It’s a bit of a dead day for new releases on DVD and Blu-ray — you’ve got that Robocop remake that nobody wanted, the sixth season of the diminishing-returns HBO vampire drama True Blood, and the wretch-inducing flag-waver Lone Survivor — but there’s one new Blu-ray that’ll make you cock your head and go “eh?”: the “Ultimate Cut” of Alexander, Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great biopic that was met with mediocre reviews and box office when it was released a decade ago. In spite of that reception (or maybe because of it?) Stone keeps re-cutting the failed picture, endlessly attempting to make it work. And Stone’s not the only one; there’s a whole set of filmmakers who can’t seem to leave well enough alone.
Alexander is far from the first time that Stone has used home media to remix his films. His 1991 masterpiece JFK ran a robust 188 minutes, but all of the film’s home video releases (save for the original VHS) are of his director’s cut, which runs 18 minutes longer. He likewise added 28 minutes to Nixon’s DVD and Blu-ray, and issued a director’s cut of Natural Born Killers (though most of its restorations were flashes of violence, cut in order to attain the R rating). But the film he can’t seem to walk away from is Alexander. Originally released in theaters and on DVD at 175 minutes, Stone’s first, 2005 “director’s cut” was actually shorter than the original — he took out 17 minutes of footage and restored nine minutes of deleted scenes. Two years later, he did another, expanded pass, an “everything but the kitchen sink” cut that ran a butt-numbing 214 minutes. This take was titled Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut, which became an unintentionally hilarious title two years ago, when Stone announced he was working on a fourth version (so much for “final”). “I want to cut it down now because I added too much. I want it to come back a little bit,” Stone explained, creating something of a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” version of film editing. But he says this really is the final version, promise. We’ll see!
Early in his career, Spielberg was much more of a tinkerer. Most famously, his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind got the “Special Edition” treatment, long before such a thing was the norm; Spielberg had wanted six additional months to work on the film, but Columbia (on the verge of bankruptcy) was pushing for a Christmas release, so Spielberg released a version of the film he wasn’t fully satisfied with. When it was a hit, he asked Columbia to let him finish the film as he’d intended, and they agreed — under the condition that he extend the ending, showing the interior of the alien mothership, which would give the studio a marketing hook upon which to sell the unconventional re-release.
The “Special Edition” actually ran three minutes shorter than the original theatrical release (he took ten minutes out and put seven new minutes in), but Spielberg quickly came to regret the tacked-on mothership sequence, which he felt ruined the mystery of the ending. So in 1998, he edited Close Encounters yet again, creating a “Collector’s Edition” for home video, this one five minutes longer than the “Special Edition,” and that seems to be the definitive version (all three are available on the Close Encounters Blu-ray). He would do similar, but lower-profile, work on the television (and later home video) version of his 1979 comedy 1941, which his studios insisted he cut from its original two-and-a-half-hour running time to just shy of two hours.
Those were both relatively happy experiences, for the filmmaker and fans; moviegoers were less pleased with Spielberg’s alterations to his 1982 smash E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for that film’s re-release in 2002. Taking a cue from his friend George Lucas (we’ll get to him), Spielberg used CGI to alter several special effects shots and the look of the title character. More controversially, he digitally altered the guns carried by the evil FBI agents into walkie-talkies. He would come to disavow these changes, stating in 2011, “George goes his own way and I respect him for it, but my new philosophy on this is to let sleeping dogs lie…When people ask me which E.T. they should look at, I always tell them to look at the original 1982 E.T.” So, lesson learned, hopefully?
Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, initially received with indifference by both critics and audiences, was one of the first test cases for the idea of “director’s cuts.” Its saga began with the 1989 discovery of a 70mm sneak preview “work print” in the vaults of the Todd AO facility — an early version of the film, before studio-mandated insertion of a halfhearted voice-over narration track by Harrison Ford and a vaguely happy ending. That version screened here and there, but Scott made it clear that this was not his director’s cut, and that any director’s cut would have to include the unicorn dream sequence (hinting that Ford’s Deckard might be a “replicant”) that he wasn’t even allowed to shoot for the ’82 version. So Warner Brothers bankrolled Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, and Scott provided an outtake from his 1985 fantasy film Legend to provide the controversial “unicorn” scene. When the director’s cut was released in 1991, Blade Runner finally received the acclaim that had eluded it in ’82, and proved a financial success as well.
