The Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas is one of those historic architectural jewels Chamber of Commerce brochures drool about. Built near the turn of the century as a vaudeville and live theater venue, the Paramount eventually fell into disuse and disrepair and was slated for demolition. Fortunately, Austinites saved the Paramount from the wrecking ball and instead meticulously restored and renovated it.
Among other things, it’s now host to the Paramount Summer Cinema Series; an annual summer-long tour de force of Hollywood’s best movies. Double features with the likes of Bogey, Stewart, and Marilyn or by Hitchcock, Ford, or Woody Allen play every summer night on a silver screen bigger than many modern multiplexes and all for less than it costs to go see Arnold deliver the latest bland, market-tested catchphrase.
Traditionally, genre films get at least a week to shine. Such classics as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Alien,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even “A Clockwork Orange” have all unspooled before large and appreciative crowds. The highlight of genre week, however, is the annual Director’s Cut screening of Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner.”
Like most people, I consider the Director’s Cut of “Bladerunner” an infinitely better version than the spoon feeding, voice-over-marred, happy ending-scarred original. Indeed, I embrace the Director’s Cut of this film as a cinema landmark. One for the ages. Which makes me a hypocrite.
You see, I condemned George Lucas to cinematic hell for his so-called “Special Edition” of “Star Wars,” going so far as to boycott “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Highly Marketable Teddy Bears,” much as I desperately wanted to see them on the big screen. Well, “Empire…,” anyway.
So, is this mere semantics here or is there more to it than that? What makes a “Director’s Cut” a good thing while a “Special Edition” is an affront to the Film Gods? With “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” opening imminently and fresh rumors of a “Bladerunner” sequel rumbling out of Hollywood – again – now’s as good a time as any to explore an issue that ranks right up there with the “Alien” vs. “Predator” debate.
“Star Wars,” as has been well-chronicled, simply transcended cinema. While critics scoffed at its plastic sets, simplistic storyline and wooden acting, the film nonetheless connected with the world’s collective psyche and became an international phenomenon. As the years passed, “Star Wars” and its two sequels surpassed such mere mortal labels as “phenomenon” and graduated to become universally recognizable pop culture icons.
Aside from its impact on awestruck moviegoers, “Star Wars” also launched a number of revolutions which forever altered the way Hollywood does business. Almost single-handedly, the film made science fiction, which had been a perennial film and television pariah, “respectable” again. The success of the film paved the way for the revival of the “Star Trek” television series and movie franchise, and such film franchises as the “Alien” and “Terminator” films. All of the recent science fiction blockbusters, in fact, such as “Armageddon” and “Independence Day” owe their birth, at least in part, to the legacy of “Star Wars,” (as does, ironically, a certain bleak science fiction detective story starring “Star Wars” alumni Harrison Ford.)
Finally, with the film’s unprecedented box office performance came the genesis of the Hollywood blockbuster mentality as well as the emphasis on cutting edge special effects; both trends which continue to this day.
Obviously then, in addition to being a popular and beloved film classic in its own right, “Star Wars” had an immediate, profound and long lasting effect on the movies and movie making in general.
“Bladerunner,” on the other hand, initially had nowhere to go but up. With Han Solo and Indiana Jones fans salivating over another Harrison Ford science fiction spectacular, expectations for this new film by red hot “Alien” director Ridley Scott were wildly inflated from the start. When those same fans, expecting another thrill-a-minute joyride, instead laid eyes on “Bladerunner”‘s somber, brooding, cautionary detective tale, the film sputtered at the box office. In those Stone Age times before the VCR and cable movie networks, a poor box office showing usually meant a quickly pulled plug at the theater and obscurity for the film.
Yet despite the film’s obvious defects, something about it stuck in the craw of science fiction fans. Gradually over the years, like the “Glass is Half Full” astronomers who got all they could out of a fuzzy Hubble Space Telescope, these same fans began to appreciate the flawed beauty of the original studio version of the film. Before long, “Bladerunner” seemed to be heading for a “Buckaroo Banzai” level of cult status.
