There are certain rules known only to a select few by which it is possible to predict the quality of movies. The origin of these rules is often obscure and difficult to explain. One, which has entered common thought, is Rule 21: “The ‘Director’s Cut’ is always the best version of the movie, except when it isn’t”. This seemingly contradictory statement in fact hides a deeper truth. Not all ‘Directors’ Cuts’ represent the director’s own artistic vision.
Aliens was released in 1986. In 1992, an extended version of the film was released with roughly 16 minutes of extra footage added on – this was termed the ‘Director’s Cut’. Production of this ‘Director’s Cut’ was overseen by the director himself, James Cameron, and, unusually for a modern Hollywood movie, included almost all elements from Cameron’s original script. For this reason it can be said that the ‘Director’s Cut’ was a true reflection of Cameron’s original intention for the movie. The film is improved by the additional scenes, characters and settings are made clearer and more complete, subplots are included and the film is a more rounded whole. One significant addition here is that it was now possible to calculate roughly the surviving population of aliens at any point in the movie. This made Aliens more about a battle of attrition where the humans are clearly on the losing side rather than the overwhelming defeat implied by the original theatrical release from 1986. The ‘Director’s Cut’ was originally intended to be a limited edition gimmick for boosting VHS sales but it quickly became the definitive version of the movie and as such, has remained available through DVD and Blu-ray to this day.
When the four original Alien movies – Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992) and Alien Resurrection (1997) – were released on DVD in 2003 as the Alien Quadrilogy, both a ‘Director’s Cut’ and ‘Theatrical Version’ of all four movies were included. Although this was one of the best and most complete box sets ever released on DVD at that time, it is important to point out that there is no such word as ‘quadrilogy’ in the Oxford English Dictionary – a story made up of four distinct parts is actually called a tetralogy. Anyway……with that out of the way……Ridley Scott was asked to remaster his film Alien, the first in the franchise, and add some of the existing deleted scenes to create a ‘Director’s Cut’. The result, according to Scott himself, was not a “director’s cut” in that it was not his preferred version of the movie. It is simply a different version of the film, shorter perhaps and more streamlined with additional scenes that explain the life-cycle of the alien. It is a close-run thing but the ‘Theatrical Version’ is better. It has a slower burn, is more consistently tense and it works better as a standalone movie. Both versions are worth seeing.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the two versions of Alien 3 (or Alien 3 if you prefer) included on the Quadrilogy boxset. The script was famously hammered by numerous rewrites and was finally broken by studio interference. Neither version here really saves the film, nor does it get close to David Fincher’s original vision – the closest we have come to that is the ‘Special Assembly Cut’, which was released as part of the 2010 Alien Anthology on Blu-ray. More than half an hour of additional scenes were remastered and re-dubbed on this version. This may not save the movie in the eyes of some fans but the plot makes more sense and the characters are more fleshed out. The ‘Special Assembly Cut’ is the one to watch in the end.
But back to the Quadrilogy, and the situation with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection. There are also two versions of the film here. In this case, the ‘Director’s Cut’ did not add anything significant in terms of plot or character – an opening and closing scene are unnecessarily added with some poorly finished special effects. As with Alien this was not the director’s preferred version of the movie but was simply an alternative version for the DVD release. It does nothing to correct the weaknesses of the ‘Theatrical Version’ and in fact needlessly prolongs a movie which had long since gone off the rails.
The trap is when you start to believe that every purchasable film packet with ‘Extended’, ‘Unrated’ or ‘Director’s Cut’ written on it is somehow a better or more complete version of the movie. This is simply not true. In many cases the additional scenes are nothing more than a gimmick to promote the ‘Home Theatre Release’ and thus adding nothing substantial to the film as a whole. Compare the significant alterations made to the first three Alien movies, discussed above, to the pointless extension of the Alien vs. Predator films. These extended versions do nothing except prolong an already mediocre film. They add nothing in terms of plot, characters or setting. To name another few more at random: Fifty Shades of Grey, Paranormal Activity 4, Enemy of the State, Poltergeist 3D, Black Christmas, Con Air, Rogue, The Hills Have Eyes (the remake), The Evil Dead (the remake), Wrong Turn 6 and Road Trip were all released as ‘Extended’ or ‘Unrated’ versions but none of them did anything to make the movie better.
There have always been multiple versions of movies. A different cut of Howard Hawk’s noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946) was flown overseas to the American Forces. Back when nun-chucks were banned from British Television, you needed a friend of a friend of a friend with a grainy VHS copy to see an ‘Uncut’ version of Bruce Lee’s martial arts masterclass in Enter the Dragon (1973). Multiple endings exist for Conan the Barbarian (1982) depending on where you source the film. In 2000, a “darker” ‘Director’s Cut’ of Lethal Weapon (1987) was released on DVD which indeed works much better as a standalone feature.
Ridley Scott will come up again and again in this discussion as a director who, by persuasion or by design, released multiple versions of several of his movies. Gladiator (2000) for example, has been released in the ‘Theatrical Version’ and on DVD as an ‘Extended Edition’ which reincorporated several deleted scenes – the added scenes slow down the pace of the movie and add little in the way of action or character development. Scott was keen to point out that his preferred version of the movie was the ‘Theatrical Version’ and the ‘Extended Edition’ was little more than a gimmick for fans who wanted to buy the DVD package. However, this was not the case with Scott’s next historical focus in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – an historical epic in the true and traditional sense. This is far more than an extended action film. The production is lavish, the story is complex, the characters grow and develop and the setting is immersive. Unfortunately, most people will never know this because the ‘Theatrical Release’ of the movie was cropped, chopped and reduced to a simple linear story with little character development and a nonsensical plot.
