Steven Spielberg wishes he’d made “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” before “Jaws.” While the director doesn’t specify his reasoning (maybe it’s because that was the same year “Star Wars” became 1977’s mega-hit?), that’s just one of the revelations included in interviews and footage preceding the film’s 40th anniversary re-release.
In honor of “Close Encounters’” anniversary, the film has received a “facelift” via a remastering for 4K. Like any good plastic surgery, the improvements are subtle and don’t distract viewers. The release currently in theaters for a special one week engagement before heading to DVD/Blu-Ray is based on the 1997 director’s cut. Three versions of “Close Encounters” preceded this one- the original 1977 theatrical release; a 1980 special edition which included scenes inside the UFO; and the 1997 director’s cut that retained some additional footage but removed the spaceship interiors.
Audiences who enjoyed Spielberg’s original tale of UFO contact (he was the screenwriter, also) will appreciate this new, crisp release. And moviegoers who may have been too young to have seen the original will discover a tale that entertains, amuses, fascinates, and occasionally scares.
All of those emotional reactions are clearly expressed by the film’s cast and deftly captured by Spielberg’s camera. The faces of the actors communicate so much of the plot. There’s wonderment in the eyes of toddler Barry (Cary Guffey), fear on the face of Barry’s mother (Melinda Dillon) when the aliens come to “play” with her young son, and absolute confused obsession from electric lineman Roy (Richard Dreyfuss). The expressions of the supporting cast also reflect their characters’ experiences, especially in the crowd scenes as the UFO mothership opens its bay doors. Spielberg never rushes, letting the camera remain with the faces long enough to clearly convey his narrative.
In the 40th anniversary introduction, Spielberg also refers to “Close Encounters’” connection to Disney’s “Pinocchio.” He says he was inspired by the opening verses of that movie’s theme song – “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…” This message of positive inclusion is particularly applied to Roy. When the audience first meets Roy in his chaotic home, he wants to take his young family to see “Pinocchio.” However, his 8-year-old son rejects the idea, saying the film is for babies. Later, a music box of Pinocchio is seen among Roy’s jumble of belongings. And, if the audience listens carefully, they will catch the first notes of “When You Wish Upon a Star” blended in with the score during the closing scenes.
In “Close Encounters,” Spielberg combines his storytelling powers and filmmaking skills to produce a satisfying adventure film (another revelation- he doesn’t think of “Close Encounters” as sci-fi) which netted him is first Best Director Oscar nomination. His friend, composer John Williams, provides a score which is organic to the plot. Yes, there is the famous five note theme. But, the rest of the music works to emphasize the action. It adds to the atmosphere in such a way that the images and the melodies blend into one experience.
The special effects in “Close Encounters” are as fresh as ever. The visuals of the spaceships that play chase down an Indiana highway and the details of the immense mothership still impress. The aliens have enough human characteristics to be relatable yet still retain a difference.
And then there is the mountain landmark where the UFOs converge. Spielberg chose Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, America’s first National Monument, as the rendezvous point. The iconic spot was preserved by President Teddy Roosevelt via a process which, ironically, is currently being challenged by the Trump administration. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures the monument’s grandeur in scenes that kaleidoscope from daylight to dusk to star-filled night skies. Devil’s Tower was scheduled to host its own special screening of the 40th anniversary release on September 2.
The talented cast of “Close Encounters” also features Teri Garr as Roy’s understandably conflicted wife, Ronnie; French director Francois Truffaut as U.N. scientist Lacombe; and Bob Balaban as translator Laughlin. The film showcases Spielberg’s storytelling prowess and features some of his favorite themes: the possibility of life on other planets; the triumph of empathy when it’s given an opportunity to thrive; and family dynamics. The director would revisit those same concepts a mere five years later in his blockbuster “E.T.” But, as the original on-screen expression of those ideas, “Close Encounters” still shines 40 years later.