Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Speilberg’s follow-up to the highly successful Jaws, solidified him as an important voice in movies and was another home run at the box office (not quite the business of his previous film, but enough to rescue its studio, Columbia Pictures, from financial ruin). The film has never looked better in this new 4K restoration.
The Production: 5/5
Two movies in 1977 were pivotal in shaping the hearts and minds of young student filmmakers like myself. That summer brought us George Lucas’ Star Wars, a fun homage to the sci-fi serials of the 1950s, and that Christmas was the more serious and dramatic (but still loads of fun) Close Encounters of the Third Kind from Steven Spielberg. At the age of 12, both films offered a movie-going experience like I’d never had before. Shortly after the release of Close Encounters, I became fairly acquainted with the director’s other accomplished work on Jaws and Duel (it would be many years later that I would discover The Sugarland Express, and his early television work on Night Gallery and Columbo).
Close Encounters is a rather complex film, opening with a scene in the Mexican desert where a group of WWII-era planes are found in pristine condition. The planes, from Flight 19, were reported missing during a routine mission in 1945. Leading the research team is Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter and former map-maker David Laughlin (Bob Balaban). Two passenger airplanes almost collide with an unknown flying object over the skies of Indianapolis. In Muncie, Indiana, a single mother, Jillian Guiller (Melinda Dillon), awakens to find her pre-school age son, Barry (Cary Guffey), chasing something outside in the middle of the night. Nearby, power outages are occurring for no known reason, and family man Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is dispatched to investigate and make temporary repairs. While en route, his truck loses power and has an encounter that is nearly indescribable. Desperate to know what or who caused the encounter, he gives chase to a group of bright lights, almost hitting young Barry who is mesmerized in the middle of the road. Several days later, in one of the film’s most terrifying sequences, Barry is abducted from his home by these bright lights, while Roy is becoming more and more obsessed with a mountainous shape. Roy becomes so obsessed that he does the unthinkable, alienating and leaving his family to pursue his obsession, all leading to a final eye-popping third act at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, where he teams up with Jillian (who is suffering the same obsession while also trying to find her son) and meets Laughlin and Lacombe, coming face to face with what has been plaguing the skies, friendly aliens who want to make contact with Earth.
Audiences had never seen anything quite like this before, and Close Encounters is one of Spielberg’s more personal films, who at the time was a firm believer in the rash of UFO sightings even though he never had an encounter. Spielberg has said that, if he were to make the film today, Roy probably wouldn’t make some of the choices he does, like abandoning his family. It is this obsession, though, that really drives the film, and Dreyfuss has a child-like wonder that suits the role perfectly. Spielberg, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a timeless story that is only dated by fashions and technology. Amazing still are the visual effects by Douglas Trumbull and brothers Matthew and Richard Yuricich, the same team that would later go on to work on Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that still hold up today.
Over the years, there have been four different versions of Close Encounters. When the movie was released in 1977, Spielberg felt the film was not completed to his liking, with one or two scenes never filmed, a few more weeks massaging in the editing room, and a few more tweaks in completing the visual effects. In 1980, the director was offered the chance to finish his film, allowing him to shoot the Cotopaxi sequence and revise his edit, with one condition – he had to show the interior of the mothership (which Spielberg has referred to as his “deal with the devil,” so to speak). Thus was born the Special Edition, which runs three minutes shorter despite the inclusion of new material, released that summer. As a belated celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary, Sony allowed Spielberg to create his definitive director’s cut which was released for one week in theaters and home video in 1998, running two minutes longer than the theatrical cut but excising the interiors of the mothership. All three of the above versions are included on this disc. ABC created a television cut of the film, broadcast in 1981 I believe, that essentially combined the theatrical and Special Edition cuts, and that version is not included.
3D Rating: NA
Close Encounters was photographed on 35mm and 65mm film. For the film’s 40th anniversary, Sony has rescanned the original camera negatives in 4K resolution and created a new 4K digital intermediate. That new digital intermediate was the starting point of this 4K UHD Blu-ray release (which includes all three versions of the film), with some additional color grading applied using HDR10. The movie has never looked better. Keep in mind the film was made in the late 1970s, so film grain will vary from shot to shot, but it is never intrusive and actually gives the film a more natural look. Colors are slightly more natural and vibrant, particularly in the third act when all of the colorful spaceships appear at Devil’s Tower, but also in the signature shot of Barry opening the front door to his house, bathing the shot in beautiful orange light. Detail, especially fine detail, is increased dramatically. Some of the wide vistas during Neary’s nighttime drive have details I do not recall ever noticing on any prior home video release, such as star movements and a red pin-prick of light following him in the sky. Contrast also gets a major improvement thanks to HDR, as the film relies heavily on the use of light, and one need only look at the scene in Neary’s truck where he first has contact with an alien spaceship, which bathes the cabin in almost blinding light, yet we can still make out all the imperfections in his dashboard and notes he has taped on it. The opening shots in the Sonora Desert have a similar quality, with more noticeable detail peeking through the violent sandstorm. This is how classic films should look in 4K. The included 1080p Blu-ray was struck from the same 4K digital intermediate, but the improvements over the previous 30th Anniversary Edition are more subtle.
