IT’S four decades since that famous five-note serenade from composer John Williams first announced the arrival of Close Encounters.
A new 40th Anniversary Edition from Sony may claim to be the definitive version of Steven Spielberg’s optimistic sci-fi classic but it’s a film that’s had more than its fair share of tinkering down the years.
Spielberg was apparently rushed into completing the film in 1977 and Columbia dug deep to give him an extra million dollars to make a 'Special Edition' that they could then peddle as the 'proper' version at a later date. The studio’s insistence that the director show some shots of the inside of the alien mothership always rankled with Spielberg and he swiftly disowned it when it appeared in 1980.
There were other examples of needless tinkering that involved shortened scenes and trimmed character sequences but they faded into insignificance compared to the director’s next rematch with one of his most famous creations in 1998. The so called Collector’s Edition glued together bits of that special edition (minus the mothership sequences) and interweaved them with the original cut to make what he now refers to as "the definitive cut”.
Personally I’ll always take the original version of a piece of art to the version that’s been fiddled endlessly with and that’s how I feel about Close Encounters.
The original tale of Indiana lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who witnesses UFO activity in the sky and gradually becomes more and more obsessed with visitors from outer space until he tracks down the craft and welcomes the inhabitants to Earth is perfectly serviceable and doesn’t really require any upgrades or reboots to make it a gentle 1970s sci-fi classic.
Watching Roy move from encounters of the first kind (a sighting) to the third (actual contact) is hugely enjoyable and not just for old timers remembering with nostalgia when they first saw it in the cinema.
There’s something sweet hearted about this hippyish fantasy that never quite delivers the thrills that hard core sci-fi fans are secretly hankering for but it’s as good an old school stab at the familiar “there’s life out there” mantra as you’re likely to see in mainstream cinema. It’s a little bit over long and worthy but it delivers the spectacle and in the performance of Dreyfus and that iconic theme from John Williams it has two massive plus points.
The new Blu-ray offers up all the above mentioned versions and adds a plethora of impressive extras that include interviews with Spielberg, JJ Abrams and Denis Villeneuve looking back at the legacy of the film, a wealth of out-takes and rarely seen footage from the director’s personal archive and a selection of fine documentaries.
There’s an epic quality to the film that’s enhanced by the pristine 4K picture quality and the feeling that you’re watching science fiction movie history in the making is hard to shake. A proper classic, treated with the proper amount of respect and affection.