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Blu-ray Reviews: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Originally published in Sound and Image, Feb/Mar 2008, V.21#4
Last updated 5 April 2010

Close Encounters of the Third Kind cover Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1977 - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Cary Guffey and Justin Dreyfuss

Movie: 4 Picture: 4.5 Sound: 4 Extras: 5

From childhood I've been a science fiction fan. But for the most part 1970s 'science fiction' movies left me cold. For one thing, most of them weren't really science fiction. Star Wars is brilliant, but it's an adventure, not science fiction. Alien is one of my all-time favourite movies, but it's a horror/thriller that happens to take place in space. Where are the ideas that grip?

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is different. It is truly a science fiction movie. It's dazzingly well made. It has all sorts of ideas. And for me, at least, it is remarkably unsatisfying. Why are the aliens putting thoughts -- compulsions, in fact -- in Richard Dreyfuss's head? Did they want him specifically? The small kid played by Cary Guffey is brilliantly rendered, and makes for some fascinating scenes. But why was he taken in the first place?

Too many questions, and not enough answers for my taste.

The video quality of this movie is quite remarkable. Things aren't encouraging at the start. The Columbia Pictures lady logo looked horribly soft and grainy, and this was followed by a stylised rising sun logo with which Columbia was experimenting at the time, that was just as bad. But then the movie started, and in the opening Mexican scene you could have sworn the thing was shot last year, not three decades ago, such was the sharpness, clarity, and evenness of colour and brightness.

That was probably the high point of the video, but rarely did it get much worse than that. Some of the night scenes were a bit softer, due to the low light. But some indoor scenes were obviously shot in bright light and darkened post production, such was the remarkable depth of field. A couple of the night scenes did show noticable film grain in the dark areas, though, as though the film had been underexposed and forced in development. Thus is the transparency of Blu-ray. In short, the picture delivered by this Blu-ray disc is as good a representation of the film as it is possible to deliver.

And the sound? I glanced over someone else's review where he raved about the sound, and in particular the power of the bass. That, I have to say, was a surprise to me. Yes, in a couple of scenes with the spaceships there were some good atmospherics established with significant levels of deep bass, but not truly knock-em-dead powerhouse stuff, nor was there much in the way of infrasonics.

And that's what you would expect from a 1977 movie. In fact, the sound was excellent -- for a 1977 movie. The 'Special Edition' of the movie was released just a few years after the original release, and this version had been transferred over to 70mm film with six track audio, so there was decent material to work from for the surround. So the surround is extensively used, while the dialogue remains clear and coherent. The music design sounds a little dated and the overall sound isn't quite as crisp as a modern digitally recorded sound track, but if that's the sole complaint one can make, that's pretty impressive.

The special extras are overwhelming. The first disc has all three release versions of the movie implemented with seamless branching: the original 135 minute theatrical release from 1977, the 132 minute Special Edition from 1980 and Spielberg's 1997 Director's Cut, which runs to 137 minutes. A 'View From Above' extra uses icons to show how each cut differs from the original. And, then, there's another whole disc of extras that will take you well over three hours to watch.

Running time: Original 135 minutes, Special Edition 132 minutes, Director's Cut 137 minutes
Video: 2.2:1 anamorphic, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC, bitrate: Original 22.81Mbps, Special Edition 22.81Mbps, Director's Cut 22.87Mbps
Sound: English: Dolby TrueHD 24/48, 3/2.1 @ 3219kbps, 3204kbps & 3191kbps (Core: Dolby Digital 3/2.1 @ 448kbps); English: DTS-HD Master Audio 24/48 3/2.1 @ 3768kbps, 3760kbps & 3743kbps (Core: DTS 24/49 @ 1536kbps)
Subtitles: English, English for the Hearing Impaired, Dutch, Arabic, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croation, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovenian, Swedish, Turkish
Extras: Three versions of movie via seamless branching; 'View from Above' marking of differences between versions; Featurette: 'Steven Spielbarg: 30 Years of Close Encounters' (1080i60, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 21 mins); Documentary: 'The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (4:3, 480i60, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 102 mins); Featurette: 'Watch the Skies' (1080p24, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 6 mins); 9 Deleted scenes (4:3 letterbox, 480i60, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 19 mins); 5 Storyboard Comparisons (1080i60, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 23 mins); Still Galleries (1080p24, MPEG2, No sound - 592 stills); 2 Trailers (1080p24, MPEG2, DD5.1 @ 640kbps - 8 mins); Special Edition Trailer (1080p24, MPEG2, DD2.0 @ 192kbps - 2 mins); 7669 Test Patterns (1080p24, MPEG2, No Audio - 1 min)
Restrictions: Rated PG (Australian rating); Region Free

The following video bitrate graph for the original version of the movie was generated by BDInfo 0.5.3:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - original version - video bitrate graph

This is the video bitrate graph for the 'Special Edition' version of the movie:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Special Edition version - video bitrate graph

While this is the video bitrate graph for the 'Director's Cut' version:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Director's Cut version - video bitrate graph

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

Here are some comparisons between the PAL DVD and the Blu-ray version of this movie. At the top of each is the full frame (suitable shrunk down) used in the comparison, with a 250 pixel wide detail from the frame underneath. The left side is from the PAL DVD. The image was captured digitally from the disc, scaled up from its native 720 by 576 resolution to 1,024 by 576 (to present in the correct aspect ratio), and then, in order to be comparable to the Blu-ray version, from that to 1,920 by 1,080. The detail is from that last scaled version, and has not been rescaled again. The right side is from the Australian Blu-ray. This has not be scaled at all. Different applications were used to capture the two frames, so I am not comfortable comparing the colour between the two, merely the detail and sharpness. For those visitors from NTSC lands, generally the PAL DVD is just a touch sharper than the NTSC DVD.

Comparison 1

One detail worth noting on this one: on the left the button on the subject's shirt is barely, if at all, identifiable as a button. On the right you can see the button hole. I suspect that the DVD is a softer than usual transfer.

Comparison 2

Comparison 3

There was a fair bit of film grain in all three of the Blu-ray shots, and none at all evident in the DVD. Whether this was because of low resolution or the use of a different source print is uncertain.

© 2002-2008, Stephen Dawson