The adjective “ultimate” is tossed around with such ease nowadays that a consumer is bound to regard it with skepticism. However, if any DVD set is worthy of that designation, it is Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition. This set contains virtually everything that a fan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind could ask. For openers, it includes all three versions of the film – the original 1977 theatrical release, the 1980 Special Edition, and the 1998 Director’s Cut. My personal preference is for the Director’s Cut, but one of the beauties of this set is that you do not have to choose one over the other. All three versions are beautifully rendered in Blu-ray 1080p high definition. The set also contains a bonus disc full of supplementary materials and a 64-page “Collector’s Book.” The only thing which is missing is a director’s commentary, something which Steven Spielberg reportedly does not want to do for any of his films.
Spielberg regarded Close Encounters of the Third Kind as “science speculation” rather than science fiction. At the time he believed that alien beings had actually visited Earth during the 20th century, and the film is his vision of how an actual human encounter with aliens from outer space might play out. He approaches it through the prism of three parallel stories.
One plot thread focuses on phenomena which have attracted the attention of the government. U.S. Navy aircraft, missing since World War II, have inexplicably appeared in the Sonora Desert in Mexico. Air traffic controllers track an unidentified aircraft which nearly collides with a jetliner. A team led by Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) investigates, and mysterious radio transmissions convince them that intelligent alien life is trying to make contact with Earth.
The second thread involves Gillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a single mother, and her young son Barry (Carry Guffey). Barry is awakened at night by strange noises and lights which lead him to wander away from the house. He sees something which has such a powerful attraction for him that he disappears into the darkness, filled with awe and delight rather than fright. One of the most iconic visions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind occurs when the aliens make a return visit to the Guiler home in order to abduct Barry.
At the same time Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a lineman for a power company, is called to work at night when the area’s electrical grid mysteriously goes down. After getting lost on a rural road, Roy has a terrifying encounter with a strange aircraft which hovers over his truck. Roy does not realize it at the time, but his close encounter will inexorably change his life.
It soon becomes apparent that all of the humans who have encountered the aliens – including Gillian and Roy - have been implanted with a compulsion which they do not understand. The government, predictably, denies that anything unusual has occurred, but Roy and Gillian know better. Roy becomes obsessed with sculpting a form which he does not recognize. He knows what it looks like, he even sees it in shaving cream and mashed potatoes, but he does not know what it represents. His family life deteriorates as his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) has no understanding of or sympathy for Roy’s plight and his children are whiny brats. After Gillian’s son is abducted, she has visions of the same shape and she finds herself compelled to make drawings of it.
The three plot threads converge during the second half of the film, when Roy’s desire to understand what has happened to him and Gillian’s need to find her son come into conflict with the government’s determination to maintain secrecy. Ultimately, however, what happens to Roy and Gillian is subordinate to the real story, which is about Spielberg’s vision of how alien beings – if indeed they exist – would treat us if they came to Earth.
The performances are universally excellent. Richard Dreyfuss, who has over the course of his career displayed a penchant for overacting, is actually restrained here, remarkably so considering that his character is seemingly going to pieces. During the scene where Roy's outlandish behavior reaches its zenith, Dreyfuss somehow manages to project a sense that Roy really is sane and sensible. Melinda Dillon shows both strength and vulnerability as Gillian. When she meets up with Roy she leans on him, but she never falters in the face of the remarkable and disturbing things which have happened to her. Teri Garr is very effective as Roy’s wife, Ronnie. While it is clear that the magic is gone from their marriage, and she cannot comprehend what has happened to Roy, she never goes over the top with excessive shrillness.
No discussion about Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be complete with mentioning Douglas Trumbull's special effects. They are remarkably realistic, especially considering that they were created three decades ago. The spacecraft are seamlessly integrated into their surroundings, creating scenes which inspire awe and wonder.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a fascinating film which has garnered much praise. Roger Ebert calls it “one of the great moviegoing experiences.” David Thomson, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes “Close Encounters is as close to a mystical experience as a major film has come.” If you have not seen it, now is the time to do so. If you have seen it, now is the time to see it again. And again.
The 1080p Blu-ray widescreen transfer is extremely sharp, vivid and stable. Yes, there is some grain, which is fairly noticeable in some scenes and barely visible in others. As I understand it, the grain is there by design, as Spielberg is said to believe that some grain is desirable. In any event, the grain is mostly mild and not distracting unless one is looking for it. I have not done a direct comparison with the “Collector’s Edition” which was released in 2001, but I have been told that some of the scenes in that DVD lacked stability. That is not an issue with this release. The long shots of Devil’s Tower, which reportedly drew some complaints in 2001, look flawless to me.
