Ten years ago today, Richard Kelly released a director's cut of Donnie Darko in theaters, adding 20 minutes of extra footage that provided further depth on some of the film's mysterious content. In doing so, he ruined Donnie Darko.
Now, maybe the film was always going to lose its cult luster as its audience got older, and the director's cut just accelerated that. But there was a definite sense that whatever spell Donnie Darko had cast over its audiences, the director's cut helped undo real fast. With the advent of DVD releases, this has become an increasingly worrisome trend that doesn't just apply to George Lucas' incessant tinkering with his Star Wars films. Maybe directors didn't like the rushed process of getting their films to theaters; maybe they want to write over whatever studio notes they were given. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to futz with things once the DVD is being prepped. Here are some of the worst offenders:
Richard Kelly made every mistake a director can make in revisiting his work. He subbed out one fantastic music cue — Echo and the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" to open the movie — for the horribly mismatched "Never Tear us Apart" by INXS. He inserted scenes that explained his take on a lot of the film's mysteries, which had been much more ambiguous and fungible for theatrical audiences. Of course, this is Kelly's film, and in his mind Donnie Darko followed a very specific plot thread that could be explained, especially if you explored the film's supplemental materials, many of which were included on the film's website and original DVD. But crowbarring it into his director's cut made for a lesser movie.
Michael Mann's adaptation of his own TV series got a very mixed reception in theaters, but it certainly had its fans, especially among critics. The film version dropped you in the middle of a tense scene as Crockett and Tubbs tried to deal with a panicking CI; the DVD director's cut opened with an interminable boat race in an attempt to clear up plot details. But Miami Vice was not a film that lived on plot details. Its success was in atmosphere, and much like Richard Kelly, Mann made the confusing choice to sub out some excellent musical cues with some terrible ones, like Nonpoint's horrendous cover of "In the Air Tonight" for the climactic action scene. The result was a film that didn't even appeal to cult fans but did nothing to broaden Miami Vice's audience.
Terry Zwigoff's black comedy was one of the biggest surprises of 2003, a surprisingly cute and dark little number about a drunken mall Santa that, from the poster, looked like your typical R-rated dirty joke-fest but actually had a beating heart and a very wry wit. Zwigoff was certainly responsible for much of that success, but his director's cut (which actually made the movie three minutes shorter) took out a lot of the funny material, as if he didn't think the audience realized Bad Santa wasn't just a comedy. It feels like a studio butchering, but the director actually did it himself. Avoid.
James Cameron's Films
James Cameron is the master of adding unnecessary padding to his films for DVD editions. The over-long The Abyss is hilariously turgid in its 170-minute Special Edition. Terminator 2 added a superfluous dream sequence with Michael Biehn returning as Kyle Reese. Aliens sacrificed the original film's tense mood by giving the audience a look at what was happening on the colonist planet before the marines arrives, then spending endless amounts of time concentrating on the ammo counts for some sentry machine-guns during a last-act action sequence. Happily, when Cameron futzed with Titanic to make it 3D, he didn't make it any longer.
The Lord of the Rings
The extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring is actually quite well-done. Yes, Peter Jackson pads an already long movie by 30 minutes with nothing that's utterly crucial to plot. But especially since it's the film that sets everything up, it all works. Unfortunately, the success of the DVD release emboldened Jackson too much. The Two Towers is 44 minutes longer, and The Return of the King is a ludicrous 50 minutes longer, and that's a movie that was already 200 minutes long in theaters. This is the ultimate lesson we learn from DVD extended editions: the bigger the success, the more it encourages directors to ignore editing. If fans love the movie, they'll want to see everything you shot, all cut together! This is why Peter Jackson is making three Hobbit movies out of one short children's book.
Go away, George Lucas. Give us the original editions on blu-ray and then go away forever.