The Rise of Movie Extended Editions: Is More Always More?

From Aliens and Lord Of The Rings to Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, we take a look at the extended edition...

The average movie used to be around 90 minutes long.

That’s not strictly true, by the way – some cursory Google research puts paid to that particular piece of received wisdom – but reviewing the running times of what were some of my favourites flicks back in the day, I was hard pressed to find many that breached the two hour mark.

Which seems fair. Save the odd historical epic or substantive biopic, most stories designed for consumption in movie theatres should be able to be told in under 120 minutes. Besides, now that the quaint notion of an intermission appears to be in its death throes, simple logic dictates that films on theatrical release be kept to a manageable, easily-digestible runtime. I’ll be damned if I’m missing one minute of the film I’ve paid a bundle to see regardless of the arguments being made by my bladder. 

Of course, our tolerance for extended run times is rather different when viewing from the comfort of our own home, where timely utilization of the pause button (not midway through a scene, darling) allows us to maintain our viewing pleasure for as long as our patience – rather than our bodies – allows.

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But is that necessarily a good thing? Despite owning all three, it was the extended editions of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy that first made me query the merits of embiggening a theatrical release. The ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice came in at a butt-numbing three hours, and then there’s the extended edition of Suicide Squad. It all begs the question: are we blessed to be able to spend more time in a world we enjoy? Or are we paying through the nose to witness a filmmaker’s ineptitude at efficient storytelling?

“I didn’t know how long we’d have together. Who does?”

It was in response to the VHS phenomenon in the ’80s that the notion of providing an alternative version to a theatrically release on home video first gained traction. They used to almost exclusively be called the ‘director’s cut’, because during their infancy they often came about at the behest of the filmmaker; desperate for us to see their unmolested vision, free from the interfering nips and tucks ordained by the studio.

Director’s cuts aren’t necessarily ‘extended’ versions. Blade Runner’s was actually a minute shorter – more notable for what was removed rather than restored (unicorn dream sequence notwithstanding). But some filmmakers don’t want to make changes to the existing footage and are seemingly happy with the content of their movies. Instead, they take the opportunity to reinstate entire scenes, side stories and plot elements.

Sometimes these true “extended editions” pay dividends, presenting the audience with a richer or more cohesive narrative. Sometimes, though, these additions simply engorge the running time without enhancing the film. At best we get to spend a little more time in a world we enjoy; more often than not we’re getting the exact same film but with some unsightly bloating.

“How long was I out there?”

Aliens: Special Edition is notable for including, in my opinion, examples of how additional footage can both enhance and harm a film.

The original theatrical cut of Aliens is a tightly coiled thing of nerve-shredding, tension-building beauty. While not exactly a short film – Jim Cameron doesn’t really do those – it is beautifully paced and, like Terminator before it, brutally efficient. The additions of the special edition are very much a mixed bag, but when considered in their entirety make for a slightly inferior film for my money.

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On the plus side: yay, sentry guns! While they in no way further the plot they are unarguably awesome, and watching the digital ammo counters deplete further and further not only reinforces the sheer number of relentless enemies closing in on our survivors, but also ratchets up the already considerable tension.

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And if you want an example of how the insertion of a modest piece of footage can open up an entire sub-plot and reinforce the power of an existing story thread, then look no further than Ripley breaking down upon learning of her daughter’s fate: reaching old age before dying of cancer while Ellen was drifting through space for 50-odd years. It makes her connection with Newt even more profound and understandable, adding a whole new dimension to their relationship. Being called “mommy” at the end of the final battle brings their arc to an emotional and well-earned resolution that resonates much more strongly knowing what we now know.

But if this represents the best of what an extended edition can offer, some of the other choices fall very much into the other camp, most notably the addition of scenes set on the PTU colony on LV-426.

During my first exposure to the original cut, a standout sequence was when Ripley and her military entourage breach the reinforced entrance to the now deserted complex; the eerie silence punctuated only by boot steps and the minimalist industrial soundscape. Throughout the tortuously methodical sweep of the facility, the words of Van Leuwen as he curtly dismissed Ripley during the film’s opening inquiry rattled around my brain: “Sixty, maybe seventy families.”

Every blast impact on the walls, every sundered barricade, every piece of twisted metal… the absence of any pre-catastrophic reference made the resultant shell of a burned out facility somehow even more foreboding and dripping with atmosphere and tension.

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Watching the special edition, that reference was suddenly and unexpectedly provided when early in the film we cut to the colony in full working order, two settlers discussing how The Company has sent some of their number off-site to check something out. And it felt… wrong… invalidating much of the mystery and intrigue that follows. It not only struck me as entirely unnecessary, but it also helped devalue subsequent sequences, not least the late (although admittedly unsurprising) revelation that The Company sent colonists out to investigate the derelict spacecraft.

