Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Tenuous Ultimacy of the Ultimate Edition


Though my years-old DVD copy of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is labeled as the "Ultimate Edition", there have been countless successive home video releases of the film, including an "Extreme Edition" and one that arrives in a novelty box shaped like a Terminator's endoskull. A cursory examination of the "special" features reveals these discs are all more-or-less the same.

Three of James Cameron's films have been widely distributed in "special editions" much longer than their respective theatrical releases: Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Allegedly Cameron's preferred version, the extended cut of Aliens was released in 1992, the same year as the seminal Director's Cut of Blade Runner. It's funny how even at the birth of the "special home video edition" phenomenon, the term 'director's cut' was being misappropriated.

In his exhaustive tome Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, journalist/author Paul M. Sammon describes the tangled web of miscommunication that transpired between the collaborators working on the Director's Cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. At one point, two "Director's Cut"s were in assembly, one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Scott himself had written some notes out and left the project behind to work on 1492, leaving Warner Bros. and a series of editors and producers in charge of the project.

This fiasco left the door open for yet another cut, the allegedly Final one, which was released theatrically in 2007.


One of the more egregious fallacies perpetrated on the movie-buying public is the increasingly ubiquitous notion that 'more' equals 'better', which has lead to every other film on the shelves at Best Buy sporting stickers that say things like "Extended!", "Unrated!" and "xx Minutes of Footage too hot/scary/gory for theaters!" They sound like porno buzzwords, which is more-or-less what they are (and it's only barely tangential to bring up that the pornography industry is exactly what we have to thank for every single home video market takeover, from VHS over Betamax up through Blu-ray over HD-DVD).

This leads to the carefully-edited1theatrical cut of a film becoming devastated by the thoughtless insertion of unnecessary scenes that were originally left on the cutting room floor for a good reason. All too often, this becomes the only version of the film accessible to a collector. One great example of this is the "Unrated Director's Edition" of Miami Vice, which almost any Michael Mann fanatic will tell you travesties the smash-cut club-set opening of the theatrical cut with a lame boat race credits sequence and a spoon-feeding explanation of everything you're about to see in the former version's immersive opening set piece. This is the only version of the film available on Blu-ray.

Of course, even when the various versions of a film are available, the onus is left to the individual to slog through two cuts of a film so that he can decide for himself which is the "better"2. You have to really love a movie to be able to put up with something like this; as for myself, there's more-often-than-not another movie that I haven't seen in any iteration that will take priority. For the purposes of my Cameron retrospective on this blog, however, I managed to sit through 289 minutes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 291 minutes of Aliens, and 309 minutes of The Abyss. Were it not for the easy superiority of the Aliens extended cut, I would've found this a deeply resentful task.

Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which exists, across three films, in lengths that can run you anywhere between 558 minutes and a superlative 682. I can tell you right now that, having experienced them in their shortest forms, I cannot imagine any future circumstance that would bring me to sit through 11 hours and 22 minutes of that bunk - especially when their creator, Peter Jackson, is on the record suggesting that the extended cuts are for fans only (my phrasing, not his3).

The Abyss' extended cut presents a good example of Jackson's "immerse them in the diegesis" school of editing. While the "killer wave" finale adds a good ten minutes to the runtime, most of the meat that gets added is comprised of small character beats and scene extensions. If you love these characters and you want to go back and watch all of them singing along to the entirety of Linda Ronstadt's "Willin'", here's your chance. But it only serves to make the piece, as a whole, bloated and over-long.

The extra scenes in the longer version of Terminator 2 are downright awful, from the soft-focus daydream sequence featuring a cameo from Michael Biehn to the "Dyson family at home" scene in which Mrs. Dyson talks her workaholic husband into turning off his computer on a Sunday to take his kids to the amusement park. The scene ends with mother, father, son and daughter embracing, shouting "Hooray!"

