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Close Encounters of the Third Kind opens on sheer confusion and panic. The audience is lost, following characters they do not know into a heavy sandstorm. There, they find four supposedly lost planes from World War II completely intact. Scientists are scared, the audience is baffled, yet Spielberg continues to toss even more random information at the viewer.
Air traffic controllers report seeing something in the sky. Again, the audience is kept out of the loop, listening to unknown characters on the ground looking at radar. In the next scene, power goes out across a town, and finally the viewer is given someone to latch onto, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss).
CE3K is creepy because alien invasion movies are typically excursions into war. They attack, we fight back, and we win. Knowing this is what makes the opening 30-minutes or so brilliant. The first encounter (literally) Neary has with the aliens is a fantastic piece of direction. Lights appear behind Neary’s truck, he waves them on to go around, and instead, they go over. Watching those lights for the first time is certainly creepy, and the sequence that follows, with loud noises and lights is even more so.
The Blu-ray release of CE includes three versions: theatrical, special edition, and director’s cut. The special edition is a waste, despite a nifty scene inside the mothership that proves pointless. The key is the removal of the scene where Neary begins gathering materials to build the mountain replica, ripping plants and fencing out of the ground.
Deleting this removes not only a funny sequence, but the family dynamic as well. Neary’s youngest son happily helps his father, carrying bricks, and wondering if later they can toss dirt into his room. The older son stands by shocked and confused, unable to grasp the events fully. Neary’s wife is in a panic, even trying to explain the event to neighbors.
Without this scene, the grasp the aliens have, the obsession Neary has, and how far he will go are lost. The ending makes less sense because the full impact of the character’s progression is gone. His actions do not carry the same weight. Thankfully, the director’s cut restores this scene (and others), making it the alternate version to choose, assuming you want to watch an alternate cut in the first place. Regardless of the chosen version, the ending is what makes CE special.
Despite being a special effects masterpiece, the finale is not about the visuals so much as it is about communication. Nearly all other “alien invasion” films cut to military action in defense of the country. CE is logical, making a special moment out of the first communication with another race. It is oddly calming, not shocking or surprising. The five-note theme is memorable because of how important it is, not because it is catchy. That is why it lives on as a pop culture piece, and why Close Encounters is effective.
Sony delivers an AVC encode for the hi-def debut of this sci-fi classic, and it is unfortunately not one that stands up to current standards. Immediately apparent from the opening scenes, despite the encodes ability to handle a heavy sandstorm and grain structure together cleanly, is artificial sharpening. Ringing is apparent along high contrast edges, and a processed look begins to dominate.
The film becomes a story of two different looks. During the day, the grain dissipates, causing the film to look smoothed over and digital. This is first notable inside the control room of the power plant, where the smooth nature and pink flesh tones look too digital to be natural. This is a consistent look across nearly all scenes shot in daylight.
At night, banding becomes excessive. The first shot of the night sky at 11:09 makes it readily apparent, and every shot of the night sky from there shows some artifacting. The light that shines into Dreyfuss’ truck when the alien ship moves overhead likewise has problems. In fact, color separation can be consistently poor, not just on backgrounds. Inside the air traffic control room, various radars and such show rather awful posterization.
Chroma noise is an issue when Dreyfuss is being interrogated, around 1:25:00, along with additional banding. The dinner sequence where he makes the mashed potato mountain also shows significant problems. It is a shame too, because despite a fine grain structure, there is something beautiful trying to get out of the digital realm. At times, facial close-ups reveal excellent definition, although rarely with any consistency.
Black levels are wonderfully deep and inky, while still fully resolving the details of the massive mothership during the dimly lit finale. Colors can be brightly saturated, the house assault before Carey Guffey is abducted a particularly vibrant shade of red. The source is pristine, even the double printed effects shots perfectly intact without a single speck. A re-release could be something special.
Sony provides both TrueHD and DTS-HD uncompressed offerings (including a French TrueHD effort as well), and the differences are… well, there are none. The scene to compare is undoubtedly when Dreyfuss first encounters the UFO in his truck. The immense layer of bass, to the point where it may arguably be too heavy washing out other audio effects, is just as aggressive and smooth in both efforts. The ships engines really carry a hefty roar.
Surround activity at times can sound slightly blown out, such as when the crowd gathers near the ridge expecting to see UFOs, but encounters a helicopter instead. The spinning blades are lackluster in terms of fidelity, and loudly placed in the rears. The classic scene earlier where the UFOs are actually present tracks the ships into the surround channels as well, although not with precision directionality. Their movement is sort of lost in the back.
The best aspect of these mixes is the John William’s score, especially at the finale. The electronic keyboard is wonderfully clear, and when the mothership blows out the window of the watchtower, the trumpet sound is beautifully crisp. Chants of the five-note theme in India fill the soundfield flawlessly, and carry a high level of fidelity. No distortion is noted. Dialogue, while slightly hollow, carries a natural quality.
Close Encounters is currently only available in a 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition collector’s set, the boxed contents of which you will find a review for via video below. The on disc contents include A View from Above on the first disc. This pop-up feature signifies the changes between the three versions. All other extras are on disc two.
Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters lets the director tell his story about the creation of the film. This runs 21-minutes. A making-of will be familiar to fans, running a bit over 100-minutes, an all-encompassing look at how the movie came together. It was filmed sometime during the making of Saving Private Ryan.
Watch the Skies is a promo featurette from 1977, barely lasting six minutes. Nine deleted scenes are followed by nine still gallery collections. Three trailers, one for each version, remain.
Note: For a video review of the boxed contents, visit our YouTube page.