Sony // 1977 // 137 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // June 12th, 2001
This means something. This is important.
Following up on the phenomenal success of Jaws might not have been easy, but Steven Spielberg was certainly up to the task with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a more personal and uplifting film that succeeded with genre fans, and with both mainstream audiences and critics as well. It might not have quite the action and fun of Star Wars, which came out the same year, but it is more thoughtful and gave a quite different look at alien abduction than we'd seen before. Spielberg came late to the DVD format (though still better than George Lucas), but at least now we have a two DVD set of this much awaited film.
Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a utility line worker living a normal life. He and his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) are happy with the kids and the rest that goes with the suburban existence. All that is about to change when Roy has a close encounter with something he cannot explain. The bright lights he saw were seen by many, but not as up close and personally as Roy, and nobody believes him. Roy loses his job, but that is only the beginning. Both he and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), a woman who was also in the area, are consumed by an image that won't leave their thoughts, an image that only later becomes clear. Roy must sacrifice everything to find out the answers that he seeks, ultimately on a mountaintop in Wyoming.
I tried to make this description of the story spoiler-free, though I'm not sure how much I should be worried about divulging the plot of a film so many have seen. Spielberg's films have been among the most seen in history, and Close Encounters is no exception. It made a ton of money in its first release, and three years later Spielberg revisited the film to add extra scenes for a new special edition. In 1998, the film was edited once again into the definitive director's cut, where all the extra scenes Spielberg wanted in are still there without the rather shabby ending the studio had asked for. This is the version we get on this DVD, which is essentially a port of the 1998 laserdisc, though with a spruced up digital transfer.
I have a confession to make. When I saw Close Encounters in the theater in 1977, I left unimpressed. I felt like the second act exposing Roy's obsession was too long and there wasn't enough of "the good stuff." I didn't even bother to see the re-release three years later. With age comes wisdom, at least one hopes, and I was able to look at the film much differently than I did so many years ago. I tried to make the film fit my image of what a space alien movie should be back then, and the fact that it couldn't be pigeonholed like that was its undoing. Now I'm willing to take the film on its own terms, and have a much greater respect for it.
Not that there isn't some great suspense in the film. The scene in which Jillian's house goes crazy and she tries in vain to prevent the abduction of her young son leaves chills in its wake, as does the scene where Roy first sees the alien ship and his truck seems to lose touch with the law of gravity.
Of course few can deny the power and quality of the script (one of the few Spielberg films with his name in the "written by" credit) or the strength of the performances all around. Richard Dreyfuss has proven his chops as an actor time and time again, but this is still one of his best performances. Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Francois Truffaut, and even the very young Cary Guffey each add magic of their own to the film.
Since I missed the special edition in the theatrical release, I was happy to see this version now. The added scenes do a great deal to better explain what is going on, and add several great moments. At least the "mother ship" scenes are no longer around, except in the comprehensive extra content on the DVD set, where it belongs.
A spectacular DVD set it is too, at least with the extra content. Owners of the 1998 laserdisc will find nothing new, but for those of us who skipped that technological step of the ladder there is a lot to like. Except for the THX Optimode section, all the extras are on Disc Two. Besides trailers for both the original and re-release versions of the film and filmographies, the real meat of the extra content is with the 1997 documentary "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a 1 hour, 42 minute piece from my favorite DVD extra master, Laurent Bouzereau. Virtually any question about the movie is answered here, with interviews from Spielberg, Dreyfuss, Garr, and many, many others from the cast and crew. The documentary takes the film apart piece by piece and examines every aspect of how it was done. I've seen other such documentaries that come close to the quality of this one, but none that truly surpass it. The DVD is almost worth buying for this documentary alone. Next up are 11 deleted scenes that run about 25 minutes, including the "Roy and the mother ship" sequence I mentioned earlier. "Watch the Skies" is an original 1977 featurette for the film and runs about six minutes, and is mainly valuable for historical purposes. Finally there are production notes within the packaging.
Unfortunately, not everything from the laserdisc set has been ported over to the DVD. Gone is the huge still gallery of production photos and concept art (and much more). I found it hard to believe that it was left out.
This is probably the definitive DVD edition of Close Encounters, which is a shame in some ways. I was less than fully impressed with the digital transfer of such a much awaited film. While I am impressed with how well the nicks and scratches and other defects were cleaned up prior to the finished transfer, quite a bit of grain was left behind. Colors are a bit faded as well. Shadow detail is only adequate. For the most part, the magical quality of the movie itself will keep you so interested as to not notice such things, but I have to bring it up.
The sound fares better than the transfer, but is not without its flaws as well. Both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks are offered, though both have their own problems. These problems are mostly due to the age and the technological limitations of filmmaking at the time. Dialogue and the midrange to highs are a bit muddled and can be harsh or constricted. That said, you can still understand what is being said, and the rest of the soundtrack is golden. This is an aggressive mix, with active surrounds and fine directionality. Bass response is especially fine with the DTS track, with some great rumbles to be heard from your subwoofer.
Lastly, I have to complain about the packaging. The fold-out cardboard case is similar to some I've seen, but not nearly as good as some of the better multi-disc packaging that has come out. For such a "big" film, I'd have liked something more durable.
Despite some grumbles about the technical qualities, this is still a must-buy DVD set. The film is moving, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, and represents a younger, more optimistic Spielberg than we would see in more recent years. The extra content is compelling, especially if you don't own or plan to own the laserdisc set.
Of course the film is acquitted; I know that Steven Spielberg is sitting up biting his nails awaiting this court's judgment, and I can't bear to disappoint him now. Columbia gets a few admonitions about packaging and leaving off the still gallery, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they did all they could for the transfer and sound.
Review content copyright © 2001 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Production Notes
* THX Optimode