This DVD version of 1977’s “Close Encounters” is truly of the third kind — it’s director Steven Spielberg’s third official stab at finding a cut that satisfies him. The theatrical version, which Spielberg has always maintained he was rushed into delivering in time for Christmas, generated $114 million in domestic box office, but he was not content with the way certain scenes were edited.
So Spielberg asked Columbia to reissue the film, and the studio agreed — but only if he could give them a spectacular new marketable element. He did: a dazzling but pace-destroying three-minute look inside the gigantic mother ship.
But it wasn’t enough — the “Special Edition” was released in 1980 but generated only $13.6 million. Still, this was the only version most people saw for nearly 20 years. (Exceptions included a 1991 Criterion Collection laserdisc version of the original from Voyager Co. and an extended version shown on the broadcast network premiere.)
In 1997, Spielberg again went back to fiddle, for a version released the following year on the dying laserdisc format; as a result, few people have seen it until now.
In addition to lopping off the “Special Edition” ending for the DVD, Spielberg tinkered once again with the editing of the film itself. In order to understand the multiple minor changes made for this collector’s edition, it helps to know what alterations he has made over the years.
Spielberg made at least 14 changes for the 132-minute “Special Edition” in 1980, many of which involved minor trimming of scenes. One such scene was the introduction of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) playing with his model trains and a shot of a Pinocchio music box playing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Another was Neary at the power station just before he heads out in his truck and has his first “encounter.”
Spielberg also reversed the order of the scenes in which Neary and others wait for a hoped-for second visit and the scene in India.
The total net running time of all trims and adds was less than five minutes, but Spielberg restored each of them in their original form for the DVD version.
One of the two most significant cuts in the “Special Edition” was to remove the nearly four-minute Air Force press conference. The other was to trim more than 4-1/2 minutes of the scene in which Neary is so energized he runs around the yard of his house like a madman in his bathrobe.
Spielberg also threw in a cutesy five-second shot in the “Special Edition” that shows UFOs pausing momentarily to shine their lights on a McDonald’s billboard. The McDonald’s shot is now out again, and the two scenes involving the press conference and Neary gathering yard materials have been restored.
It’s hard to grasp why Spielberg continues to tinker with this particular movie more than 20 years after its initial release. He doesn’t use technological advances to incorporate new special effects as George Lucas did with the original “Star Wars,” which was initially released just a few months before “Close Encounters.”
Spielberg’s Capra-esque view of alien encounters holds up less well over time because it is so focused on the special effects-laden final encounter. Although that generated awe in 1977, it lost much of its surprise appeal after the first viewing and has become far less powerful with the advancement of special effects in movies since.
But this latest re-edit does restore some of the focus on the human characters rather than the aliens, giving it more depth. The scene in which Neary becomes so obsessed at his home offers some of the movie’s best humor and heart.
Like other recent DVD releases of Spielberg movies such as “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park,” this DVD offers no audio commentary and nothing new from the laserdisc edition of 1998. And unlike “Jaws,” the entire 100-minute retrospective laserdisc documentary by Laurent Bouzereau is kept intact here.
A second DVD disc in the unique and elaborate tri-fold packaging offers the docu plus a 1977 featurette, “Watching the Skies,” and 11 deleted scenes, all from the laserdisc.
The most entertaining and fascinating segment of the docu is “Production Stories,” in which Spielberg and others recall humorous anecdotes about the making of the movie. Spielberg (on what looks like the set of “Saving Private Ryan”) recalls fondly and in detail the tricks he used to get 3-1/2-year-old Cary Guffey to smile, stare in wonder and be startled, all of which are charming.
Also illuminating is the candor of Spielberg and the confirmation by Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon about both actors being chosen only after many others had turned down their roles, including Steve McQueen, who was Spielberg’s first choice, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson. Spielberg first heard of Dillon on a Thursday; he was to begin shooting her scenes the following Monday.
Teri Garr was chosen not on the basis of her work in “Young Frankenstein” and “The Conversation” but because Spielberg liked a coffee commercial she had done at that time.
A newly recorded DTS soundtrack delivers even more dynamic sound than the Dolby Digital or original theatrical versions.