic films that are now being released in High Definition. Does it look spectacular? Well, I wouldn't go that far. But if you compare it to the DVDs in your collection, you'll see a big difference. The films have an overall cleaner look to them, with again more precise colors and sharper detail than we've seen before.

All three versions are presented in 1080p High Definition (2.35:1) widescreen.

Audiophiles can choose between English DTS HD 5.1 and English Dolby TrueHD 5 on all three versions. Both seemed comparable to me, though the DTS seemed to have a bit more rumble in the bass. In both soundtracks there's a nice tonal quality and a clean, crisp sound that fills the room. Additional options are Spanish and French Dolby Dgital TrueHD 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Arabic. Additional subtitle options are oddly available on the bonus features (Japanese, European and Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, and German).

Exclusive to Blu-ray is a trivia track ("A View from Above Editor's Fact Track") and the "A View from Above Feature Comparison Poster." The pop-up track is better than most, in part because this is a significant film and what additional facts we're given by the film's editor seem all the more worthwhile.

In "Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters" we get up-close-and-personal with the director in an interview, with clips intercut into his remarks. Those who haven't heard it before will find it fascinating to hear him talk about how he worked backwards from the big encounter, and tried to cipher a logic that would make the climax seem inevitable as well as believable. It's a long and substantial feature. Same with "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a Special Edition bonus feature which is letterboxed (1.33:1) and broken up into sections on the Introduction, Casting, Pre-Production, Special Effects, Putting It Together, The Special Edition, and Final Words. A shorter bonus feature, "Watch the Skies," was a made-for-TV special, and has that faux dramatic tone that made Geraldo look even more foolish when Al Capone's vault turned out to be empty. It's the weakest of the three.

Nine deleted scenes and three trailers are included, along with an extensive and nicely compartmentalized collection of photographic stills and artwork. There's a storyboard comparison and storyboard galleries, a gallery of photos of possible locations prior to Devil's Rock being selected, mothership drawings by Ralph McQuarrie, five behind-the-scenes segments (still shots taken on the set during five scenes), shots of the production team, a portrait gallery of posed shots, and sections containing advertising and marketing materials for the theatrical release and Special Edition.

It's a nice bundle of extras, though I wouldn't say they're the best I've seen.

Bottom Line:
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is one of the most thoughtful and quietly compelling sci-fi films of our time, and the new Blu-ray presentations--crafted with input from Spielberg himself--make the film look better than it ever has.


Film Value