Tag Archives: Ridley Scott

Cutting the Director’s Cut

tv times
Cover art for Yorkshire TV Times Magazine

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Star Wars. I was six years old. We queued outside the cinema in northern English cold, and, by the time we made it into the packed auditorium, the front crawl had already crawled and the Storm Troopers were storming the rebel ship. I wouldn’t see the complete film until 24 October, 1983, when it debuted at 7.15 in the evening on ITV, at the time Britain’s only commercial TV channel. Five and a half years had passed and yet Star Wars had been a constant in our games and our toys, as well as listening to the soundtrack and reading and re-reading George Lucas’s first novel with ‘16 pages of color illustrations’.

Today the situation is obviously different with instant downloads, simultaneous DVD releases, or at the longest a wait of a few months before a film can be owned and re-watched over and over again, complete with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and perhaps an alternative ending. And though I don’t want to wax whimsical about the good old days, I do want to emphasize the amount of air that could exist around a film. In this space, there was plenty of room for rumour and speculation, and the legendary director’s cut, the first six-hour version of a film, was a commonly repeated theme: the cut would be butchered and hacked back by an unsympathetic studio and what we saw was only a remnant of the artist’s vision.

An example of this was a film that had been planned as a follow up to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had been released in the UK in the autumn of 1982. The rumours of a five-hour version were encouraged by the film’s narrative ambiguity, some apparent inconsistencies (how many replicants?), and later by the occasional surfacing on late-night TV of versions that included bits no one remembered. The rumours were also encouraged once more by the space such thinking had to play in. The lack of internet sites – from encyclopaedic collections such as IMDB to the plethora of geek blogs – meant that such speculation took place in the letters pages of fanzines and on the bus to school, with very little ground for confirmation or decisive rebuttal. It also helped that Blade Runner evoked a world that seemed to stretch far outside the frame of the cinema screen or the VHS pan-and-scan TV screen, the first way I got to see it. The idea of an epic five-hour film was sustained by the idea that Los Angeles in 2019 looked such a big and detailed world. There was room to explore.

Such hopes and illusions came crashing down with the release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut in 1992. Although it gave us the opportunity of seeing this film – most of us for the first time – on the big screen, it decidedly was not the five-hour epic of the director’s vision. In fact, it was shorter than the original release. The changes were at once momentous and weirdly inconsequential. The theories about Deckard being a replicant – encouraged by a close reading of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – were rendered explicit: out went the off-cut from The Shining, in went the off-cut from Legend, and banished was the sleepy noir-ish narration (which I guiltily still love: ‘no one advertises for a killer in a newspaper’). With the further release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, complete with a five-disc edition containing deleted scenes, all the major alternative versions and a documentary about the alternative version, the legend was now the province of purists, pedants and the bird-spotters of cinema, a frame here, a rerecorded line there. Clarity was given not only in the re-mastering of the image but in the elimination of those beguiling inconsistencies (how many replicants?) and, more damagingly, ambiguities: ‘I want more life, FATHER.’

Nowadays, the director’s cut is no longer a mysterious legend but a marketing tool, a way of boosting ancillary sales and a counter in getting directors to compromise on the theatrical release. Watching a Ridley Scott film at the cinema seems almost a waste of time, as we do so knowing full well that the director’s cut will be on the way, with an introduction by Scott at the beginning, grumpily disavowing any compromises made. Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and most dramatically Kingdom of Heaven all had big director’s cut releases, often with a cynical delay to allow the dedicated the joy of effectively buying the same movie twice. The latter is often cited as a director’s cut that vastly improves on the original, but 1) the increased amount of Orlando Bloom offsets any subplot; and 2) given it is a better version, why didn’t Scott fight for it tooth and nail? I can only watch a film for the first time once, so that experience should be optimal. Directors’ cuts encourage carelessness and compromise even as they pretend to authenticity and definitiveness, sometimes providing opportunities for endless noodling with flawed material. See Francis Ford Coppola’s appalling Apocalypse Now: Redux or Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Alexander: The Director’s Cut and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, or better still, don’t.

Then there are the restored classics. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America was famously butchered by the editor of Police Academy at the behest of the studios. Even though there has been a longer European cut available for some time, a new version was recently released, which restored many missing scenes. But what the film gains in coherence it loses as a watching experience. The film stock has obviously degraded and there is a glaring difference in footage quality with the lost scenes. For a restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the original cast now in their sixties and seventies overdubbed additional scenes to a similarly jarringly effect. A restored scene in Spartacus between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier had Anthony Hopkins doing an impersonation of Olivier in the overdub.