But Scott couldn’t resist tinkering with the movie again, and in 2007, Warner Brothers released a new version for the film’s 25th anniversary, titled Blade Runner: The Final Cut. You can decide if you’ll take his word for it. Scott also gave the deluxe treatment to his 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, which saw mediocre reviews and box office upon its 2005 release; his 2006 “director’s cut” added over 50 minutes to the movie and, most critics agreed, improved it substantially. But not every director’s cut is an artistic imperative; when Scott created Alien: The Director’s Cut for a 2003 theatrical re-release, he made it clear that the title was a misnomer: “For all intents and purposes, I felt that the original cut of Alien was perfect. I still feel that way.” In other words, the “director’s cut” of Alien was what it has too often become: merely a marketing tool.
Few directors have reworked their films as extensively and frequently as Cameron, who began tinkering with the possibilities of “director’s cuts” back in 1992, when he released a “special edition” of his hit Aliens on VHS and Laserdisc with 17 minutes of deleted scenes. The response was positive enough that the restored director’s cut of his 1989 film The Abyss — a relative box-office disappointment — which had been in the works for nearly two years, received a limited theatrical release before its two-tape VHS and LaserDisc box set release in 1993. That cut restored a full 30 minutes to the film, which Cameron had been forced to trim heavily at the insistence of his studio, and made The Abyss a richer and more satisfying experience.
But then Cameron started going nuts. His 1992 Terminator sequel was a nearly-perfect mash-up of science fiction and blockbuster action; his subsequent special editions (one 15 minutes longer, another 17) mucked it up with such dubious inclusions as an unnecessary appearance by Terminator star Michael Biehn and a goofy “happy future” ending, featuring some of the worst old-age makeup in movie history. And let’s not even get into the 171-minute “special edition” and 178-minute “extended cut” of the 162-minute Avatar, as if anyone needed that movie to be any longer.
It’s tough to fault Jackson for treating the theatrical releases of his Lord of the Rings films as something of a first pass, simply due to the volume of the material: he was, after all, stuffing three massive books into three films, so the opportunity to create “extended editions” for their DVD release is forgivable (perhaps even advisable), and added nearly an hour and half to the trilogy overall. But then he couldn’t resist going back again, adding another 30 minutes total to the films when they hit Blu-ray, causing jaded viewers to wonder if Jackson was ever actually going to be done with Tolkien.
Apparently not; in 2012, he started rolling out the Hobbit trilogy, which hilariously adapts a slender single volume into three films of its own. And then it gets even more comic/tragic: Five months after the first Hobbit film, the 169-minute An Unexpected Journey, hit DVD and Blu-ray, it was re-released in an extended edition that ran 13 minutes longer. Last year’s second film, The Desolation of Smaug, ran 161 minutes, but later this year, we’ll get an extended edition of that film, adding 25 more minutes. Has anyone introduced Peter Jackson to this crazy idea that you can actually cut things out of your movie, and leave them out?
Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola’s 2001 re-release of Apocalypse Now, dubbed Apocalypse Now Redux, is one of the most famous re-workings of a classic film; it added nearly 50 minutes to the already-epic film’s 153-minute running time, inserting several new scenes and full sequences. The value of the Redux version is arguable; it’s certainly fascinating for fans of the film, expanding the scope and weight of the movie, but nearly every deleted scene was clearly cut for a valid (and valuable) reason. But this wasn’t even the first example of Coppola’s dithering with the final cut; when Apocalypse was released back in 1979, the 70mm version faded to black with no credits (Coppola intended this “roadshow” version to include a credit booklet for all attendees), while the 35mm version ran the credits over footage of the destruction of the Kurtz compound. Coppola had initially shot that footage on a lark (the set’s destruction was required by the government of the Philippines, where the film was shot), and he included it because he enjoyed its dreamlike, surrealistic quality. But some viewers assumed it was dramatizing a strike to the compound, called in by Willard, so Coppola pulled those prints and replaced them with credits on a black screen. And there’s yet another, unofficial version in circulation: a 1978 workprint that runs a staggering 289 minutes (that’s nearly 90 minutes longer than Redux), which basically includes everything they shot — there are reportedly lots of dull helicopter shots, but there are also fascinating scenes that don’t appear in either version. In other words, should Coppola’s new films continue to underwhelm, there’s a decent chance we’ll get Redux Redux.
