Before anyone outside New Mexico ever heard of Roswell, Steven Spielberg was musing the possibility of aliens visiting Earth. The result was Close Encounters Of The Third Kind about a regular guy (Richard Dreyfuss) whose world is rocked by UFOs. It was "pure cinema" and box office gold in 1977.
Thirty years on there are three cuts of this science fiction classic, all presented on this three-disc Ultimate Edition set. In a fascinating three-part Making Of documentary the Spielmeister explains that, in 1977, Columbia was facing financial ruin so he was under extraordinary pressure to deliver the film in time for Christmas. Scenes he was forced to omit were restored for the 1980 Special Edition release, including more of Roy's 'breakdown' and the discovery of the freighter SS Cotopaxi, which went missing in 1925. More controversially, this version sees Roy having a nosey around the alien spaceship at the end of the film, which the director admits, "I never should have done". He wisely erases that sequence in the 1998 Director's Cut.
Reflecting on the initial creative spark of the project, Spielberg admits, "I really believed in the UFO phenomenon." He refers to the research of J Allen Hynek, a former government advisor who became fascinated with hundreds of unsolved UFO cases and was later hired as an advisor on the film.
It was during production on Jaws that Richard Dreyfuss became intrigued with the idea. He begged Spielberg to let him play Roy Neary, but was turned down. Steve McQueen was first choice for the part, but after the King of Cool had a chance to read the script, he reportedly told the director, 'I can't cry on film.' Spielberg then pursued Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. As Dreyfuss tells it in a vintage promo (also included on disc three), he had to "pummel" Spielberg into letting him play it.
Special effects were, of course, another major concern for Spielberg. In the Making Of documentary he claims that the first ever CGI test was carried out for Close Encounters. He goes on to say the results were rubbish, but along with traditional effects, like miniature sets and matte paintings, the crew employed innovative techniques for superimposing spaceships over a moving background. Spielberg pushed the envelope a little too far with the aliens though. He describes having dressed up an orang-utan in an "ET suit" and pushing him down a ramp on roller-skates. Needless to say, that didn't work...
In a new featurette 30 Years Of Close Encounters, Spielberg tells us he's "revised" his opinion on alien visitation. He makes the point that with the recent proliferation of camcorders and camera phones, the number of UFO sightings has actually dropped. But he's also right in saying that this does little to diminish the magic of Close Encounters. It was made, he says, "in the spirit of childhood; believing in things that don't make sense". For sure this DVD package brims with nostalgia value as much as it does with a wonderment about the mysteries of our universe. Film buffs will be launched to cloud nine.
Close Encounters: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition DVD is released on Monday 3rd December 2007.