The dream is always that hidden treasure will be found, a lost version restored, the director’s vision finally realised, but time and again films are significantly damaged by these interpolations. Of course these aren’t necessarily directors’ cuts. They are alternate versions and, as with the recent rerelease of The Shining, there is evidence to suggest the directors might well not have wanted their films released in these versions. Sometimes less is more.

Directors’ cuts exist also in the context of ‘Unrated Versions’ of comedies (more tits, less funny), and horror movies (more gore, less scary). Having given you everything so quickly and so completely, there is still the need to shove the idea that you are somehow getting more, quantity though and not necessarily quality. ‘Including 23 minutes of previously unseen footage’ doesn’t promise much except perhaps the studio wanted an R, and the director gave them an NP-17. As a film writer, I can’t bemoan the availability of all these versions (although that is what I’m doing). I just feel disappointed; disappointed that the universe is shrinking. Now we can see the director’s second thoughts and they are rarely as good as their first. Films become flabby with additional scenes, and that sense of unseen possibility is stymied and ultimately destroyed.

The experience I had between 1977 and 1982 of nurturing the memory of a film and reliving it in so many ways can’t ever be regained, but with all our wealth of cinematic accessibility it is worth remembering some of the positives that came in the austere time, when Han Solo shot first and Jabba wasn’t CGI.

John Bleasdale

In ‘A Catholic Childhood of Unwatchable Terror’ John Bleasdale recalls his sinful teenage days watching forbidden films.

Prometheus and Panspermia


When considering the origin of life on Earth, it’s worth thinking of the planet as a giant petri dish. Between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago life began to evolve. It’s unknown exactly what started the conversion of the primordial soup into the single-celled and then multi-celled organisms that would first populate the seas and then climb out of them, but there are two main theories. Abiogenesis suggests life naturally began to evolve when the surrounding conditions of the soup, the temperature of the Earth, cloud cover and so on, became ideal for the amino acids in the quagmire to start to coalesce. The other, exogenesis, requires an outside element, some kind of cosmic dust (rather than, say, a dissolving 8-foot albino humanoid) falling to Earth in a meteorite and starting off the chemical reactions.

The exogenesis theory is part of the notion of panspermia: that life – in the form of dormant bacteria (perhaps from the disintegration of older planets) floating through space – might seed a planet like ours and lead to the long process of evolution. More fanciful ideas of exogenesis and panspermia involve fully formed aliens (rather than bacteria) landing in spaceships and using the planet as a laboratory to create new life or give the existing fauna a push in the right direction.

This science-fictional concept was at its most popular in 1968 thanks to the book Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, written by Swiss author Erich Anton Paul von Dä;niken, who, not long after the publication of his most famous pseudo-scientific work, was arrested for other successes in the fields of fraud and forgery, in particular the embezzlement of $130,000 over a twelve-year period. The uncredited co-author of the book, filmmaker Wilhelm Utermann, found fame for disseminating another story that captured the imagination of the public a decade later – the adventures of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music.

Chariots of the Gods puts forward the theory that aliens visited the Earth in ancient history and had a hand in forming religions and civilisations. The popularity of this notion in the late 60s was further bolstered by the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year. Kubrick’s film shows aliens playing an active role in evolution, leaving a black monolith in prehistory, which inspires our primate ancestors to first pick up tools, and another on the moon to act as a calling card, suggesting that modern man, having found this second monolith, should travel on further to the next sign post on the galactic road.

All of the above, in a tangential way, brings us to the $120 million entertaining sci-fi epic Prometheus. Including elements from the science and pseudo-science I’ve talked about so far – the film mixes elements of panspermia, exogenesis, Chariots of the Gods, alien star maps and so on – Prometheus is a prequel to the seminal (and I mean that in every sense of the word) sci-fi horror film Alien (1979). Its status as part of the ongoing Alien franchise is something that the filmmakers became ambiguous about as the film neared release, which is understandable given the failure of many recent prequels. Furthermore, ‘prequel’ implies a direct narrative link to an existing story, which Prometheus doesn’t specifically have; the film certainly puts some of the 1979 film’s events in motion but it doesn’t end in a way that immediately sets up the plot of Alien, so using the term ‘prequel’ could lead to disappointment.

