11 Director's Cuts That Changed a Movie's Plot
Whether because of a dispute with the studio or just a plethora of unused material, a director often feels the need to re-release a classic (or not-so-classic) film. Often these directors’ cuts or extended editions are just more bloated versions of the original, but on occasion they represent a departure from the entire original. Here are 11 movies that look a lot different when you watch the version the director intended.
1. BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Blade Runner has actually gone through many iterations. There was the theatrical cut released in 1982 with a “happy ending” shoehorned in by the studio. Both director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford hated it, and Ford has even confessed that he wasn’t giving it his all when recording a voiceover that he called “not an organic part of the film.” Then came the “directors cut” in 1992 that Scott also disowned.
Finally, Warner Bros. worked with Scott in 2007 to release the Final Cut of Blade Runner, the only version over which Scott had complete control. It contained several changes (particularly to the score) and new scenes, but perhaps the most significant was the confirmation—or close to it—that Ford’s character Deckard actually was a replicant. Instead of the “happy ending” that shows Deckard and Rachel driving through a beautiful landscape, Scott’s ending is more ambiguous and simply shows them leaving Deckard's apartment. Plus the appearance of an origami unicorn in front of Deckard’s door hints that he is, in fact, a replicant (a similar calling card had been used earlier in the film to denote replicants). In interviews about the new release, Scott confirmed that Deckard was a replicant in his version, although Ford said he believed the character was human.
2. DONNIE DARKO (2001)
Despite the cult success of the mind-bending film, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly repeatedly apologized for the theatrical release of the movie, stating it was not his original film. To make up for it, he convinced 20th Century Fox to release a directors cut in 2004 that he felt would be more cohesive and easier for viewers to understand. The most notable change he made was literally adding in text from the fictional The Philosophy of Time Travel, which had previously been a DVD extra. Fans were split: some loved the explanations that filled in previous plot holes, others hated the notion that they needed to be spoon-fed the story.
3. METROPOLIS (1927)
Although it’s considered a masterpiece of cinema, the plot of Metropolis can still be a bit difficult for some viewers to understand. But a recent extended version that uses footage from prints discovered after some 80 years in Argentina and New Zealand helps remedy that—by filling in plot details as director Fritz Lang had intended. Film historians had long been looking for the extended footage from Metropolis, which was cut before its original release to ensure a 90-minute running time.
Mostly, the new footage (which is intercut with title cards and still images to fill in for damaged or missing frames) serves to smooth out plot details, including a crucial scene in which the sorcerer Rotwang explains his plan to use robots to stir a labor revolt. But historians said it also helped them learn about how the legendary film was made, including the fact that it had been tinted by hand.
4. SALT (2010)
There sure are a lot of different versions of this film floating around. On the DVD release, director Phillip Noyce included an extended version and a director's cut that adds more intrigue to the film. In the original, a Russian sleeper agent played by Liev Schreiber follows the U.S. President to his secure bunker, then knocks him unconscious. But in the director’s cut, Schreiber’s character goes even farther and assassinates the president. In a voiceover on the director's cut, it is revealed that the new president is also a Russian agent waiting to be activated, which would make a sequel a serious bummer.
5. PAYBACK (1999)
In the theatrical release of this Mel Gibson film, almost the entire third act differs from director Brian Helgeland’s original vision, which was unresolved until the release of a 2006 director's cut. The most notable change, however, comes at the very end of the movie. In the theatrical release, Gibson’s character kills two top mob figures, then drives off happily with the female lead, Rosie, and his dog. In Helgeland’s version, Gibson is shot in a train station showdown. Rather than driving off happily with Rosie, she picks him up while he is bleeding and his fate is left up in the air.
6. LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)
In the original film, the relationship between the hitman Léon and his 12-year-old neighbor Mathilda was already a little dicey, what with the two of them collaborating on a series of murders. But the directors cut adds a whole new level of discomfort. In it, Mathilda—played by Natalie Portman in her film debut—is shown to be far more involved in the assassinations of a crew of drug dealers. She also sexually propositions Léon and plays a game of Russian roulette to force Léon to say that he loves her. Those scenes were in the original European release, but were cut because producers were concerned about how American audiences would react.
7. SUPERMAN II (1980)
Due to a number of disputes between him and the film’s producers, director Richard Donner left the set of Superman II without completing filming (he had been filming both the original and the sequel simultaneously). Notably, the producers refused to include any footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El in the sequel because of the massive cut of the box office gross he was requesting. The studio then brought in Richard Lester to replace Donner, forcing him to reshoot some scenes, rewrite others, and edit out most of Donner’s work. That left a movie with roughly 25 percent of Donner’s footage and 75 percent new work (and zero percent Brando).
The 2006 “Richard Donner Cut” brought back the director’s original vision, although the editing was choppy and Donner had to use some unfinished test footage to fill in the holes. But fans generally agree it makes more sense. For example, the theatrical release never fully explains how Superman gets his powers back after voluntarily giving them up, but the Donner cut shows that Jor-El “dies” again to restore the powers. The new version of the sequel also ends with Superman flying around the world to undo the damage of the supervillains and purge Lois Lane’s memory of the fact that he is Clark Kent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that scene was written into the end of the original once it became clear it wouldn’t be used in the sequel.
8. ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (2001)
A 2003 “special edition” release of the much-lampooned Kevin Costner vehicle doesn’t contain many earth-shattering changes. But it does introduce a new backstory for the Sheriff of Nottingham by revealing that he is, in fact, the son of the evil witch Mortianna (who murdered the real son of the original sheriff and replaced him with her own). Sadly, the special edition doesn’t do anything to fix Costner’s uneven English accent.
9. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005)
By adding some 50 minutes of footage, director Ridley Scott said his new cut of Kingdom of Heaven also adds a whole heap of context for the violence in his Crusades epic. For example, a priest that the blacksmith Balian kills at the beginning is revealed to be his half-brother, making their feud more about family relations than religion. The new cut also introduces an entirely new character, Baldwin V, who even becomes king before his family discovers that he has leprosy. Although the director’s cut was widely praised (unlike the theatrical release), at three-and-a-half hours, it never really took off with viewers who already hated the original release.
10. AND 11. EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) AND DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)
These aren’t directors cuts per se, so much as two directors using the same script and lead actor to make the different movies. Paul Schrader was hired to direct Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and managed to finish a final cut of the film. But producers at Morgan Creek weren’t happy with the result—too much religion, not enough blood—and decided to scrap that cut. But rather than get rid of the investment, they hired on Renny Harlin to retool the script and film a new version with star Stellan Skarsgård staying on board as Father Merrin.
Harlin’s version was released in theaters as Exorcist: The Beginning. But Schrader soon won the rights to release his own version, leaving audiences with two Exorcist prequels that both starred Skarsgård. Neither was well-received and both followed the same basic plot. But critics looked slightly more favorably on Schrader’s, which includes a love interest (that does not get possessed by a demon) and deals more with Merrin’s loss of faith.
An earlier version of this article appeared in 2011.