70mm Classics: Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Blu-ray Review
Theatrical Cut: (4.5/5)
Special Edition: (4.5/5)
Director’s Cut: (5/5)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved a great many things upon its original release. It proved that Spielberg's success with Jaws wasn't just a fluke, and that he truly had a talent as a writer and director with a flare for pushing the boundaries of mainstream Hollywood film making in terms of scale and spectacle, setting a trend that his films would continue to push forward with each movie. It proved that we could make a thought provoking film about peaceful aliens in an era where aliens are typically portrayed as hostile, unpleasant murderers, ala Star Wars and Alien. It helped proved that the Hollywood Renaissance was truly dead, and that big budget thrillers and action movies were to be the norm going forward, and when the film was re-edited by Spielberg and his creative team not once, but twice, that you can revise your art and truly make it better the second time around – something a good friend of his should have learned.
Close Encounters, for those who have yet to see the movie, is a tale of intense curiosity. Featuring an ensemble cast including the likes of Richard Dreyfuss and Francois Truffaut in his only English speaking role, it follows two groups of people who are driven on an adventure, based on recent evidence that aliens might exist. On one side of the film, a team of scientists follows a trail of fascinating evidence to lead them to what they hope to be the eventual landing site of alien visitors – missing fighter planes, electrical disturbances, anything than can use to help them seek out the answers to that fateful question: are we alone in the universe? On the other side, we follow a group of ordinary people led by Dreyfuss's character Roy Neary, who have been subjected to a “close encounter of the third kind,” in which they are plagued by visions and thoughts that have taken over their minds, driving them to find the same eventual landing site of the alien visitors.
Close Encounters is, in my opinion, Spielberg’s strongest completely fictional film. It has all of the strongest qualities of Jaws - John Williams’ brilliant and emotional score, a tense chase towards the unknown that brings people from all walks of life together, and an overarching theme that speaks towards the incredible perseverance of mankind. The script, credited to Spielberg, is funny, heartwarming, and effective at keeping such a fantastical story grounded in reality. The science team that leads the government investigation defies your typical film depiction of our governing body, avoiding the tropes such as making them out to be overwhelmingly incompetent, or incredibly belligerent towards the common people. Instead, they’re rather open minded, and just as confused as the average person is when faced with the arrival of aliens, which strengthens the movie in ways that its successors, such as J.J Abrams’ Super 8 fail to replicate. They’re eventual willingness to not only sympathize with, but to work with Roy’s group of travelers goes a long way to increasing the appeal of the movie’s events.Through Spielberg’s eyes, first contact with an alien race is no longer a thing to fear and lash out, but something that will bring people together as we learn to cope with the fact that we’re no longer alone in the universe.
The story, which is built up over two hours into a beautiful climax, is supported by an incredible technical and creative team. The visual effects, designed by VFX legend Douglas Trumbull, are awe inspiring. His effects team and their use of various light schemes to depict the movement and design of the alien crafts is second to none, creating an alien fleet that is both technologically advanced, but also awe-inspiring and beautiful. A major storytelling element is the use of music to communicate thoughts and emotions, much of which is conveyed through John Willams’ musical score - the five note theme that is present throughout much of the film, and much of the film’s overall tone can be credited to Williams’ use of music to manipulate our emotions. The film was the first collaboration between Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn, who has gone on to have a 30+ year collaboration with the director on all of his feature films. His work is masterful - the film is brilliantly paced, but nothing gets lost in the race to Devil’s Canyon, and leaves plenty of room for character development.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the second in a long list of cinematic classics that Spielberg has to his name. The story is brilliant on the screen, held up by an ambitious creative team, and an excellent cast that help keep the film firmly grounded in reality, while also maintaining a level of curiosity and fun that Spielberg has excelled at creating over his long career. His vision of aliens visiting our planet is one of unity, and idealistic vision of first contact that has never fully been explored since, abandoned in favor of a more exciting, action oriented take, as seen in films such as Independence Day and Super 8, which is a shame. Spielberg truly crafted a masterpiece with Close Encounters, giving us a film that still holds up incredibly well today.
As a last note, this Blu-ray release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind features 3 different cuts of the film for your viewing pleasure. It features the original theatrical cut, which is just that - exactly what audiences saw in theaters in 1978 during its original release window. It features the 1980 special edition - a cut of the film that was created after Spielberg expressed that he felt that his vision was somewhat hampered by the struggling finances of Columbia Pictures during the late 70s. As a result of the massive success of the film, they allowed Spielberg an extra 1.5 million dollars, which he used to shoot additional footage and edit pre-existing footage. This cut features an onscreen depiction of the interior of the mothership - a decision I have always viewed as an unwise one, as I have always felt that in situations like these, it is best to keep that kind of reveal ambiguous, which allows the audience to form their own ideas. The Special Edition actually cuts footage out from the original edit, in addition to the new footage, but it still a fairly strong version of the film. The third cut, created in 1998 for the film’s 20th anniversary, is known as the Director’s Cut. This cut eliminates the onscreen depiction of the mothership, and removes some of the 1980 changes, while adding in some of the original footage excised when preparing the Special Edition. I feel that is is by far, the strongest, most complete version of the film. Because there are three distinct cuts available here, each one feeling a bit different from the others, I have rated all three below.