That said, I think any fan of Alien who sees Prometheus is much more likely to be disappointed not by the lack of explicit joining of dots, but rather by the poor quality of the dialogue and plot details that drive the film forward. There are lamentable lines of dialogue such as a geologist defining his character with the immortal line, ‘I’m a rock guy, I fucking love rocks’. Another problematic area is the cavalier attitude the characters display while on a scientific mission (compared to the miners in the original film, who might be forgiven for their actions): they open their helmets in an alien environment; finger the exogenic slime in a subterranean chamber; and try to befriend extra-terrestrial snake creatures when they rear from said obsidian goo… These are dumb movie characters acting in dumb movie ways and saying dumb movie lines; something that was not true of the original Alien films but did characterise the Alien vs Predator spin-offs, which this new film was supposedly created to replace and eradicate from our memories.

In fact, Prometheus can’t help but evoke the first AvP movie (2004), which echoes Chariots of the Gods with the existence of an ancient Mayan-style temple covered in alien symbols built beneath or before the Antarctic permafrost; this was designed as a weapons testing ground and discovered by a group of archaeologists, led by the titular head of the Weyland Industries corporation. That film received a worse critical reception than Prometheus has and certainly is the less impressive film of the two, but it also contained the input of some of the creators of the original Alien, in this case, the writers rather than the director.

There is one thing that AvP does better than Prometheus: the lighting of the sets. Much of the atmosphere of Prometheus is undone by overly lit chambers, in contrast to the stygian locales of Alien, which allowed the eponymous creature to hide in the shadows and create a genuinely disturbing world. One of the reasons for the existence of Prometheus seems to be to render some of the unused designs H.R. Giger had produced for the original film, such as the wall relief depicting the messianic original alien, a giant head in a mysterious cavern and more of his archetypal biomechanoid set designs. While it’s great to be able to see these on screen finally, having them too well lit destroys much of the atmosphere that made the first film so great.

Prometheus tries to be scientifically credible – the recent discovery of extremophiles, creatures that can withstand environments we didn’t believe could sustain life, improves the odds of finding life on another planet or moon – but it ultimately disappoints for having loftier aims than its predecessors, which it doesn’t realise in nearly as satisfying a way. In its characters and scenarios, Prometheus mines the rest of the franchise. Ripley’s iconic flame-thrower makes a return, as do mad scientists who mix alien DNA with humans – previously seen in Alien Resurrection (1997) – and an emotionless android who acts both in the interests of his human colleagues (as did Bishop in Aliens, 1986) and against them (as did Ash in Alien), and meets the same fate as one of his fellow robots. All this means that you could see the franchise itself working as panspermia, with characters and plot elements dispersed among the sequels where they take root and grow in different directions. Prometheus sows the seeds for a possible sequel, and leaves the door open for its makers to try and correct their flawed creation through further evolution in a future Prometheus 2.

Alex Fitch

The Treachery of Memory and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Blade Runner

My first memory of watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is on New Year’s Eve 1983. A family friend had a new VHS player and I, my mum and her partner had been invited round. I remember the images blinking through the fog of cigarette smoke. We were watching in the dark, which was strange to my 11-year-old self. I was drawn into this world of sky-climbing buildings and the euphoric Vangelis soundtrack. I may also have nodded off for some of the time. I could see the clock on the video player shunting through the minutes, then hours, and gradually ease its way towards midnight. No one said anything, no one switched over to the TV for the countdown, no celebratory drink was poured, nothing. The display flicked to 0.00 and I wondered if I was the only one who had noticed. Far from feeling the coolest 11-year-old on the block, I felt cheated, and that, I suppose, is why the memory is so vivid. Now of course, I usually delete this emotionally weighty part of the story and give the cut version, that yes, I saw Blade Runner when it came out, and started my second decade well versed in cinematic sci-fi. Such is our capacity to retrieve and retell memories, to have our own variations of events.

Blade Runner is set in 2019, just seven years away from the time of writing, and the projected reality in the film appears to be close at our heels. Touch-sensitive, zoomable screens mimic Deckard’s (Harrison Ford’s) photo enhancer, and the division between organic memory databanks and digital data spaces is breaking down. Photo albums backed up on flame-proof Flickr, years of diaries turned into blogs or Facebook timelines that we can carry anywhere.

The film leaves you with a nagging feeling, a dark paranoia, that our memories are a key to our sense of knowing ourselves, a way of holding on to valued experiences. When Deckard shows he knows android Rachel’s (Sean Young) personal memories, she is heartbroken.

