The best and worst 'Director's Cut' movies

Donnie Darko: Director's Cut, Lord of the Rings: Extended Editions, Blade Runner: The Director's Cut.

So Zack Snyder’s original cut of Justice League will finally see the light of day in 2021. It could take the form of a four-hour movie, or a mini-series, but who knows whether it will be better or worse than the Joss Whedon-driven version that hit cinemas in 2017?

Enlarged formats like DVD, Blu-ray, digital and streaming have allowed filmmakers to deliver their extended, definitive cuts of their movies, but they’re not always improvements on the theatrical cuts.

Best – The Lord Of The Rings Extended Editions (2001-2003)

When you’re adapting some of the greatest works of literature in history, you get a free pass when it comes to running times. Peter Jackson didn’t shy away from JRR Tolkien’s triptych – the studio originally wanted him to make just one movie from all three books – but not only did he capture their essence in the theatrical cut, he went there and back again with the extended editions on DVD (and later Blu-ray): exhaustive (and expensive) full-fat versions of Tolkien’s lengthy tomes, reintroducing characters thought lost and sub-plots deemed unworthy of cinemagoers’ time. All in all, the Extended Editions added 157 minutes back to all three movies – that’s basically the equivalent of an extra Lord Of The Rings movie.

Worst – Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)

he movie "Apocalypse Now", directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Seen here in foreground, facing troops, Cynthia Wood as Carrie Foster, Playmate of the Year. (CBS via Getty Images)

Lord knows Francis Ford Coppola had a hard enough time making Apocalypse Now the first time around, so we’re mystified as to why he went back for more: director’s cut Apocalypse Now Redux added 49 minutes to the film, clocking in at 202 minutes total. Was any of it necessary? Did the additional scenes, including one lengthy (and, let’s be honest, boring) sequence on a French Plantation, improve the movie? Or did they just make the movie longer? It didn’t help that one of the extra scenes, involving Playboy Playmates, lends the movie an air of misogyny that wasn’t there in the original cut. It’s like Coppola painted makeup on the Mona Lisa – why mess with a classic? Coppola tinkered with the film again to deliver Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut in 2019, and it was a marked improvement on the Redux.

Best – Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)

Zack Snyder is a filmmaker who will not be constrained by namby-pamby running times. His movies frequently clock in at over two hours, but in the case of Watchmen, his adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, we’ll allow his indulgence to do justice to the source material. Snyder’s first superhero epic was his most well-received but it wasn’t until Snyder released the Director’s Cut that 24 minutes of essential material was restored to the run-time, including the death of Hollis, extra Rorschach and some crucial Comedian flashbacks.

Read more: What’s different in the Snyder Cut?

Even better, the Ultimate Cut features the ‘Tales Of The Black Freighter’ accompanying animation woven into the main feature, with Gerard Butler voicing The Sea Captain. It’s as definitive an adaptation as Alan Moore is ever likely to not see.

Worst – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice: Ultimate Edition (2016)

It seems there was no salvaging Batman V Superman – adding more of it only made it suck longer. Zack Snyder again could not contain himself on celluloid, but the additions he made to Batman V Superman did not fix the fundamentals: Superman is still humourless and dour, the story is still spread too thin and the final third is still hopelessly convoluted. Added scenes, like Gotham cops watching a Metropolis State vs Gotham City football game, add some nice texture, but the story is still a mess and the machinations of all involved are still muddy (Lex’s dalliance with Kryptonite is still unexplained). Now if Zack wanted to make the movie shorter, then maybe we’d give it a second go…

Best – Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

Ridley Scott must have gnawed his fists as critics savaged his 2005 Crusades epic, claiming it was both over-long and not detailed enough. The director must have known that the version of the movie put out in cinemas was not the film as he knew it; only when the Director’s Cut was released on DVD, featuring an additional 45 minutes of plot, was the finished version Kingdom Of Heaven unveiled to the public. This version improves the story tenfold, adding back-story for Orlando Bloom’s blacksmith, more detail to his relationship with Liam Neeson and a whole new sub-plot following Eva Green’s son. As historical hack and slashers go, this version of Kingdom Of Heaven is hard to beat.

