"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on Blu-ray disc

30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition of Spielberg's Wide-Eyed Dream

By Jim Bray

The "Other Big Sci-Fi/Special Effects film of 1977," Steven Spielberg's "CE3K" is a space nut's fantasy come true, but a film that, next to its contemporary "Star Wars," seems a mite dated in the 21st century.

Compared with George Lucas' space adventure it's also a somewhat forgotten film, and that's a shame. It's a film that deserves a loving treatment for home video, especially in this new world of high definition. Fortunately, as is often the case, Sony Home Entertainment has come through in spades with a delightful Blu-ray release.

Richard Dreyfuss is Roy Neary, the film's "everyman" hero. He's a power company employee who, when sent out to look into a blackout, has a close encounter of the second kind that not only leaves him sunburned, but which implants into his mind - well, we aren't sure until much later in the film.

All we know is that he becomes one strangely obsessed individual and it costs him his job and, eventually, his family as he tries to find out what the heck it was that happened to him.

He isn't alone. Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) had an encounter as well - more than one, in fact, and one of them turned her life around as the aliens grabbed her toddler son right from her hands. Others have also shared the contact, though Guiler's appears to have been by far the most intense.

Meanwhile, UFO investigator Claude Lacombe (director Francois Truffault), his interpreter (Bob Balaban) and their team are crossing the globe as other strange things are happening, like the return of a long disappeared air wing as well as musical notes raining down from the sky.

The story lines converge at Wyoming's Devil's Tower, a volcanic anomaly that provides a beautifully otherworldly location for what turns out to be an alien landing and visit. The government, naturally, doesn't want any witnesses to this interplanetary fete, at least until it's a fait accompli, and concoct a scheme to evacuate everyone within "eyeshot" of the Devil's Tower.

Despite that, Neary and Guiler find their ways to Wyoming, swimming upstream against the outward bound tide of people as if they were human salmon on their way to spawn. They eventually escape and evade the government forces and after comin' round the mountain they discover "The Dark Side of the Moon," the American base set up to facilitate and study the alien landing.

What follows is about half an hour of heart warming special effects sequences in which the aliens and humans meet and greet, and one special (and very lucky!) human is invited aboard the huge alien mother ship to return with it to the stars.

Director Steven Spielberg's script is positive and hopeful, though more than a tad schmaltzy and more than a touch naive in places, but on the whole the film still holds up reasonably well. There's a pervading and very welcome sense of awe and wonder that makes the film an uplifting experience.

Dreyfuss does a fine job as "everyman," as does Teri Garr as the wife who sees her husband falling into a pit of what she's afraid is something far more serious than a case of mental illness. Dillon does a good job of portraying the mother at her wit's end, and Balaban is fine as the interpreter. Truffault, not known as much for his acting chops as for his direction, is delightful as the French UFO investigator.

CE3K is a BIG movie. In fact, much of it, including the entire final sequence at the mountain base, was shot in a gigantic blimp hangar in Mobile, Alabama because there was no other place large enough to house the huge set. It was also, along with Star Wars, a breakthrough in special effects technology and yet another example of the quality of composer John Williams' musical scores.

The Blu-ray disc brings together the best of the original film, the inferior "Special Edition" that was released a couple of years later, and the eventual "Director's cut". All three versions play from the same main menu, and you can access "A View From Above," which has pop ups appear on screen to let you know when a scene has been changed from the original version. The "Director's Cut" is the best of the bunch, though the original version is a close second.

The Blu-ray presentation is in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio, with widescreen 1080p video that in places makes the movie look as if it were shot last week. Some scenes are a little soft and at time even out of focus, but this is undoubtedly from the original source because when the Blu-ray disc is good, it's excellent. It's so good you can nearly make out matte lines occasionally, and the ship discovered in the Gobi desert is revealed as a model, albeit an excellent one.

The high definition treatment does pop at least one balloon, in that the first alien seen emerging from the mother ship is so obviously a puppet it's nearly laughable. Before, it was nearly lost in the bright white light that dazzles your eyes, and we prefer to remember it that way. And the night sky outside the Guilers' farm house exhibits the constellation Orion clearly which, since Orion is a winter constellation and CE3K is set during warm weather, gives the shot away as special effects. Good ones, though!

The audio is offered in dts 5.1 HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital True HD. It's about as good as you can expect from a 30 year old flick. It's quite clean and fairly dynamic, but it made us wish it had been recorded in the digital domain originally. We were surprised to find there isn't a lot of surround, though when it's used it's used quite effectively (for example, when UFO's are flying by your).

Extras include an entire second disc of stuff, including a retrospective with Spielberg himself, a documentary on the making of CE3K, storyboard to scene comparisons, a photo gallery and plenty more. That "plenty more" includes a featurette dating back to the film's 1977 release and deleted scenes.

Not satisfied yet? Okay, how about a poster that gives you all the "View from Above" info without interrupting the movie and - get this - a thick booklet full of photos, bios, and quotes.

It's a substantial package, as it should be, and fits the "ultimate edition" title quite well.

Naturally, it's the movie that's the most important and we're quite happy with how the Blu-ray format has treated it.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
1080p widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby Digital TrueHD and DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffault
Produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips
Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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