In the theatrical cut, the first time we get a look at an alien is when the marines discover a lab full of face-huggers kept in jars. Such an understated entrance for these iconic monsters was a masterstroke of subtle manipulation. Hanging inertly – for the most part – in their suspensions (“two are alive, the rest are dead”) we are left to ponder the circumstances that led to their retrieval as Bishop dispassionately fills us in on the details, his clinical assessment conjuring yet more nightmarish visions.

Of course, the extended addition shows Newt’s dad with one wrapped around his head, his wife on the blower calling the other colonists for help. So that’s another flight of fancy rendered obsolete.

Speaking of Newt, the theatrical cut gives her another wonderful introduction: a feral girl with dirty, matted blonde hair and shell-shocked eyes – God knows what she’s been through. When she meekly mentions her brother Timmy and the fate of her parents we can only imagine the contrast between happier times and the traumatized child we see now. Again, thanks to the extended edition, we are shown a brief snippet of her life before she was introduced to the “perfect organism.” She comes across as mildly irritating; my sympathies over her eventual predicament are tested.

For me, all these examples prove the power of omission – both for good and ill. Extended editions can certainly improve a movie, but they can also damage it.

The Lord Of The Rings extended editions are almost a special case. Neither enhanced nor debilitated by their extra scenes, they’re simply longer. If you enjoy spending time in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, then I guess that can only be a good thing. I myself am very fond of those films, but I would be lying if I said the epic length of each one didn’t put me off retrieving them from the DVD shelf for a gander; in fact I can’t remember the last time I sampled their delights. Would I be more partial to a re-watch if I owned the theatrical versions? I think I probably would be…

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“What do you want?” “Justice!”

To be clear: I’m not against a film having a long runtime. A film should be the length it needs to be. However, if a film ostensibly ‘works’ at its theatrical duration, then it’s rare that a longer version can improve on it. At best, you just get more of what you liked, at worst the movie becomes flabby and less well-structured.

However, there are rare occasions when an extended edition is revealed to be nothing of the sort – it becomes clear upon viewing that this is how the story should have been told in the first place and that the theatrical release was, in fact, the ‘truncated edition’.

I’m reliably informed that another Ridley Scott epic, Kingdom Of Heaven, is immeasurably improved in the longer director’s cut. Hell, even Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil became a better movie when the studio allowed him to release a version that re-calibrated the romance to grit ratio and reinstated the legal subplot.

These tend to be the exceptions though; because only the most short-sighted and creatively bankrupt producers would demand cuts that result in a poorer, less comprehensible movie (although frustratingly it still happens).

And while it’s no doubt a financially driven motivation (shorter runtime = more showings a day = more money), a studio’s insistence on bringing a film in under a certain length usually results in a better viewing experience. Economy of story telling is a valuable trait in Movieland, and imposed runtimes force filmmakers to find creative or more efficient ways of imparting essential information and removing the inconsequential chaff. You only have to wade through the deleted scenes of most DVDs to be grateful that someone was asking the director to kill more darlings than King Herod. Admittedly, the odd gem slips past, but rarely to the detriment of the entire picture.

Indulge a director and you end up with something closer to a Tarantino picture – dear Quentin being one of the few directors who gets his extended version up on the big screen, leaving viewers like me wishing for a shorter ‘studio cut’ on Blu-ray.

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Sometimes a studio and the proclivities of a director conspire to produce an overblown motion picture; I haven’t met many people who think Peter Jackson and New Line/MGM were right to stretch The Hobbit over an entire trilogy. That extended editions exist beggars belief – the theatrical versions already felt too long.

But in an age of binge-watching and movie marathons maybe it doesn’t matter. We’ll spend three hours on the trot watching a few episodes of our favorite TV show, so what’s the big deal about settling down to watch a 3-hour version of a 90-minute story? Hell, it’s good value for money if anything, right?

Maybe. But movies are different to TV, and those differences should be celebrated and safeguarded. While a movie should be whatever length it needs to be, I’m not convinced many movies need to be over two hours – fewer still need to be over three. By and large, extended editions only reinforce this notion. They tend to be indulgences rather than required viewing – curiosities, rather than definitive versions.

It’s often so-called ‘visual’ directors that have the most trouble squeezing their flick into a manageable runtime, and it’s their movies that often get the ‘special edition’ treatment. Perhaps it’s because of their innate desire to always ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Or because they can’t help but do both at the same time. Often in slow motion.

Which brings us back to Zack Snyder and Batman V Superman.

Did his ‘ultimate edition’ redeem an unfairly maligned epic that was hamstrung by the constraints of a paltry two and a half hour run time? While I personally wouldn’t go that far, it was inarguably a more cohesive piece in its extended form. But theories that Warner Bros. had butchered a critically acclaimed version of the film proved unfounded.

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It was a bit better – and a lot longer. I’m starting to think that’s no longer a good enough return on our investment.