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Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Collector's Edition

Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr,
Bob Balaban, François Truffaut, and Cary Guffey

Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"Twenty years later, I look at (Close Encounters) and I see a lot of naiveté, and I see my youth, and I see my blind optimism, and I see how I've changed.... I look at Close Encounters and I see a very sweet, very idealistic odyssey about a man who gives up everything in pursuit of his dreams — or his obsession. In 1997, I would never have made Close Encounters the way I made it in 1977 — because I have a family that I would never leave. I would never drive a family out of house and home and build a papier-mache mountain in the den and then further leave them to get on a spaceship and perhaps never return to them. I mean, that was just the privileges of youth. And when I see Close Encounters, it's the one film I see that dates me."

— Steven Spielberg

"It was either too easy or too hard to get Steven Spielberg's attention. That's why he was such a great director: for him it had to be perfect small moments between people or Barnum & Bailey. Lots of directors were doing small moments but no one was doing the circus quite so well."

— Julia Philips, co-producer of Close Encounters,
in her tell-all memoir
You'll Never Eat Lunch in
This Town Again

*          *          *

I. Preamble

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a pitch-perfect film. But what pitch is being sounded here, precisely?

Make no mistake: This is a Hollywood classic, a deeply personal vision, and a unique object. I can watch it again and again, and fought bitterly for the chance to review it. But the Spielberg quote preceding this writeup really gets at one of the movie's central fallacies — a fallacy I want to expand on a bit.

Most of the comments I've read about CE3K dwell on its beautifully realized "We Are Not Alone" hookum and its wishful thinking about benevolent aliens and its stick-in-your-eye images and its nearly wordless final act and its music and its follow-your-dream humanism and of course its Douglas Trumbull-crafted special effects (which are probably the best-aged special effects of all time — other than maybe 2001's, a film on which Trumbull also worked).

I won't dispute any of that praise, because it's all well-deserved. But none of it gets at the movie's dark heart. Yes, its dark heart. CE3K is, first and foremost, an apologia for artistic obsession — a fantasy that says it's okay to abandon your family, break the law and destroy other people's property in pursuit of your dreams. In fact, the movie goes so far as to reward its obsessed protagonist with a literal glowing Nirvana.

Let's not spend too much time on the "content" end of the review: Hundreds of millions of people have already seen Close Encounters and formed their own vast opinions. Skip ahead to section IV. if you're only interested in the DVD specs and extras.

*          *          *

II. But first: Which of the gazillion cuts of Close Encounters are we watching here, precisely?

This disc contains the final "Collector's Edition" cut, released to home video and Laserdisc in 1998. According to IMDb's fascinating detailing of the myriad cuts of Close Encounters (a document way too long to distill here), the CE cut is "basically a 137-minute re-edit of the original version plus five sequences from the 1980 'Special Edition.' "

*          *          *

III. What's the story?

The stripped-down plot is fascinating in that is contains a great deal of conflict, but no clear antagonists — instead, it features two groups of obsessed protagonists, each racing toward a final confrontation with alien life, each distrusting the other.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is a lowly power-plant employee (and nascent child-man, obsessed with "Pinocchio" and toy trains). He sees a UFO — several, in fact. He is subsequently obsessed by the image of a mountain — an obsession that drives him to make ill-placed sculptures, which drive his harridan wife (Teri Garr) and beastly children to abandon him as a "crybaby" nut case (in scenes that any child of divorce will find deeply painful to watch).

But Roy's suffering is short-lived — as his disbelieving family is conveniently replaced by one better-suited to his consumptive mindset. Flaky single mom Gillian (Melinda Dillon), who's lost her son (Cary Guffey) to an alien kidnapping, ends up joining Roy on a cross-country journey to Devil's Tower, where UFOs are about to be officially received by a government team led by the equally obsessed Frenchman Lacombe (François Truffaut) — a man who, along with his tweedy interpreter (Bob Balaban), has spent the film tracking down clues and interviewing witnesses in preparation for a climactic alien encounter. (Of course, this being the movies, the aliens' universal language isn't numbers, it's music — and music scored within Western scale parameters, to boot.)

All of this builds to a frantic chase and effects-filled denouement, with climax piled upon climax — and with Roy's fixation rewarded by (a) a smooch from his more-understanding "wife" and (b) the chance to abandon everyone and "step into the light."

And so there you have it: a beautifully lensed tale of neglectful parents, unhappy families, and a retreat into creativity; the metaphor for driven artistic types is obvious. In fact, all Spielberg's personal obsessions are at play here — making CE3K his most personal film besides E.T. and Hook (a film about a man who also struggles with a childlike obsession, but ultimately turns back to his kids). All the Spielberg tropes are here in full force: wonder, all-consuming passion, absent father figures, youthful optimism, suburbia, magical salvation, the slow reveal. It's powerful, powerful filmmaking.

*          *          *

IV. So how about those extras?

Well, there aren't quite as many hard-core goodies as some DVD geeks would like — a score-only track would have been nice, given CE's abuse of music as a thematic device — but that's the simpering of obsessive-compulsives. This is an economical two-disc set, free of waste, and what's here is James dandy.

Disc I contains the feature, in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. Other reviewers have said the picture's a bit soft in places — but I'd argue instead that the picture's so good you can finally see the flaws in the effects compositing, if that makes any sense.

On Disc II, we find two Theatrical Trailers — a 4:37 version for the original 1977 release, plus a 1:47 version for the 1980 "Special Edition." The '77 trailer is essentially a behind-the-scenes featurette, walking you through the three stages of "Close Encounter" and interviewing cast, crew and UFO consultant. There's a decidedly old-school vibe to the proceedings, right down to the super-groovy split-screen effects and a narrator intoning, "It could happen to you." The "Special Edition" trailer is decidedly more modern (and better-preserved), and features the following narration: "When we saw Close Encounters for the first time, we wanted more. Now, there is more." (While the trailer's further promise to give us "the experience of being inside" may amount to mystery-wrecking dramatic suicide on Spielberg's part, it's damned good marketing.)

