Being born in 1971 makes me just old enough to remember the original theatrical release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the tail end of 1977. Like most kids growing up in the late-’70s, my parents took me to see Star Wars when it came out earlier that same year, instantly shifting my attention as a 5-year old from Brady Bunch reruns on our 13″ black and white TV set, to science fiction films on the big screen. So, when I came across the movie poster for Close Encounters a few months later, I was transfixed (and admittedly a little bit scared). Where does that road lead? Where’s the light behind those mountains coming from? What’s lurking amongst those stars? Even though those questions have since been answered with a countless amount of home-viewings over the past 40 years, I wondered if this new 4K remaster of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi tour de force would have anything left to give that I hadn’t already seen in the original 35mm release.
The film stars Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, a line worker for the power company who is looking for answers after being drawn to an extra-terrestrial event the way moviegoers used to be drawn to summer blockbusters. His frustrated wife Ronnie, played by Terri Garr, eventually has enough of Roy’s obsession and leaves with their kids. Neary, with more alone time to further unravel his life, eventually becomes friendly with Jillian Guiler, played by Melinda Dillon, who is experiencing similar life-changing events herself. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters, Sony Pictures will be releasing a newly restored, 4K remaster of the film on a two-disc Blu-ray, a three-disc 4K Ultra HD, as well as a limited-edition three-disc 4K Ultra HD “Light and Sound” gift set on September 19th. But, not before a one-week special engagement commencing on Friday, September 1st, bringing the film back to where it truly belongs: the big screen.
The 4K restoration of Spielberg’s 1997 Director’s Cut of Close Encounters was distracting at first, as I spent about the first 10 minutes contemplating its reappearance on the big screen, comparing it to the first time I saw it and all of my revisits throughout the years, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray. The added depth and clarity of the film paired with the intensified sound was more than impressive, proving to me the importance of the theater-going experience. This film was made in a time when you couldn’t watch your favorite TV shows on a device in the palm of your hand; when the best quality version of a movie that most people saw outside of a theatre was a television presentation on Saturday afternoons (ask me how many times I saw Smokey And The Bandit on TV growing up). This was made to be a spectacle.
Once I stopped over-analyzing the nuances of the film restoration, the movie did what I imagine Spielberg intended it to do all along: pull in the viewer and immerse them in the world (or should I say “worlds”) that he created. The train-crossing scene where Roy has his first close encounter was more intense than ever, with added tension from the accompanying 5.1 sound restoration. The looming appearance of Devils Tower over Roy and Jillian upon their arrival is a cinematic marvel that still gives me chills after all these years. Being dwarfed along with the characters in the film by the image on the big screen only added to the experience. In the climactic end of the film, the audial and visual duel between the witnesses and the otherworldly visitors will be appreciated much more in theaters. I shared the same sense of wonder Roy and Jillian expressed during the final encounter with their new extraterrestrial friends.
For diehard fans (including myself) and first time watchers of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, passing on the up and coming re-release of the home version won’t be an option. The 4K restoration adds depth, clarity and sound that are superior to previously released versions, and any fan of the film should be more than happy with the upgrade and new bonus material. Much like a work of art, however, I believe this sci-fi classic should be seen in original form to be truly appreciated. So if you’re still wondering if it was worth the time and money to experience it all again on the big screen: This 5-year old thinks so.