The 40th Anniversary Edition of Close Encounters contains what sounds like the same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included on the 30th Anniversary Edition (but without the redundant Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that was included on that release). I was lightly disappointed, as it has been Sony’s policy of including a Dolby Atmos mix on every 4K UHD release up to this point. This is still a very good track, especially for a film of this vintage, and is likely based on the original 70mm 6-track mix from 1977. LFE is strong, rattling the floorboards during Neary’s first encounter and again during the mass visitation in the third act. Surrounds are active where needed, adding ambient crowd noise or spaceships panning from one end of the room to another and all around you. Dialogue is clear and understandable, although there is some minor distortion from time to time, likely due to the recording techniques of the period, but you really have to listen for it. The only other real disappointment is the loss of the original subtitles for when Truffaut and Balaban are speaking to each other in French; these are now part of the subtitle track and are not “burned-in” as on previous home video releases (likely due to this being a region-free release with subtitle tracks in almost every known language).
Special Features: 4.5/5
The package contains three discs, one 4K UHD and one Blu-ray that contain the movie only, and a Blu-ray disc of special features.
Movie Disc (4K UHD & Blu-ray)
A View from Above: A carry-over from the 30th Anniversary Edition, this is a subtitle track that displays icons to indicate which scenes are not from the theatrical cut (a green plus sign), which scenes from the theatrical cut are missing from the cut you are viewing (a red minus sign), and which scenes are unique to the cut you are viewing (a blue box). There is an authoring error on the 4K UHD disc for this feature, in that any translation subtitles, such as when Truffaut and Balaban speak French to one another, there will be no subtitles visible on screen. The Blu-ray disc does not have this authoring error.
Special Features Disc
Three Kinds of Close Encounters (1080p; 22:02): Steven Spielberg discusses the making of Close Encounters, while directors J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve discuss the impact the film had on them while growing up. **New to this release**
Steven’s Home Videos and Outtakes (1080p; 5:25): The correct title should be Steven’s Home Movies and Outtakes, since this feature intercuts behind the scenes footage Spielberg shot himself on his Super 8 camera as well as actual outtakes from the production (mostly goofing off while the camera was reaching top speed between takes). **New to this release**
Steven Spielberg: 30 Year of Close Encounters (1080i; 21:21): The director discusses the making of the film and how the three different versions of the film came to be.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Making of Documentary (480i; 101:41): Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent feature-length documentary that was created for the film’s 1997 DVD release.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Watch the Skies (1080p; 5:54): A vintage 1977 featurette on the making of the film.
Deleted Scenes (480i; 12:23): In the Desert, Roy on the Job, Roy Gets Directions, At the Airport, At the Police Station, At the Barbecue, English Lessons, On the Roof, and At the Gas Station.
Storyboard Comparisons (1080i; 22:10): Crescendo Summit #1, Crescendo Summit #2, Barry’s Kidnapping, The Landing Site, and Roy’s First Encounter.
Storyboard Galleries (1080p): Storyboards for two of the end sequences of the film.
Location Scouting Pictures (1080p): 50 stills that were taken as possibilities for the final landing site before deciding on Devil’s Tower.
Mothership Drawings by Ralph McQuarrie (1080p): 13 different concept drawings.
Behind the Scenes (1080p): Photo gallery slideshow
Production Team (1080p): Behind the Scenes photos of key members of the production team, including Director of Photography Vilmos Zsigmond, Production Designer Joe Alves, Visual Effects Supervisor Douglas Trumbull, Editor Michael Kahn, and Composer John Williams.
Portrait Gallery (1080p): Various promotional stills of Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Cary Guffey, Bob Balaban, and Technical Advisor Dr. J. Allen Hynek.
Marketing: Original Theatrical Release (1080p): Slideshow of Poster Concepts, The Release, Trading Cards, French Lobby Cards.
Special Edition (1080p): Slideshow of Filming the Special Edition and French Lobby Cards (Special Edition).
Original Theatrical Trailer (1080p: 6:01)
Special Edition Trailer (1080p; 1:57)
Digital HD Copy: An insert contains a code to redeem through Sony or UltraViolet partners. If you redeem through the SonyPicturesStore.com site, you will receive all three versions in 4K on Sony’s ULTRA service, and I assume eventually all three versions on VUDU via UltraViolet, except that VUDU only offers the Director’s Cut currently in HDX.
Close Encounters has never looked better in this new 4K restoration, and one hopes that Sony will release more of its classic back catalog soon. Highly Recommended.