Close Encounters of the Third Kind (film, 2007)

This review is of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition BluRay/DVD release. Normally I don’t bother including the extras sections of my DVD reviews on the blog, as generally the pieces are so old that later releases render my opinions irrelevant (or more irrelevant, if you’re being mean). But I left them in this one, as it was a big anniversary hoohah shindig kind of outing for the old classic, and came with a lot of bells and whistles attached. From Death Ray 09.

Close Encounters Pic 1

Film: HHHH Extras: HHHH


Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon

Steven Spielberg’s classic film of alien contact gets a wash and brush up for its thirtieth birthday.

The other big SF movie of 1977, Close Encounters tapped into a very different stream of the popular consciousness to Star Wars. In the 1970s, UFOs were big. Thirty years of sightings had led to a conviction that there really were aliens, and that they were coming to say hello. This was the decade when scientists like J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Valleé were making their pronouncements on the subject, when Von Danniken published Chariots of the Gods, when David Bowie was pretending to be Ziggy Stardust.

Close Encounters captures that mood. It’s a naive film, standing between two eras. It marks a shift away from the idea as aliens as baddies, but stands before aliens became the unfriendly allies of a hostile government. It’s a film where people throw caution to the winds and rush off to confront an unknown phenomenon. It’s a film that looks at the perilous through the eyes of a child – naturally, this is a Steven Spielberg movie. But here we can see into the workings of the Spielberg’s proxy child-mind, as Close Encounters is not as polished as his later efforts.

The film follows three strands. Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) is an electrical engineer whose UFO sighting leads him to an obsession that loses him his job, then his family, Gillian Guiler (Dillon) has her son Barry kidnapped by the aliens, and Claude Lacombe (Truffaut), is a UFO expert convinced the aliens are about to arrive. The stories come together at the strange geological feature of Devil’s Tower, the image of which has been implanted into the minds of hundreds of UFO witnesses, some of whom make their way there, despite a fake nerve gas scare designed to allow the government to make contact with the alien mothership unobserved.

The usual Spielbergian trademarks are stamped deep into the film – the suburbs, family life, paternal government. But under the wonder of it all there’s a streak of irresponsibility. The cast chase after aliens that are benevolent but careless. They knock out whole power grids as they fly overhead, they take a child from its mother, they return abductees years after taking them. Yet none of this sounds a note of caution in the film. Only the government behave responsibly. And perhaps that’s where the crux of the matter is. As a child, you see it as an adventure that has no hope but to turn out well, the government is there spoiling everyone’s fun; as an adult, shake your head at the rash actions of the characters. Neary might be smiling as he’s being shepherded onto the ship, but we know he may never come home.

And perhaps even Spielberg has grown up – his recent The War of the World is a dark mirror image of Close Encounters. (There are other, less brilliant flashes of recognition – the inspiration for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial is here, and you can see the robot aliens of *batteries not included in the car-like headlamps of the UFOs).

A dated classic, but a classic nonetheless. You know that you are in the hands of a master, raw as Spielberg was, when he holds your attention fast with a film in which nothing very much happens.

DVD Extras: A new interview with Steven Spielberg and a 90 minute making of documentary form the bulk of the extras. There’s a production scrapbook, trailers for all three versions of the movie and a six-minute promo reel contemporary with the film.

There’s no commentary, but the Making of… is comprehensive, and Spielberg’s half hour interview is in many regards better than a commentary – you get all the facts, but without having a voice-over spoiling the film.

The previous two versions of the film are also included. (The third version is essentially the “Special Edition” with the Mothership interior ending excised). In the DVD box set these are spread across three discs, but the Blu-Ray disc uses a nifty new technology which takes you to the relevant scene depending on  which version of the film you have selected.

Did you know…?

Steven Spielberg sought the advice of J. Allen Hynek for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who is credited on the film as technical advisor. Hynek was one of the foremost UFO researchers of the 20th Century, working on all three of the USAF’s UFO investigations, which culminated with Project Blue Book. He was initially a sceptic, and was effectively employed as a debunker of UFO sightings, but over the decades he began to become convinced that there was something to the sightings he received from witnesses as diverse as police officers, astronomers and pilots. He also became concerned by the ridicule the subject was met with by other scientists, something he regarded as being totally at odds with the scientific method.

Hynek has a brief cameo as himself at the climax of the film. He’s the guy smoking a pipe when the aliens land.

There is another link with a famous real-life ufologist in the movie – the Claude Lacombe character is based on French expert Jacques Vallée.



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