The scenes of the alien spacecraft zooming through Indiana are awesome. The lights seem brighter and the colors are more vivid than I remember them to be. The appearance of the mother ship is nothing less than spectacular. The famous scene where young Barry opens the door to dazzling light is absolutely breathtaking. Shadow detail is excellent. Much of the action takes place at night, but I never felt that there was anything significant on the screen which I could not clearly see.
The quality of this set is all the more remarkable when you consider that all three versions of the film are on a single disc. It is a testament to the enormous storage capacity of Blu-ray discs and the care which has been taken with these transfers.
The viewer has the choice of listening to the three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in either Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 or DTS HD 5.1. I toggled back and forth, but my ears did not detect any significant differences. The surround sound is not as enveloping as we have come to expect from more recent films, but there is still plenty of punch when the spacecraft zip through the night sky and when helicopters take flight at Devil’s Tower. Viewers with large subwoofers should be impressed by the bass.
The musical score by John Williams sounded a bit harsh to me, but that is likely a factor of the age of the recording. I would like to hear an uncompressed recording of the score to see if there is any difference. Incidentally, for the 1980 Special Edition elements of the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” were added to the music over the closing credits. The Director’s Cut has restored the original music.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition is packed with special features.
Aficionados of this film will appreciate “View From Above,” a feature which can be activated for all three versions. When it is activated, an icon appears on the screen for scenes which fall into the following categories:
1.A scene which did not appear in the original version.
2.A scene which appeared in the original version but does not appear in the version currently being viewed.
3.A scene which is unique to the version of the film currently being viewed.
There is also a mini-poster insert which contains the same information. The “View From Above” feature is particularly helpful because some scenes from the original version were omitted from the Special Edition, only to be restored for the Director’s Cut. In addition, two scenes which were added to the Special Edition have been removed for the Director’s Cut. The “View From Above” feature helps the viewer to easily identify the changes from version to version.
The bonus disc contains a 21-minute featurette about the director called “Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters.” It includes an interview in which Spielberg discusses the making of the film and his feelings about it. While most viewers would probably prefer a commentary track, this seems to be as far in that direction as Spielberg is presently willing to go.
Also included is a feature-length documentary, The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was directed by Laurent Bouzereau. I have not had the opportunity to do more than skim through it, but many of the cast and crew are featured. It looks to be extremely informative and I look forward to watching it in its entirety. It is shown full-screen.
Do you want more? There are stills and storyboards, including storyboard comparisons, shown here as montages which could keep the viewer occupied for a considerable period of time. High-definition trailers for all three versions of the film are also available. The trailer for the 1977 theatrical release runs for nearly six minutes.
A six-minute promotional featurette called “Watch the Skies,” which is similar in content to the trailer for the original release, also is on the bonus disc. This is the same featurette which is identified as “Watching the Skies” on the box of the 2001 Collector’s Edition.
You will also find nine deleted scenes on Disc 2. The deleted scenes are shown in non-anamorphic widescreen and do not appear in any of the three released version of the film. One of the deleted scenes, which shows Roy at the power plant during the blackout, helps to explain why he got into trouble with his employer, a plot turn which always struck me as abrupt and lacking foundation. However, the scene drags on and includes extraneous information and characters, so I can understand why it was cut.
As noted above, the set also includes a foldout which has a reproduction of a Close Encounters poster on one side and an explanation of the differences among the three versions of the film on the other. The aforementioned “Collector’s Book” contains brief biographies of Spielberg, the major actors, composer John Williams, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The booklet also contains dozens of black and white photographs taken during the production of the film.
As noted, all three version of the feature can be found on Disc One, which makes it easy for the viewer to compare them. The supplementary materials are on Disc Two. All three versions are divided into twenty chapters.
The pop-up menu allows the viewer to change audio selections, turn sub-titles on and off, and turn the “View From Above” feature on and off while the film continues to play.
The two discs come in a fold-out case which has a sleeve for the mini-poster. This case fits into a cardboard slipcase, which also contains the “Collector’s Book.” The slipcase is marginally taller than a standard high-definition slipcase, so it should easily fit in with your other Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.
The Final Analysis
This may be the no-brainer of the year. Close Encounters of the Third Kind has never looked better. When one factors in the ability to see all three versions of the film, and add to that the plethora of bonus materials, this set is bound to be on most lists of the best DVDs of the year.
This DVD might actually convince you that We Are Not Alone!
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: November 13, 2007