Friedkin was powerful enough to get, for all intents and purposes, the version of The Exorcist he wanted when it was originally released in 1973; the 2000 theatrical re-release, subtitled “The Version You’ve Never Seen,” was mostly motivated by commerce, though Friedkin took the opportunity to make a few changes (mostly in the ending and the notorious “spider-walk” sequence) that writer/producer William Peter Blatty had pushed for. But the downright bizarre decision to change the entire look of his 1971 Oscar winner The French Connection for its initial 2009 Blu-ray release was his own; he re-timed the color, giving the gritty film the peculiar look of a print that had been colorized by Crayola. Cinematographer Owen Roizman wasn’t even consulted about the bizarre Blu-ray, and was understandably upset. So the film was re-released on Blu-ray in 2012, with both Friedkin and Roizman’s participation, with the correct color temperature restored.
We’ve written before about Kubrick’s all-but-unprecedented decision to take out the ending of The Shining from theaters three days after its opening, complete with instructions to projectionists and demands that the cut scene be returned to Warner Brothers post-haste (instructions that were dutifully followed, since it’s impossible to find the scene anywhere). But he’d actually done something similar with his 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, cutting 17 minutes of the film between its premiere and its release (mere days later). He would come to regret the cuts, which came almost entirely from the “Jupiter Mission” section of the film, but that didn’t mean he wanted anyone to see them; as with his other films, he not only didn’t offer them up for such outlets as DVD special features, but took them from his garage and had them burned shortly before his death. However, a pristine print of the premiere version of 2001, with those 17 minutes intact, was discovered in a Kansas salt mine in 2010; Kubrick fans continue to hold their breath in the hopes that the footage will eventually see the light of day.
Kelly’s 2001 debut, Donnie Darko, was a twisted sci-fi masterwork, and pretty much perfect exactly the way it was — so of course he couldn’t wait to start screwing with it. Three years after its underwhelming theatrical release, after it had finally become a cult hit on home video, Kelly’s director’s cut was released to theaters, running an additional 20 minutes, clarifying and explaining much of the mystery of the original, and basically ruining everything. So widely disliked was the director’s cut, in fact, that it may well have dimmed the sheen of the original movie; neither that film nor Kelly were done any favors by its follow-up, Southland Tales, which tanked with audiences and critics alike when it was released in 2007. The 145-minute theatrical version was actually considerably shorter than the original version, which debuted (and was widely panned) at Cannes a year earlier; Kelly has repeatedly stated his wish to restore the film to that longer version, but thus far there have been no takers.
Several filmmakers’ alterations to their films have prompted teeth-gnashing from viewers, but how many have actually provoked full films of fan rage? The People vs. George Lucas is merely the most obvious example of the contempt fans feel toward George Lucas for his much-maligned “Special Editions” of the original Star Wars trilogy. These altered films, slathered in additional layers of CGI junk, tweaked with odd dialogue alterations and attempts to tie in his lesser prequels, were first seen in theaters back in 1997 and remained works-in-progress as the films made their way to DVD and Blu-ray in the ensuing years. The most famous tweak comes in the first Star Wars film, with Lucas changing the editing and timing of a key early encounter between Han Solo and bounty hunter Greedo; “Han shot first!” became the rallying cry of fans who merely wanted Lucas to make the original, unaltered versions of the beloved trilogy available. Lucas finally did, begrudgingly, in 2006, albeit in a mediocre DVD release that wasn’t even in anamorphic widescreen. Since Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise, fans have hoped for a properly restored Blu-ray version of the unaltered films, though such a release has yet to pass the rumor stage.
Yet the Star Wars films aren’t the only ones Lucas has insisted on screwing up: his 1971 debut film, THX 1138, was released on home video in 2004 as The George Lucas Director’s Cut, and featured the same kinds of additions, alterations, and CGI as the Star Wars films. He couldn’t even keep his mitts off his 1973 hit American Graffiti; for its 1998 DVD release, Lucas altered the opening shot (replacing a dull skyline with a glorious sunset), and when the film hit Blu-ray in 2011, he added neon highlight to the opening credits. No news yet on a new “producer’s cut” of Howard the Duck, but we wouldn’t be surprised.