There are, admittedly, some nifty special effects worked into the extended cut, most notably the trick shot in which the camera peers deep inside the Terminator's metal skull while he looks on from the mirror completely naturally. But a nifty special effect is just that and doesn't make a good movie, no matter what some adolescents tell you. Special effects, increasing in 'awesome'-ness at an exponential rate (or, as the T-800 might say, a geometric rate), are troublesome. One of the stated reasons for cutting The Abyss' tidal wave sequence in the first place was that they lacked the proper amount of technology and money to finish it for the theatrical release. Rather: Cameron worked with what he had, solved problems and turned in a film much tighter than he'd written on paper.

Similarly, Cameron claims that he'd drafted Avatar as early as 1995 but took fifteen years with it because he was waiting for the technology to catch up with his vision. This, from the man who made the swarms of Aliens with just six men in black latex suits.


George Lucas is the great criminal in terms of constructing movies around special effects rather than the other way around, and yet with every travesty of his original Star Wars trilogy, he pulls the "original vision" card. With the 1997 "Special Edition" theatrical re-releases, Lucas opened a watershed that would engulf his long-awaited prequel trilogy and result in Hayden Christensen getting digitally inserted into Return of the Jedi for the sake of some bastard continuity.

The failure of the prequel trilogy to garner much more than scorn from anyone but the most devoted (read: desperate) of Star Wars fans can be viewed in microcosm during the scene in The Phantom Menace in which Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn provides a scientific explanation of The Force. In an instant, the decades-old notion of an intangible, mysterious divinity that guided (or misguided) our heroes in a galaxy far, far away was made banal by a species of blood parasites.

This scenario is recalled in Jackson's description of the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings. Only a person very different from me would be interested in seeking out an explanation for how Darth Vader is able to choke people from across the room - it's so much more interesting as an old-time religion, part voodoo and part martial art. Similarly, only a person very different than me is so interested in the Baggins clan that they're willing to sacrifice artistic integrity for the sake of a more-expansive mythos4. In most cases, the excised material serves to over-explain or corrupt one-or-more of the film's themes, as in The Phantom Menace5, and as in T2's "If we flip this switch in his head the machine can learn to be human" scenario and as in The Abyss' "supposedly benevolent alien intelligence becomes complicit in our cold war theatrics" finale. Perhaps you needed this stuff to think your scriptwriting to its endgame; again, you cut it from the finished product for a reason.


Aliens provides a notable exception to this trend; for the theatrical release, all mention of Ripley's deceased daughter was excised, robbing her relationship with Newt of a crucial layer. The movie works without it, but it's better with. In the theatrical cut, the arc shared between the two girls becomes concentrated on notions of dreaming (the literal kind) - a mundanity made poignant by the image of a daughter and mother learning to sleep soundly again because they have each other. This is not to say that their surrogacy is vague or incomprehensible in the theatrical cut; rather, the mention of Ripley's daughter is a rare example of Cameron writing a realistic, layered character and not hitting us over the head with her politics or clumsy evolutions. The business of Ripley's daughter is good and deserves to be seen.

The sad fact of the matter is that for every film that is released in its writer's or director's intended form, there are ten that aren't and Aliens (in 1986) and Blade Runner (in 1982) were two of them. Those two films got recut and released in special editions in 1992, and it's telling of the Hollywood machine that it took Blade Runner an extra four years and they still got it wrong; it would take Ridley Scott another 15 to release his definitive version and he still couldn't call it that because the '92 version had become canonized as the "Director's Cut".

Frustratingly, in working for so long at so extraordinary a stature that he was afforded the right to keep editing a big budget Hollywood movie for 25 years, Scott was also allowed to go retroactively reshoot parts of his film, right down to a digital insertion of Joanna Cassidy's head over that of her obvious stunt double. On the DVD release of that "Final" cut, there is a behind-the-scenes featurette in which one of the producers of the reshoots describes the process of organizing the original release's storied errors into "Beloved Flaws" and flaws they could get away with changing. If Scott gets a pass to revisit Blade Runner because of its disastrous production, I say he shreds it when he goes in for horseshit like these reshoots.

