Thirty-odd years ago, while his beard-buddy George was hacking together a riotous interstellar western – all flaring laser-blades and blaring blasters – Steven Spielberg was caressing his chin-scrub over post-Watergate cover-ups and themes of consciousness expansion. While Lucas jolted the doubters with a frontloaded money-shot – a 2001-style glide-by of a behemothic battle-cruiser – Spielberg cued up his existential epic with a dense, 10-minute, subtitled French-language sequence. In a sandstorm. With some map-reader guy investigating the discovery of WII planes or something...
The director commissioned Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader to work up a storyline about humanity’s first contact with an alien race. The writer’s preferred version of the otherworldly encounter focused the action around a sceptical government spook. Spielberg favoured someone more audience-level – an off-the-peg suburban schmuck like himself, who loved movies, ate junk-food and struggled to raise his kids. “I refuse,” huffed Schrader, “to send off to an other world, as the first example of Earth’s intelligence, a man who wants to go and set up a McDonald’s franchise!” “That’s exactly the guy I want to send!” countered Spielberg.
Close Encounters is Spielberg’s first movie on full throttle; the moment he was given absolute power to do it all his way. With notorious producer and queen of the quaaludes Julia Phillips in his corner, flapping the Jaws accounts in the faces of dubious moguls, Spielberg was allowed to direct, rework Schrader’s blueprint and hand-pick the cast – including Jaws lead Richard Dreyfuss as his on-screen alter ego.
The movie crackles with magic because it was forged by two master magicians: cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with his all-seeing eye for an everlasting image, and Spielberg, honing that still-peerless instinct for ordinary awe. Artistic alchemy fizzing, the pair crafted some of the most heartstopping sights in popular cinema: divine orange light cascading through a cracked keyhole; a droopy Dreyfuss carving and channelling his mashed-potato prophecy; blinking, bioluminescent spacecraft skimming low over a mountain highway like curious fireflies. And the defining moment: little Barry (Cary Guffey) flinging open his front door in ecstatic submission, face ablaze with all the courage and glory of childhood.
‘Ultimate Edition’, then? Pretty much. There’s a choice of three versions: Original Theatrical, Special Edition and the absolutely, positively, definitive Director’s Cut where, avoiding the needless revisionism of ET, Spielberg finally nails all the niggles... The slower scenes have been tightened, Dreyfuss’ scenery-chomping moments chopped and the FX feels crisper and more confident. Best, the disastrous Special Edition extension, where the alien ship’s interior is revealed as, umm, a CG inside-of-a-UFO type-thing, has been binned by a director who never wanted it in the first place (“Columbia told me I had to give the audience something they thought it wanted. I always thought the inside of that ship was the exclusive property of the audience’s imagination.”)
The only major new extra is a long and lively interview with Spielberg (still being Mr No-Commentary), hosted by a shadowy, nodding journo. But the real revelation is the Blu-Ray redux. If you’re still not sold on high-def, finally there’s a stone-cold reason to make the switch. While the DVD reissue of 2001 simply wheeled out the fuzzy, unscrubbed print, here, the high-def illuminates Zsigmond’s imagery with sparkling intensity. It’s all that light – strobing, swooping, glowing, gleaming... The needle-sharp radiance is – literally and emotionally – dazzling. The Blu-Ray version also features a terrific, fanboy-friendly ‘View From Above’ option with pop-up icons and text explaining the differences between the three editions. So, hurray – at last – for Blu-Ray. Now, please can we have more of the emphasis on reinvigorating older movies and less of the shabby shovelware (Gothika, The Replacement Killers…)?
“I didn’t believe it was science fiction,” says Spielberg in the interview. “I saw it as science speculation. I truly believed that we had been visited. As I’ve grown up, I’ve revised my thinking – with all the cameras out in the world now, how come UFO sightings have diminished?” While the cigar-shaped objects and big-headed little men have melted into the fabric of movie myth, Close Encounters endures because, as with all of Spielberg’s best, there’s an engine of everyday humanity propelling the crowd-wowing pyrotechnics.
He was damn right about going with the everyman thing. Close Encounters isn’t about flying saucers and spies and space aliens. It’s about an ordinary guy who can’t cope; who’s coming apart. The extraterrestrial contact ignites his slow awakening: from initial flickers of hope to the roaring epiphany of that lumber into the light. If ET is Spielberg’s masterpiece of lonely-child salvation, Close Encounters sees him lyricise an over-burdened adult’s return to the optimism of infancy; beckoned by untainted, foetus-like beings into the glittering womb of the mothership. And this ain’t no spiritual deliverance. Dreyfuss’ rapture is euphoric and Earthbound; more rebirth than redemption. It’s an ascension of the soul. He wasn’t alone, after all...