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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Dune When I reviewed the Sci Fi Channel version of Dune here a while back, I mentioned the happenstance that the three odd-numbered novels in the series were much better than the three even-numbered novels. Now, Sci Fi has announced that they are going to skip the second Dune novel, Dune Messiah, and film the third novel, Children of Dune. Smart move.

By the way, some of the very best short print science fiction is now published on the Sci Fi Channel web site. They are the best paying market in the field, and have new work by Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as classics by James Tiptree, Jr. and Avram Davidson. Lots of fine free reading at

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (****)
written and directed by Steven Spielberg (DVD edition)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind The new "Collector's Edition" DVD of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a new cut, which means that now CE3K has almost as many different versions as Blade Runner (****). And there is likely to be as much controversy about which version of this must-see film is the best.

Why so many different cuts? The long interview with Spielberg on a companion disk in this set makes that clear, if you read between the lines.

The problem began when Spielberg allowed Richard Dreyfuss to talk him into casting himself in the lead. The actor and the director had become buddies during the filming of Jaws, and Dreyfuss really, really wanted to be in Spielberg's next film, and kept putting himself forward for the part. Finally, by telling Spielberg that the lead character was a grown-up child, he won the director over. That was when the problems began.

Dreyfuss is a wonderful actor and was great in the role, so why did he cause a problem? The reason is that Dreyfuss at the time was a young man, cast in a part originally written for a much older man. An Everyman Dreyfuss's age would naturally have a wife and children. And the story required Everyman to leave behind everything he loved in his quest for the transcendent, for the Close Encounter.

You see the problem. An older man might have to leave behind a wife and a job, but not young children. So Spielberg the writer now has an impossible problem to solve. In the interview, though he only talks indirectly about the script problems I've outlined above, he does say that if he were filming CE3K today he would never have a sympathetic character leave young children to go chasing flying saucers.

The three cuts of the film each take a different approach to this central problem. The first cut, the theatrical release, essentially ignores the problem. The second cut, for the theatrical re-release, makes the lead character so crazy that he has no choice to act as he does. The deeply unpleasant family scenes, the major new scene being the shower scene, is then in stark contrast with the "When you wish upon a Star" ending. This is the cut that has previously been available on VHS. The third cut, on the new DVD, tries to use humour to soften the breakup of the family, which is otherwise almost intolerable. And it ends as the original release did, without "When you wish upon a Star".

Of the three cuts, I prefer the first. Given that the problem of a sympathetic character abandoning his young children cannot be solved, the best that can be done is to sweep it under the rug and ignore it. The first cut was the happiest of the three, and CE3K is a happy movie.

On the companion disk of this edition, all of the "deleted scenes" from every version are included, so in theory at least you can now re-edit the picture to suit your taste.

The print on the DVD is so clear that all of the flaws in the film stand out more than they otherwise might. There are some shadows that go the wrong way, and the annoying Budweiser commercial in the middle completely breaks the mood. Spielberg was not yet powerful enough to say no to product placement, which has now gotten so bad that the just released Evolution is not a film at all, but rather a very long Head and Shoulders commercial.

But, warts and all, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still one of the great SF films of all time.

One tidbit from the many extras on the DVD. They actually tried to use CGI on this film, but at that time CGI was still too primitive to produce the quality required, so all those neon spaceships, which look so much like CGI, are actually models.

Copyright © 2001 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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