Next we find "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Laurent Bouzereau's 1-hr.-47-min. collection of video interviews and behind-the-scenes stills, taped for the "Collector's Edition" Laserdisc (and released in truncated form at the end of the 1998 VHS). This plays more or less like a commentary track with its own visuals — which makes it, I suppose, better than a commentary track. Among the many highlights:

Moving along, we come to a generous "Deleted Scenes" menu, which features no fewer than 11 snipped scenes — almost 20 minutes worth of footage — in varying states of preservation. All the footage was slashed for a reason (either for pacing or, in many cases, because it simply doesn't work) but a few scenes manage to deepen character:

  1. "In the Desert" (:41), trimmed from the film's opening, features the government team pulling flight packs out of the recovered WWII fighters — and Lacombe telling the Balaban character, "Listen to me. You're not only going to translate what I say, but also my sentiments and my emotions."

  2. "Roy at the Power Plant (5:30) is easily the worst and most expendable of the cut scenes. It's narrative padding that features power-plant managers bickering and assigning Roy to a crew, and Roy abandoning that crew and driving off when he hears the police reporting lights in a supposedly blacked-out area. Roy is, you see, worried about one of his men getting electrocuted, so he runs off to save him. Uh-huh. Get to the flying saucer.

  3. "Roy Gets Directions" (1:13) is more wisely trimmed padding, with our hero getting inexplicable directions from a fat guy in a blacked-out Dairy Queen parking lot. Amusing for the sarcastic, I-give-up grin Dreyfuss gets on his face as the directions get more and more convoluted.

  4. "At the Airport" (4:31) is just plain weird. After some scratchy leader tells us that footage of "Chicago O'Hare" will be inserted later, we get to see "Air Force Research and Development Command" commandeer an airliner that was buzzed by a UFO and politely take all the passengers' film. Meanwhile, in a limo outside the plane, Truffaut tells Balaban once again to "translate his feelings and emotions" — then tests Balaban by having him translate passages from a steamy romance novel.

  5. "At the Police Station" (1:44) finally answers a question I've had for years: Did the police officer who went off a cliff while chasing UFOs survive the crash? Why yes, he did — and he's being put on suspension by his sergeant for filing a full report. "I will NOT see this department pressed between the pages of the National Enquirer!" screams the sarge — which leads the other officers to change their reports, and prompts Roy to walk out of the station in disgust. This scene's notable for containing the first instance of Roy doodling Devil's Tower on a piece of paper.

  6. "At the Barbecue" is a pretty raw, un-foleyed scene featuring Roy and his wife Ronnie at a neighborhood gathering shortly after his first UFO encounter. Per his agreement with Ronnie, Roy keeps telling everyone his red face is a result of falling asleep under a "sunlamp," even as Ronnie spies on at him, concerned, from her klatch of housewives. Eventually, everyone stares at the sky for no easily discernible reason, and Roy fixates on a Devil's Tower-shaped Jell-O mold.

  7. "English Lessons" (1:21) is a little throwaway in which Balaban awakens Truffaut and tells him, "The trucks are rolling! Congratulations!" (Interestingly, after arguing he should be the one to tell Lacombe the good news because he speaks French, the Balaban character speaks to Truffaut in English.)

  8. "On the Roof" (1:47) features Roy spacing out on a makeshift observatory platform he's erected atop his house; one of his sons climbs up and tells him dinner's ready while Roy stares into space, ignoring the wee child. Adds nothing; Roy's demeanor inconsistent with other manifestations of alien obsession; sort of cruel to son; glad it was cut.

  9. "Leaving Town" (1:27) features additional footage of Roy navigating livestock and hayseeds as Wyoming is evacuated by the military — plus an appearance by none other than Carl "Apollo Creed" Weathers, playing an MP who warns the suspicious-looking Roy, "We've got orders to shoot anyone caught looting around here, 'Smith'.... Pass the word."

  10. "At the Gas Station" (2:00) is this strange little Lynchian moment cut from Gillian and Roy's barrier-breaking drive to Devil's Tower. As they're filling up at an abandoned filling-station pump, Gillian spots four helicopters flying by; one of them breaks off for a closer look at the fugitives. As the chopper hovers, Roy yells, "Extra! Extra!" and waves his arms — at which point one of the Army 'copter crew takes a snapshot and flies away, leaving our heroes unmolested. Huh?

  11. And finally, we have the infamous "In the Spaceship" (2:54) — the "Special Edition" footage that reveals the mothership interior. Aside from its inherent mystery-smashing elements, there are quite a few things curious and/or maudlin and/or lame about this sequence. For one thing, it ends up looking like nothing so much as a deleted flying-car cityscape from "Blade Runner" — only with "When You Wish Upon a Star" playing in the background. (Yes, Disney is shamelessly sampled here.) Then there's the fact that Dreyfuss looks quite a bit more clean-shaven than he ought; that the ship's interior is in no way congruent with its exterior; and that the scene ends with Dreyfuss being sprinkled with magic dust. Thank God they relegated this to deleted-scene status; it deserves to exist as a curiosity, but that's it.

After all that, do you really need more extras? Good, because you don't get any — save for a 5:48 "1977 Featurette" that's basically a extended cut of the 1977 trailer, plus "Filmographies" for Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr and Melinda Dillon.

Doing her part for consumerism,

— Alexandra DuPont

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