The Video (4/5)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was shot primarily on 4-perf 35mm film using Panavision anamorphic lenses by a multitude of cinematographers over the various additions, the bulk of the work being carried out by influential cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, for a theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, knowing that the film was going to be shot on anamorphic lenses, chose to shoot all of the visual effects on 65mm film using Super Panavision 70 cameras and lenses, to improve visual quality and conform better to the widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio. This Blu-ray, released in 2007, presents each of the three separate cuts of the film in 1080p, retaining the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Close Encounters, much like many of the blockbuster science fiction films of the late 70s, was shot using a specific style that results in a soft, grainy image for most of the film. Unfortunately for this 1080p transfer, which is bordering on becoming ten years old, it shows all the signs of an early 2K resolution scan, which emphasizes some of the harsher aspects of the film's presentation. Grain is coarse, and ugly over much of the film's run time, never resolving as sharply as older films who have been given the star treatment - whether this is a result of the source used to create the digital transfer, or the resolution of the transfer, we will never know. What I do know however, is that I've seen films of similar age to Close Encounters, and their film grain is typically softer, and less abrasive.
Much like with the use of higher resolution Vistavision 35mm cameras to create the visual effects of Star Wars, Douglas Trumbull and his effects team utilized 65mm Super Panavision cameras to create the complicated visual effects work for Close Encounters. High resolution, or large format negatives were used on these types of effects-heavy films because you could duplicate copies of the film to combine images many more times while still ending up with an image that would be sharper and less grainy than trying to do the same using traditional 35mm photography. As a result of multiple generations of copies of 65mm negative, the end result of Trumbull's team's work appropriately matches the grain and resolution of traditional 35mm anamorphic photography used to capture the rest of the film. The detail in their work is incredible - when the alien mothership fills the frame, you can easily pick out each piece of the large craft. Shots of the alien crafts zipping through the frame are flawless, each one coming off naturally with incredible color and rich detail in this 1080p transfer.
Honestly, although this transfer is marred with excessively coarse grain, paired with a softer look than most modern films, detail and color is present in appropriate amounts throughout the movie. Skin tones resolve naturally, and although the film's color saturation favors reds and oranges, no one looks red in the face unless they're supposed to. Detail in close-ups is incredible, revealing every single crease and pore in Richard Dreyfus's face. The print used to create this transfer has been extensively cleaned, and not a single scratch or piece of dirt can be seen in any of the three cuts of the film.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, graininess aside, looks fairly good through the window of this 2007 1080p video transfer. Could it be better? Absolutely - a 4K or even an 8K scan of the film's original negative could yield an incredible image, one with more detail, and an even more natural quality to it. Honestly, with the advent of UHD Blu-ray, I wouldn't put it past them to prepare a new transfer within the next few years, so keep your eyes open. For now, what we have here is fairly decent.
The Audio (4.5/5)
Released in late 1977 to theaters using both 35mm and 70mm prints, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was originally mixed for presentation in 6-track magnetic Dolby Stereo on 70mm prints with a mono surround channel. For DVD releases of the film, the sound was remixed to utilize stereo surround channels. That mix was used here to present the film in both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-Master Audio 5.1 surround sound.
Close Encounters is heavily reliant on the use of sound to convey many of the film's most important moments - the five tone melody that the scientists use to communicate with the aliens, alien spacecraft zooming in and out the the frame, large storms and almost supernatural-esque activity that is associated with the aliens take full advantage of the 5.1 soundstage to engage you in the film's narrative. Dialogue is effectively centered, and never gets lost under the looming intensity of focus on John Williams' excellent score that constantly fills the front left and right speakers, swelling to manipulate our emotions effectively throughout the film. Surround activity is adequate, never becoming overly flashy or obnoxious - the occasional sound effect moves through the surrounds, an artifact of the film's 1970s sound design. Subwoofer activity is present, but it feels comfortable in its application. Overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind sounds fairly good through both of these 5.1 audio presentation.
Special Features/Packaging (5/5)
Released to Blu-ray by Sony Pictures, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Ultimate Edition comes packaged in a thick cardboard, full color glossy box, featuring the famous promotional art used for the film. On the back of the box, there's another glossy picture of Roy and Lacombe staring into the mothership, with an almost holographic look to it. Inside the box is a full color, thick booklet with pictures from the film, cast and crew biographies, and insight from Spielberg on making the film. The packaging for the film's discs itself is a trifold cardstock case, each panel containing a different encounter with the aliens from the film. Behind each disc is a full color picture of Devil's Tower, and the alien crafts, making a wide panorama from the film. A map is included with the packaging titled, “A View from Above.” This map features a timeline of the various changes made to the film over its three different cuts. This packaging is absolutely incredible. A prestige package for a prestige release.