Then word began leaking out of Hollywood about what would soon become the stuff of “Bladerunner” legend. Murky and contradictory tales of how the studio tacked on the hokey “hover car in the mountains” ending trickled out as did a rumor that the studio brought back Ford over Scott’s objections to record the insulting, dumbed-down voice-over.
Finally and most intriguingly, word got out in those pre-Internet days about a crucial missing scene; the infamous unicorn dream sequence that possibly changed everything about Deckard and, thus, the movie itself.
Then suddenly, the first of several “Director’s Cuts,” each of which much more closely approximated Scott’s original vision, inadvertently appeared around eight years ago. The ensuing acclaim quickly elevated “Bladerunner: The Director’s Cut” to the lofty status it enjoys today.
Which brings us to the damning difference between a “Special Edition” and a “Director’s Cut.” Generally speaking, while the former mainly contents itself with offering up new, “never before seen” footage, simply bacause it can, the latter often makes drastic alterations to the film.
For last year’s 20th Anniversary of “Star Wars,” for instance, George Lucas could have simply restored and re-released his original, universally beloved film on the big screen as a celebration. Instead, he desecrated his own work by simply… adding stuff. More Stormtroopers. Bigger explosions. More X-Wings and TIE Fighters. More creatures in Mos Eisley. For that matter, more Mos Eisley. Bigger, louder, fancier, but certainly not better and all because he had newer toys to play with.
There’s nothing “special” or even useful about the “Special Edition.” With the notable exception of Luke’s encounter with Biggs in the hanger before the final battle, the attempts to tweak the film’s storyline either add nothing – the redundant new scene with Han and Jabba – or fail miserably, such as in the detestable “Greedo shoots first” scene. (In my mind, Han will forever shoot first, just as in my mind, the atrocious “Alien III” never happened.)
The same can be said for other “Special Editions.” The “Special Edition” of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” primarily gives us more psychedelic alien spaceship lights and more footage of Richard Dreyfuss gaping in astonishment.
My personal nightmare is that Paramount will do a “Special Edition” of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and we’ll get treated to another half hour of the Enterprise floating through that damned V-Ger cloud. Or worse, another thirty minutes of Captain Kirk and the gang standing around in those chic late-70’s jogger suits.
The “Director’s Cut” of “Bladerunner,” by way of contrast, was a desperately needed course correction. Scott didn’t tinker at the edges of his film by adding an aircar here, say, or a new building to 2019 Los Angeles there. Though the changes he made to the film were technically simple, they’re huge in their plot implications. Gone now are the ridiculous voice-over and the focus group “escape to the mountains” ending. Roy Batty’s silent slipping away in the rain now ranks as the best screen death ever while, with the addition of those precious few seconds of Deckard’s vaunted Unicorn dream, the gritty Bladerunner’s past – and future – gets thrown wonderfully open to speculation and debate. “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”
James Cameron’s Director’s Cut of “The Abyss” is another example of a valid use of the “Director’s Cut” tool to repair a badly damaged film. In this case, the studio’s shortened version has the soapdish spaceship miraculously bringing Ed Harris up from the deep – can anyone say, “The Bends?” – and offers audiences a salvation-of-humanity happy ending.
In Cameron’s far darker version, there’s no happy ending for mankind. Longer and far more depressing, Cameron’s Director’s Cut is nonetheless a hell of a lot better than the original release.
But isn’t it possible that the “Special Edition” of “Star Wars” is really a much-delayed “Director’s Cut” with a fancier name? Maybe. After all, Lucas tragically claims that he intends for this “improved” version of the Trilogy to replace the original films. So, maybe these really are his “Director’s Cuts,” just twenty years late.
But if so, then where does it end? Five or ten years from now, will someone get the brilliant idea to replace Mark Hamill in “Return of the Jedi” with his younger, digitized, pre-car wreck self from “Star Wars?” Digital cloning. Wait for it.
I don’t buy it. At some point, some sort of Statute of Limitations should kick in, preventing anyone – even the director – to change any film regardless of whether they call it a “Special Edition” OR a “Director’s Cut.”
At some point, the film should belong to history.