Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Addition (Blu-ray)
I don't count myself a big fan of this widely praised film. It was directed by Steven Spielberg during his "good aliens" period—a period that included the far superior ET: The Extraterrestrial.
The film has all the classic Spielberg touches, including unique, sometimes quirky but effective (with one or two exceptions) pre-computer special effects, often striking images, a creative sound mix, authority figures who are either pig-headed or deceptive, and a John Williams score.
But I've always found its main characters hard to like, particularly Richard Dreyfus' Roy Neary. Roy's shrew-wife is understandably concerned with his bizarre and obsessive behavior following a major UFO sighting. He's ultimately compelled by this obsession to travel from his home in Indiana to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, where UFOs are gathering. Together with another witness to the original event, a woman whose son has been abducted by the same aliens, he participates in the close encounter of the title, an encounter that features music—or at least five mysterious musical notes.
The original 1977 theatrical cut of this movie (oddly, never released on home video) spawned two later versions. In 1980 Columbia Pictures released a re-edited Special Edition, which in addition to some smaller changes added a completely new closing sequence showing the inside of the Mother Ship. And in 1998 came the Director's Cut, which restored several cuts made in the Special Edition but deleted the Mother Ship interior shots. Spielberg had had second thoughts about those shots in the intervening 18 years, and ultimately felt that the inside of the ship was better left to the viewer's imagination.
I prefer the original version, but the choice is yours in this 2-disc release. It includes all three cuts on the first disc via seamless branching. The time differences between the different versions are not large: 132 minutes for the shortest (the 1980 Special Edition) and 137 minutes for the longest (the 1998 Director's Cut). The set includes a guide that clearly describes the differences between the three versions, plus a collector's book loaded with production photos.
I saw an informal sneak preview of this release at the recent Blu-ray Festival in LA. The check disc looked terrible, even on a relatively small LCD screen. Sony insisted that what looked like horrendous noise throughout the transfer was film grain.
It was not. Fortunately, however, whatever it was (possibly a defective display?) is largely gone on this final release.
Not that it's flawless. While there is no heavy dose of noise here, there is certainly plenty of grain. And the look of the transfer is uneven from scene to scene. Sometimes it's very sharp, at other times it's soft, looking little more detailed than an average, standard definition DVD. Blacks look crushed in some overly contrasty shots, but fine in others. These issues, however, likely stem from the age of the source material (there is no claim on the packaging that any restoration of the film was done for this release).
The disc also includes both Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio soundtracks. I listened to the TrueHD track. At its best the sound is surprisingly good for a 30-year old film. If your system's volume is set a bit too high, as mine was at first, the opening music crescendo will lift you off your chair. And the scene in the desert that follows, with a sandstorm and revving piston engines from old single-engine fighter planes, leaves nothing to be desired compared to more modern soundtracks apart from its lack of subterranean bass.
But the sound does show its age overall, especially in the quality of the music recording. It often sounds a little rough and edgy, with a soundstage that's distinctly left and right with a big hole in the middle. This soundtrack was recorded years before John Williams teamed up with music recording engineer Shawn Murphy, who has recorded some of the best-sounding film music. To hear what I mean check out the soundtrack from Empire of the Sun, one of the first Spielberg/Williams/Murphy collaborations, recorded 10 years after CE3K.
The special features here include a mix of HD and SD video, including "Storyboard to Scene Comparisons," the 1977 "Watch the Skies" featurette, and the theatrical trailer. New material includes an interview with Spielberg and a new "Making Of" documentary. A director's commentary track would have been nice, but commentary tracks can sometimes spoil the magic in a film by revealing too much, which is apparently why Spielberg declines to do them.
While this isn't my favorite Spielberg film by a long shot, I encourage anyone who has not seen it, or has seen it only on a 4x3 TV screen, to experience this release on a good widescreen televison—on Blu-ray if you possibly can, or if not, then on regular DVD.
Picture: 7.5 (out of 10) Sound: 8.0 Film: 8.0
Reviewed on a JVC DLA-RS1 1080p projector and Stewart Studiotek 130, 78" wide, 16:9 screen, with a Samsung HD-P1200 Blu-ray player, an Onkyo TX-SR875 Surround Sound Receiver (used as a pre-pro), an Anthem Statement P5 power amplifier, and an APC S15 power conditioner/UPS. Also B&W 683 (L/R front) and 685 (surround), Revel C12 (center) speakers and a Revel B15 subwoofer.