The special features for this film have been given their own disc. They have been broken down into multiple sections, each with several independent features under each section.
Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters - Spielberg talks in depth about how he got the film funded, his motivations to write cast the film, how different sets and sequences were conceived. He goes in depth about the film's release, the film's music, and the film's legacy. Listening to Spielberg is always insightful and engaging - this 20 minute feature is no different.
The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind - a hold over from the film's 1998 Collector's Edition Laserdisc release of the film, a 140 minute long comprehensive documentary about the construction of the film, with interviews from major cast and crew members as well as various scholars on the film. The feature is presented in 1.33:1 pillarboxed aspect ratio, transferred directly from the original feature's 1998 source.
Watch the Skies - an older feature, issued before the release of the film as a short, five minute taste of the film, which describes the creative team behind the film, teases shots of the film, and explains some basic concepts of the film using various split screen techniques, as well as shots straight from the film.
Deleted Scenes: a large collection of various deleted scenes from the film's various cuts, mostly sequences that have little consequence on the final story of the film, as well as a few that explain some of the stranger moments from the film - such as Roy getting unceremoniously fired from his job after his first sighting. In total, here are 9 deleted scenes.. Once again, these scenes are held over from the film's various Laserdisc releases, and presented in 4x3 letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio, pillarboxed into a 1.33:1 frame. These scenes are presented in stereo sound, and are generally presented as is, without any sort of clean up job whatsoever from the original 90s 4x3 scans.
Storyboard Comparisons – a collection of 5 scenes from the film, each of them compared to the storyboards used to visualize the scenes in pre-production. Presented with the storyboards on top, with the sequence from the film shown below.
Storyboard Galleries – a collection of storyboards used to visualize the 2 “End Sequences” from the film during pre-production
Location Scouting Pictures – a gallery of still frames that were used to try and find a location for the climb, that ended up becoming Devil's Tower in the final shoot
Mothership Drawings – a collection of rough sketches created by Ralph McQuarrie, that eventually became the final foundation on which the mothership model was based upon
Behind the Scenes – a vast collection of behind the scenes photos from the shoots of different sequences, 15 in total
Production Team – a gallery of photographs of the film's Director of Photography, Production Designer, Special Photographic Effects Supervisor, Editor, and Composer
Portrait Gallery – a collection of portraits of 8 actors/production members that participating in the making of the film
Marketing: Original Theatrical Release – a collection of various pieces of marketing, both actual and conceptual for the film's 1977 and 1978 wide releases
Special Edition – a collection of photographs from making the 1980 Special Edition, and French Lobby cards from the Special edition release
Original Version – the film's 1977 pre-release trailer, which runs 6 minutes in length, which introduces the premise and the creative team behind the film. Reconstructed using the HD restoration of the film, and presented in 6 track surround sound.
Special Edition – a far briefer 2 minute trailer, the Special Edition of the film is introduced and teases the interior of the mothership and additional scenes added to the film.
The Ultimate Edition – a trailer for the film's 30th Anniversary Blu-ray release, hyping the restoration and the additional features included for the release
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Ultimate Edition is packaged like the treasure it truly is, with a massive, full color booklet and foldout cardstock packaging for the film's Blu-ray. Including a full map of all of the different changes, excisions, and additions to the film was a brilliant inclusion for fans of the film. On top of that, the Ultimate Edition includes a disc, filled to the brim with an overwhelming amount of special features. Most of them may be holdovers from older releases of the film, but combining them all under one roof makes this release of the film a must have for fans of the film, or even just film making in general – it is the definitive source for information about the making of this film.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Dolby TrueHD 5.1
DTS-Master Audio 5.1
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (French)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish)
English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Thai
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is my personal favorite Spielberg film. It is his most exciting and thought provoking film, inspiring us all to look to the sky and ponder on what exactly is out there. His peaceful approach to our first contact with aliens in breathtaking, and the film is edited and scored with a skill that could only be achieved by Spielberg and his creative team. The film's visual effects, shot on 65mm negative and finished for a 35mm release, are crisp and life-like, making the aliens look incredible and, dare I say it, out of this world. Sony's 2007 Ultimate Edition Blu-ray release, while in need of a fresh 4K transfer, is by and large incredible. The visual transfer, now nearing 10 years of age, is grainy, but fairly proficient, and the film's soundtrack is presented with absolute clarity. The Ultimate Edition is packaged like a true work of art, especially when compared to other Blu-rays of the time period, with more special features than you can shake a stick at. 2017 will bring the film's 40th anniversary, which makes me think that we might see this film return to home video to celebrate the anniversary, but what we currently have right now can be had cheaply, and is an absolute must own for fans of the film.
NOTE: This release of the film is now out of print, and the links we have included lead to a new Blu-ray release of the film. This version can be acquired used on storefronts like eBay, etc...