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Director’s Cuts: Remastered by the Old Masters

The advent of incredibly flexibly home media has had an amazing impact on the world of film, right down to how the damn things are made. With producers carefully putting together additional content (or “bonus features”) for the eventual release of the film on home video (if that phrase means anything these days), and the temptation to “retouch” old films to bring them to the standard of the current format of entertainment system, it’s little surprise that we’ve seen the upswing that we have in the market for “Director’s Cuts” and “Extended Editions”. I’m kinda wondering if we’re entering a phase where all movies should be viewed in the same light as George Lucas views his own: they’re works in progress, never finished.

Screenshot from the mythic "Deckard is Keyzer Soze" ending to Blade Runner

Screenshot from the mythic "Deckard is Keyzer Soze" ending to Blade Runner

Part of me is a little nervous when a director asserts their right to “remaster” a classic film. Changes can be as simple as Stephen Spielberg inserting an “Indiana Jones and” at the start of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, or they can be as massive as George Lucas’ changes to his own Star Wars films. Some of me wants to hold on to my cherished childhood memories – even if that does mean out-of-date effects. The problem with most of the approaches such as Lucas is that they only bother to upscale the latest version of their work. So, while he did eventually release a version of Star Wars where Han shot first, it was of very poor quality. Little or no clean-up of the image, no audio enhancement. That may have been his way of raising the middle finger to fans: you want the originals, you can have them, in their original state! I don’t want these copies of Star Wars because I was unhappy with you adding channels to the audio or enhancing the image, I want them because I wasn’t happy with how you retroactively changed the story. In fairness to any remastering done on the BBC’s top-line DVD releases of vintage Doctor Who, almost all disks come with an option to watch the classic version or the updated and enhanced version. That’s the kind of model I’d like to see for projects like Star Wars.

Still, it’s not all bad. When I look for comfort at the prospect of digitally re-editing a classic film, I look to my blu ray edition of Blade Runner. The saga behind the movie is so legendary it doesn’t bear repeating here. Sufficed to say that director Ridley Scott had his version of the story and Harrison Ford and the producers had theirs. he film flopped on release, but Scott never lost interest in the project. Over an extended period of time, he put together various edits of the film to bring it closer to his own vision, until technology (and interest) advanced so far that he could remaster it completely for High Definition. He amended a view cringeworthy shots, remixed the soundtrack, included some footage long thought lost and otherwise tweaked various aspects of the production. The result is Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Sure, it sounds quite similar to what Lucas did above, but the difference is in the release. The blu ray is a five-disc (you read that right) edition of the movie, with the final cut occupying a whole disk to itself, the workprint occupying a whole disk to itself and three other versions of the movie on one disk, with “branching” set up. Sure, the main attraction is Ridley Scott’s ultimate version of the story, but the rest is there if you’re interested. It is one of the most prized disks in my collection.

And, in fairness, the format does offer the chance to correct past mistakes. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is so different from what made it to screen as to almost be an entirely different film. Richard Donner was famously fired as director halfway through filming the second film, and replaced with Richard Lester, who crafted a different, lighter and less sensible film with plotholes Superman could throw a bus through. The director’s cut, painstakingly remastered on a shoestring, makes the story a lot stronger and adds a great deal of depth, creating a true companion to the original. It almost seems as though we waited nearly thirty years for a true sequel to that original Superman. Though one senses that these examples are the exceptions that prove the rule – do we really need and extended edition of American Pie?

In an ideal world, with the flexibility of the digital disk medium, all movies would allow branching – so the user can choose what version they wish to watch. I am a little surprised though at the amount of modern films featuring “extended” cuts on home media. I was quite surprised to pop in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and get offered an extended cut. It was the same deal with Step Brothers. You have to wonder if time in cinemas was so tight they couldn’t include seven extra minutes – if they were really worth including at all. Maybe this is part of Hollywood’s grand strategy to keep us buying – “you might not have been impressed with the movie in the cinema, but there’s a better one on DVD and blu ray!” It does seem the obvious way to make back money on a film that met with a muted or negative critical and commercial response. Apparently the director’s cut of Daredevil is quite good (and much better than what we saw in cinemas), but I won’t be rushing out to buy it.

Watchmen, available in uncut and uncircumcised editions

Watchmen, available in uncut and uncircumcised editions

In fact, it is hard to see these disks as anything but a moneyspinner for the studios. Not least of which when you consider that the Director’s Cut usually emerges only after the regular edition has been on shelves a while – leading true fans of the work to buy several different versions of the movie. Case in point is the new Watchman DVD. On 21st July, Warner Brothers is releasing both the theatrical and director’s cut of the movie. That seems fairly upfront, right? So that no one will be duped into buying both cuts? It seems that way until you consider that the director’s cut (with 27 more minutes) is not the “ultimate cut” promised by Zach Snyder late last year. It doesn’t include half the special features he warned us were coming. There’s a fair bit of speculation that we will see that super duper extra-classy special edition on the shelves in time for Christmas, long enough for a few of us to cave and “settle” for the director’s cut. It’s understandable, given how the movie underperformed, but I’m not happy with it – and I imagine I’m not alone. Given the film is fairly recent and the ultimate cut Snyder mentioned already exists, there’s no reason not to release it straight out of the gate.

I can see people tiring of this approach soon enough. The problem then is that the executives will probably interpret low sales as a lack of interest in the movie and cancel the deluxe edition coming down the line. Sometimes there’s no winning. My dream edition of Watchmen is similar to my dream edition of Blade Runner – five disks, branching of several versions with the ultimate edition on its own disk.

What do you think? Sound off below.

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