Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: the story of its multiple cuts

One of the very small collection of films that Steven Spielberg has written as well as directed (the other example being A.I.), Close Encounters Of The Third Kind has been celebrating its 40th birthday this year, most recently with the re-release of the film on Blu-ray and Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray formats.

What’s particularly interesting about those formats is that they include all three of the main cuts of the film that have surfaced over the years. Spielberg as a director doesn’t tend to tinker like this. He infamously added digital alterations to E.T. in the early 2000s, but would soon regret his decision. Instead, he tends to settle on his version and leave at that.

But not in the case of Close Encounters.

It was known around the time that he wasn’t happy with his first cut of the film, that played in cinemas on the movie’s original release in 1977. Around the time, the studio funding the movie was short of cash, and was banking on Close Encounters to be a much-needed hit. As such, it pushed Spielberg to finish the movie which he duly did, but he argued for another six months to get the cut he wanted. It  released the film in the first cut, though, which turned out to be a massive hit. So much so that the studio agreed to give Spielberg more money to produce the version of the film that he wanted.

Thus, in 1979 – just ahead of filming E.T. – Spielberg went back into the edit room and added seven minutes of material back in. He also, though, took ten minutes out, and the special edition of the movie that he signed off on actually turned out to be a full three minutes shorter than the version originally put out in cinemas!

Most agreed that the new version was the better film, and it was duly released in cinemas, bringing in over $15m on its re-release alone. This drove the film’s box office total north of $300m.

The changes Spielberg had made were more to do with character, but also took us inside the spaceship at the heart of the film itself (something Columbia was keen for Spielberg to add in). And this was the version that was in release following the changes.

But then Spielberg had a third and final run at the movie. In 1998, he took another look at the film, and came up with what’s now known as the Director’s Cut. This time, Spielberg brought back some of the material that he’d lopped out when putting the Special Edition together. He also took out, from the later version, the moments that took us inside the spaceship. His feeling was that the film worked better when that was a mystery. The resultant version is the longest cut of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, running in the UK to 138 minutes (against 135 minutes for the theatrical version and 132 minutes for the Special Edition). This version too got a limited theatrical outing, and it’s now considered the definitive version of the film.

The latest remastered disc release is the first to include all three versions in one high definition package, and comes with new features that dig into the story of the film a little more. But at the heart is a genuine science fiction masterpiece, in whatever form you choose to watch it.


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