This post isn't intended to promote Cameron or Avatar but present a discussion of Director's Cuts so I will follow that thought. The blu-ray of Avatar had a great 'making of' documentary and a lot of deleted scenes. I watched the entire documentary and was impressed at the scale of the accomplishment of the film. The deleted scenes got me thinking about how rarely I like deleted scenes. There is usually a degree of curiosity about elements of story or character that didn't make it into the final cut but in the end I find that I'm nodding in agreement that the scene was cut. Most often these scenes are digressions that don't advance the story. Remember that the audience wants to know what is going to happen next and if the scene doesn't advance the plot then they start to become restless. I have tried many times to watch deleted scenes on dvd and I have found that I lose interest very quickly. There is a reason why they were deleted.
This leads me to thinking about director's cuts that worked well and others that were a waste of time. Here are some...
Blood Simple: The Coen brothers revisited their first film and removed three minutes. The Coen's tightened up the film. The theatrical release featured a fake film historian who introduces the film to the audience. The Coen't sense of humour is at work here as the segment took as much time as they removed so the running time of the director's cut and the original were the same. Unfortunately the introduction is not on the current dvd edition (although it's on an earlier release).
The Abyss: The theatrical version of this film featured a 'what the f*#k?' ending. A well crafted action adventure film that didn't make any sense in the end. Cameron released a director's cut that reinstated an entire subplot about the world on the brink of nuclear war. The aliens of the deep were going to annihilate the human race if it wasn't for Ed Harris. This missing piece makes the film make a lot more sense. Cameron said that when the film was released no one was making an audience sit through a two and a half hour film. In 1989 it was thought that long films were death at the box office. 'Dances with Wolves' came out a year later proving them wrong - a three hour box office hit. Some might say this is ironic as Cameron's own 'Avatar' has been called a version of 'Dances with Wolves' which is itself a version of the Pocahontas story. Apparently there is a director's version of 'Dances with Wolves' but I have not seen it so will not comment.
Blade Runner: Ridley Scott has released many versions of this film and most people would say that the last version is the best version of the film. The big cuts were the original gumshoe voice-over and a much more ambiguous ending. There is a definitive blu-ray/dvd set with all versions of the film so you can watch the one you like the most (nudge, nudge Mr. Lucas).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Steven Spielberg didn't feel the film was complete when it was originally released. He negotiated to make a theatrical director's cut to finish the film and the studio agreed so long as he showed the inside of the alien spaceship. Spielberg agreed and tried to finish the film the way he wanted it. In the end the interior of the spaceship was a big mistake and Spielberg went back to the editing room to finally make the film he envisioned in the first place. The current edition is the 'definitive' edition and a great blu-ray to buy. Those night skies really needed high definition to look good.
Touch of Evil: Technically not a director's cut, 'Touch of Evil' was recut to the notes that Welles had given the studio about their cut of his film. Originally all the notes were ignored. Walter Murch was hired to make Welles' changes to both sound and picture. The film is now much closer to what Welles had envisioned when making it.
Mr. Arkadin: The criterion people put together a definitive edition of Welles' film 'Mr. Arkadin' (also known as 'Confidential Report'. There were many versions of the film around the world so Criterion put together all of these films and tried to reconstruct the film in a way that Welles had suggest to friend and confidant Peter Bogdanovich. Again, not technically a director's cut but a vast improvement on the hacked versions that were floating around. God bless those criterion folks!
Lawrence of Arabia: From Imdb -
Runtime:216 min | UK: 228 min (director's cut) | UK: 187 min (1970 re-release) | UK: 210 min (original version) | UK: 222 min (premiere version) | USA: 227 min (restored roadshow version) - initially shortened for audiences, Lean eventually worked on restoring elements to his remarkable film.
Das Boot: Originally shot for television and then re-imagined as a feature film for American audiences, Das Boot featured a more comprehensive story line and a really amazing 5.1 surround treatment. This is one of my favourite experiences in a movie theatre. My good friend Vince and I hit a matinee of this film when it was rereleased and we were exhausted by the end of the film. We literally felt like we were in a submarine, being hunted down, for three hours. Sublime.
So what about those film that didn't need any tampering?
E.T. - Digitally removing guns lessens our tension. The original was perfect - no need for tampering.
Star Wars - Greedo shoots first? Why kill Han Solo's entire character arc? Some of the improved effects were nice to see but the story worked fine originally.
Empire Strikes Back: Again, Cloud City looked a lot better than it did in the original but other than that nothing is added that improves the original.
Return of the Jedi: Ditto.
Apocalypse Now Redux: By calling it redux Coppola tries to sidestep the idea of 'Director's Cut'. It is a restoration of his original cut of the film. Although I do find Redux to be worthy of interest I do prefer the original. In particular the French Plantation scene, although interesting, happens so late on the journey that it's too much of a digression - we want to get to Kurtz. Spending a half an hour on the political dialogue of these French ghosts happens much too late and doesn't advance the story. I did see this film in the theatre and I found it much more trippy and bizarre than the original and I applaud that. That said, I prefer the original film.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: I'm sure the fans of the series love the director's editions of the films. I'm indifferent. I've seen both and like both but I can't really remember what the director's cut added to the film other than time. I'm sure the fans would tear me a new one on this comment but there you go.
I'm sure I've missed many films here but most of these are on the high end of the spectrum. I can't really speak to the '40 Year Old Virgin' or 'Pearl Harbor'.
One film that might be of interest to some readers is the television version of 'The Godfather' called 'The Godfather Saga'. They combined 'The Godfather' and 'The Godfather Part II' into one film for television. They created a linear timeline where you first meet Vito Corleone in Sicily and play out the flashback sequences from part II, then move to 'The Godfather' and then to the storyline of Michael as head of the family and his dealings with Fredo and Hyman Roth. There were other versions released as well. There is a good wikipedia entry on the topic. There were also new scenes added that didn't appear in the original films. The big change here is taking away the juxtaposition of Michael and his father in part II. The juxtaposition of story makes the audience think about the differences between Vito and his son and how they wielded power and for what reason. Does this affect the richness of Part II? If you can find the Saga you can tell me (it's very rare).