Worst – Blade Runner: Director’s Cut (1991)

The best and worst director's cuts in movie history

Now, before you began typing your angry rants in the comments section, hear us out. Yes, the 1992 Director’s Cut edit of Blade Runner did fix some issues with the film, like the awful blue sky shot of the dove, and the removal of the hammy voiceovers, which Harrison Ford allegedly recorded against his will. However, the so-called Director’s Cut actually had nothing to do with Ridley Scott – the, uh, director – and so it necessitated the release of Scott’s own Final Cut in 2007, where he controversially reinstated the full unicorn dream sequence, removing some of the ambiguity regarding Deckard’s biological makeup. If you have to release two ‘definitive’ cuts of your movie, something has gone wrong.

Best – Heaven’s Gate: Director’s Cut (2012)

American actor Jeff Bridges attending a meeting in the film Heaven's Gate. USA, 1980. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Michael Cimino’s western redefined the word ‘epic’ in 1980: it released in cinemas at 219 minutes long, shorn from the 325 minute version the director wanted to release. It bombed, was called “an unqualified disaster” and became known as one of American cinema’s most legendary flops. Then, in 2012, Michael Cimino debuted a ‘director’s cut’ of the movie for the 69th Venice Film Festival, which was adored by critics, kicking off a mass reassessment of the picture. Cimino actually shortened the movie, removing the intermission and trimming several characters. This version of the movie is now deemed to be the finished version – and it only took 32 years in the edit suite to get it right.

Worst – Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut (2004)

Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal during American Cinematheque Presents The Los Angeles Premiere Of "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut". (Albert L. Ortega/WireImage for New Market Films)

The original ambiguous cut of Donnie Darko wasn’t exactly studio or audience friendly, leaving lots of gaps for viewers to fill in, but that’s why people fell for it – it was bizarre and broken and practically begged further exploration. But when director Richard Kelly released his Director’s Cut three years after the release, fans called foul: in adding in 20 extra minutes of exposition and going the extra mile to explain away some of the film’s mysteries (required reading which had been explained via the film’s amazing official website was now displayed on-screen), Kelly robbed Donnie of his allure. Worse, in finally securing the rights to the opening song he wanted to use, ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ by INXS, he cut the Echo and the Bunnymen song ‘The Killing Moon’ which set the movie up so perfectly.

Best – Once Upon A Time In America: Cannes Film Festival Cut (2012)

American actor Robert de Niro on the set of Once Upon a Time in America, directed by Sergio Leone. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The original ‘European cut’ of the Robert De Niro Prohibition-era drama was one of Sergio Leone’s finest works and is one of the most compelling stories about American life – it’s just a shame America itself has never been able to see it. After the initial 229-minute cut was savaged, a 139-minute version was released theatrically in the US and got a short shrift. However, in 2011, Leone’s children oversaw a digital master of their father’s original vision, which restored missing scenes, put the movie back in non-chronological order and changed the ending. It debuted in Cannes to rapturous applause but rights issues to some deleted scenes mean the restoration continues – so it hasn’t even taken its final form.

Worst – Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: Special Edition (1980)

When Steven Spielberg warned his pal George Lucas about tinkering with the original cut of Star Wars, he was talking from experience. When Close Encounters was a huge hit, despite the fact it was rushed over the finish line, Spielberg demanded Columbia let him recut the picture, shooting new scenes some three years after the movie initially released (albeit without his Director of Photography and without the principle members of the cast). Fatally, Spielberg shot new scenes inside the alien mothership – with the express intention of adding something tantalising to get audiences back into cinemas – but the new additions tainted the classic ambiguous ending. Spielberg eventually removed the mothership scenes when the film was once again recut for the 1998 Collector’s Edition.