This 2007 release is, allegedly, the intended version of Blade Runner, but what happens when Scott decides he likes another actor better than Joanna Cassidy for the role? At this moment in time, with photorealistic Na'vi and a terrifyingly computer-generated thirty-something Arnold Schwarzenegger making appearances in the multiplex last year, the onus lies squarely on the shoulder of the man with the rights to make these kinds of decisions and change or not-change his films.

Any powerful-enough director - Cameron, Lucas, Jackson, Scott, et al. - has today an all-too-easy path to meddle with previous films, and the money-back guarantee of a repackaged DVD makes this kind of thing a no-brainer for the studios and distributors. An extended edition of Avatar is already geared for a theatrical release later this year, and surely we can also count on a follow-up home video release in time for Christmas. So what of the film in the theater, man? What happens to the movie that you spent fifteen years putting together that drew America together in arguments both juvenile and philosophical not four months ago? What happens when George Lucas decides he wants to destroy every copy of the movie that generations grew up on because it doesn't have Hayden Christensen in it?

The community of a theatrical exhibition is being desecrated left and right these days, and in this case it is at the hands of the people in charge. Quit it!, already, with the bigger, badder, meaner DVD re-releases and try getting it right the first time. Put your damn film in the can and move on. The movie is an extant piece of art and once it leaves your hands, it's up to the evolving, mutating audience to judge, decry, revere or refute as they so choose. It's the audience that will breathe life into a film after it's done. If you, the director, never let go of the thing, how can we ever hold on to it? What will your film even be?

1.) We can only hope it's carefully edited. [back]

2.) Or the funnier, or more interesting, or more precise... [back]

3.) Peter Jackson, discussing the extended editions:

"For [The Fellowship of the Ring] we also had certain benchmarks that we wanted to reach in terms of the pacing. We wanted the Hobbits to leave Hobbiton within 25 minutes of the movie's beginning; we wanted them to get to Rivendell by a certain time because we wanted the decision to destroy the ring to be no more than halfway through the movie. There were certain structural things that felt like they were sort of marker posts that we wanted to work with. [...] Also what I like about putting more scenes back in the DVD is the fact that if you dig the movie, if you did like the film, and you want to sort of see more of it, if you want to learn more about who they are and what they are and learn more about their motivations, then there's these scenes that do exist that actually give you that information, that background information. So, it's nice to be able to give people an opportunity to see those if they want to."
In other words, the theatrical cut is paced like a movie should be paced and the home video cut is for die hards with a lot of time on their hands. [back]

4.) At this point, my less-than-popular opinion that the Lord of the Rings films aren't very good is more than evident. To each his own, but I believe my point stands even if you love them. Perhaps: especially if you love them. [back]

5.) I realize I'm here discussing the prequel trilogy - not actually a three-feature series of deleted scenes - as though it is little more than a series of half-baked ideas, afterthoughts and ciphers best left on the cutting room floor. Exactly. [back]


  1. "Quit it!, already, with the bigger, badder, meaner DVD re-releases and try getting it right the first time"


    And I say this as someone who has watched all three extended versions of the LOTR movies back to back. But also as someone who's purposely volunteered to work overnight library shifts on her birthday-- by which I mean someone who sometimes likes doing silly, excruciating things just to have done them.

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  3. Keep it off the boards, Cassandra!

    Tell us - are the extended editions of LORD OF THE RINGS more-or-less what I've posited them to be?

  4. Way to delete my impassioned opinions. Censor! (Kidding)

    Honestly, that was 6 years ago, so I can't say for sure. But I can say that when I watched those movies initially, I wasn't like "Whoa. That was a great picture. But what it really needs is 20 MORE minutes where nothing of any note happens, and tears roll down someone's cheek in slow motion. That would be great."

    However, I have many friends who are fans, at least of the movies, and I believe also of the extended versions. I'll see if I can convince any of them to come by and weigh in.