Deckard: ‘You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window? Orange body, green legs, watched her build a web all summer, then one day there was a big egg in it, the egg hatched…’
Rachel: ‘The egg hatched… and a hundred baby spiders came out, and they ate her.’
Deckard: ‘Implants. They aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s, they’re Tyrell’s niece’s.’

Rachel, close up, in semi-darkness, has a lost, empty look. She shows an attachment to these memories that reveals the success of Tyrell’s project. She actually responds to betrayal as a human would. Of course, psychologists might tell us that memories are retained and pulled out of our mental archives for many reasons, largely involuntary. Nonetheless, for the most part, they feel like they are ours. It’s notable though that I write this at a time when neurologists are successfully implanting simulated memory traces of fear into laboratory mice. Memories now merge with film sequences, images seen before, dreams. We have to double-take and unravel the mess, driven by a need for authenticity. Facebook, with its best friend digital photography, allows this to happen publicly with sometimes thousands of photographs being uploaded to an individual user’s account.

Ridley Scott has released many cuts of Blade Runner. Noticeably, he marked every new video format on the market with a new version. To name some, theatrical versions were distributed on VHS in 1983, as was the Director’s Cut 1992. This was later released on LaserDisc in 1993 and was an early film to be released on DVD in 1997. A digitally remastered version of this DVD was put out in 2006 but with the 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The Final Cut in 2007 was released during the HD format wars and came out on HD DVD and Blu-ray with Dolby Digital Surround Sound 5.1. Each new version promised new answers. Would it finally reveal more of the beloved cult film, more cut scenes, more added scenes? Would Scott make any more suggestions that Deckard was a replicant? But this searching for answers is commensurate with the way the film in its various versions seems to shrug off our questions.

Part of Blade Runner’s appeal for me is its 80s futurist aesthetic merged with noir: Atari in neon; lip gloss with 40s hair rolls; oversized technology. It is a film made for clunky VHS distribution. The format’s very materiality is tied to the materiality of organic memory. It is in keeping with the human attachment to memory that is at the core of the film, where characters are driven by their questioning of the reliability of memory. To remember is a process of betrayal. We seek cogency from memories, but they exist as fragments, an affect, a trace, a sentence or two. The visual field produced by VHS is unstable, blurry, low-grade compared to contemporary formats. In Blade Runner, we see youthful faces against a metropolis that, although illuminated, remains in low contrast, where neon bleeds into incoherency and reds elude us. VHS magnetic tape corrodes with age and use and allows the surface to break down, the image and sound slip away, a dignified erosion. The VHS version of Ford and Young produces a romantic couple melting away with each watch.

What happens off screen is as important as the film fragments that fill our minds in a formulation of the memory of a film. Testament to this is a new generation of VHS collectors. A YouTube search for ‘my VHS collection’ reveals a category of uploads from teenagers discovering their parents’ VHS collection, or showing off their own Ebay purchases. A clip featuring a 1983 print of Blade Runner is a prime example. Here ‘VHS-ness’ is a prompt, a trigger and a way into the nostalgia for these films. The collectors seem to value the materiality of the tapes, fastidiously archiving various indices of authenticity. VHS boxes are carefully set out on makeshift backgrounds; the format involves a shot of the front cover art work, the spine of the tape box, the back, shots of the actual tape, the label and a recitation of the print dates. These collectors also proclaim the originality of their tapes by uploading opening previews and closing credits of their tapes in fierce competition. All this stands in for, and at the same time, is part of, the experience of the collected film. A way of feeling connected to the memory of the memory of the film (perhaps here their parents’) via memorabilia. Perhaps in the face of inorganic forms of digital communication such an activity has a special draw.

With the DVD format in the mid-90s came the remaster, a facelift for VHS. Films viewed through a haze of degrading magnetic tape were suddenly clear and crisp. With each release we have the new and still newer Rachel and Deckard. In Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007), Harrison Ford seems to have defied time. He plays a hyperreal, uncanny Deckard, inorganic, invincible and situated in an immersive, three-dimensional space. The VHS Deckard seemed in tune with time, ageing and decay. To watch a new version is to give in to the rewriting, to turn your back on an intimate connection with your version, your personal favourite. The memory of Blade Runner as was, is corrupted, replaced with fragments of the new, each replicant attempting to supersede the last.

Nicola Woodham