During it’s production, there was the same familiar conflict between the studio expectations for the movie and the director’s vision. In response to these disagreements Scott shot two versions of Kingdom of Heaven. Based on the (uninformed) opinions of preview audiences (may they all be tortured slowly!) the ‘Theatrical Release’ was cut by 45 minutes. Not only were essential plot developments left out but important characters with their own side stories were completely removed. The film was then poorly received by cinema-goers and critics. It was not until the release of the ‘Extended Version’ on DVD – the true expression of Scott’s vision – that audiences were able to see the scale of his accomplishment. This ‘Extended Version’ was critically acclaimed also. Unfortunately, based on the opinion of a few yahoos (nod to the great Bill Hicks), we will never get to see this version in the cinema. Despite this lesson that should have been learned from Kingdom of Heaven, several other historical epics have suffered and continue to suffer a similar fate.
Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, got a mixed response from critics and audiences. The ‘Extended Edition’ or ‘Director’s Cut’, which was released on DVD probably won’t change minds about the film’s mediocrity but it is by far the better version to watch. The characters are more fleshed out, the politics are more involved and the action is more realistic. Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) was similarly butchered. The ‘Theatrical Release’ was cut at studio insistence. The so called “director’s cut” released on DVD in 2005 simply was not what it said it was – it was re-edited into chronological order to help the hard-of-thinking and also, the homosexual scenes were cut out. Only with the release of Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut in 2007 did we see something close to what Stone had intended – a complex portrayal of a historical titan told in nested flashbacks and book-ended by two key battles. Not an easy film to like but certainly a rewarding film to watch. Stone re-edited it yet again in 2014 to produce the ‘Ultimate Cut’, reducing the running time and tightening up the story. Considering the success of DVD and Blu-ray sales of Alexander, it is worth pondering over its lost potential on its cinema release if Stone had indeed been allowed to do his thing in the first place.
Watchmen (2009), directed by Zach Snyder, was always going to be a movie that would split opinion. With the source material being held in such reverence by comic fans and Alan Moore, the creator, increasingly distancing himself from any adaptions of his work, there was no way the final product would please everyone. Ever cautious, the studios (Warner Bros. and Paramount) released a ‘Theatrical Version’, which was heavily cut from Snyder’s initial screen test and then a ‘Director’s Cut’ on DVD. The ‘Director’s Cut’ is closer to the source material and takes more time to flesh out the story’s themes. Only the ‘Ultimate Cut’, which was released on DVD in late 2009, includes all the elements of the comic including the animated sections, Tales of the Black Freighter. If you have the stamina, the ‘Ultimate Cut’, all 215 minutes of it, is the most rewarding watch of the three versions. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003) were all released individually as ‘Extended Versions’ for DVD in order to catch the Christmas markets a year after their respective releases and then of course, a ‘Special Extended Edition’ of all three films together was released in 2011. Fun though the ‘Theatrical Versions’ are, the ‘Extended Versions’ are really the only ones in which the story arcs are fully rounded.
Are there exceptions to Rule 21? The answer is: possibly. Most people now agree that of all the different versions of Blade Runner available commercially, the ‘Final Cut’ is the best. It is the closest to what Ridley Scott had originally envisioned and it has no voice-over to help the intellectually challenged. However, some fans prefer the original as it feels less sci-fi and more neo-noir. Another example is the ‘Special Editions’ of the original Star Wars Trilogy. Although the Battle of Yavin is undeniably easier to follow with better special effects, many fans would gladly trade that to have Han Solo shoot first. It is interesting to consider that Lucas’s tinkering adds very little to The Empire Strikes Back and only adds pointless garbage to The Return of the Jedi – neither film were directed by him. Other films, like Apocalypse Now Redux (an ‘Extended Version’ of the original and released in 2001) are just too damn long. However, in the case of Redux, it is more like a different vision or a different experience than a definitive “director’s cut”.
Some ‘Director’s Cuts’ and ‘Extended Editions’ exist only in legend or for those internet savvy enough to download them. The ‘Ulysses Cut’ of Waterworld (1995) restores around 40 minutes of footage, which had been removed against the wishes of the original director Kevin Reynolds. A lesser ‘Extended Edition’ is available on DVD but the ‘Full Cut’ has only ever been shown on TV. According to legend, there exists a nearly 4 hour version of The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas. This ‘Complete Version’ restores the film as the Viking epic that director John McTiernan envisaged, before interference from the studio took hold and before, if you believe the rumours, Michael Crichton took over the editing duties. In many cases, fan-edits have restored deleted footage in an attempt to improve movies or to approach what they believe to be the directors’ original intentions. Fan versions of Dune, Blade Runner and The Punisher all exist on the internet somewhere and are worth watching. Mostly they have taken work-print footage and restored that in into the movie.
So, does Rule 21 stand up to scrutiny? For the most part, yes. In almost every case when an experienced director is allowed to pursue their vision to the fullest extent, the results are notably better than the chopped and edited result of studio interference and test audiences. Of course, there are always financial constraints. Waterworld was insanely over budget with a production that went off the rails and had to be re-edited to broaden its appeal. Studios have learned that if you let Terry Gilliam off the leash, this is at your own peril – see Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about his failed attempts to get a film about Don Quixote made (finally, due to be released next year). What is difficult to understand is, if the footage is shot and the director’s vision is possible, then why not let it happen? Why turn the edit over to marketing executives and people with nothing to do of an idle Tuesday except join a test audience? The truth is…because they forgot about Rule 21 surely!