Director’s Cuts - If it isn’t broke, why bother to fix it?

As big-name film-makers offer more and more Director’s Cuts, Leigh Singer asks if the results justify the obsessive tinkering.

The Abyss, James Cameron's 1989 aliens-under-the-sea thriller, climaxes with giant tidal waves hovering over major global cities, threatening devastation to the whole world, not just Ed Harris's deep-sea drilling crew. Steven Spielberg sneaks a peak inside the visiting alien mothership for (extremely) Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In Blade Runner, Deckard dreams of a unicorn, pretty much confirming that he's a replicant. And in The Exorcist, the young Regan MacNeil scuttles upside-down in a demon-possessed "spider walk".

Memorable scenes from iconic movies, all. Yet not one featured in the original theatrical cut of its respective film. Their eventual appearances are early examples of the now seemingly incessant tendency for films to exist in different versions. If, as Leonardo da Vinci reputedly decreed, art is never finished, only abandoned, advances in technology and perfectionist directors are increasingly coming to the rescue of their own films. The question remains, is it the films that need rescuing? Or, rather, the directors from their own tinkering instincts?

Click the picture on the right to launch our gallery of the best and worst directors' cuts in history.

Ridley Scott's revisionist Robin Hood has just debuted on DVD and Blu-ray with 17 minutes re-inserted. Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans will re-appear in October in its third separate guise, this time tagged as a "definitive cut". And James Cameron's Avatar, the biggest-grossing film in history, has been re-released in cinemas a mere eight months after its initial bow with eight and a half extra minutes inserted, including some 20 seconds of Na'vi foreplay.

Scott (with Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven), Mann (Manhunter, Miami Vice) and Cameron (Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2) are heavyweight directors and habitual revisers of their work. Indeed, it's interesting to note that A-list, alpha-male directors are the most frequent "repeat offenders" - see also Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux and The Outsiders: The Complete Novel or Oliver Stone's three separate attempts to save his ill-fated Alexander epic.

"Final Cut" used to be the ultimate directorial honour: the film-maker's definitive will imposed on their completed work (Cameron's extended versions were branded "Special Editions" rather than "Directors Cuts"; perhaps the latter was deemed to connote compromise). Now, it seems that multiple choice is the real signifier of power.

It's too easy to assign a single motive to these and other film-makers who recut their films. Previously, the guiding impulse was to restore films inherently compromised prior to, or just after, initial release. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil was tampered with behind the absent director's back in 1958 but then meticulously reworked some 40 years later by the editing maestro Walter Murch, basing his work on Welles's detailed notes from the time.

Fritz Lang's 1927 silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis first screened at an insanely ambitious length of 150 minutes. It too was butchered down, the excised footage imagined lost forever and subject to numerous makeover attempts, most notoriously the synthesizer king Giorgio Moroder's pop-scored and colourised 1980s effort. Then, in 2008, came the chance discovery of Lang's original negative in Buenos Aires, with some 25 minutes of never-seen footage. This lovingly reconstructed and restored (albeit still incomplete) Metropolis is currently touring UK cinemas.

It's hard to argue with such salvage efforts and few would oppose the reinstatement of a film-maker's original intentions. The triumph of Terry Gilliam's dystopian vision for Brazil over the ludicrous "Love Conquers All" cut enforced by its American studio didn't require years of restoration by a third party, merely its director's dogged persistence against the system - a real-life happy ending to counterbalance his film's bleak finale.

More problematic are film-makers who seem to just want to meddle. Digital technology's cut/paste/delete aesthetic makes changes almost too easy, especially if motivations are dubious. Alongside introducing shiny new visual effects, George Lucas, as if in some Jedi mind trick, cut elements of his original Star Wars trilogy that he evidently deemed less savoury. Initially, the roguish Han Solo ruthlessly shot the galactic bounty hunter Greedo first; the revised version turned this into a boringly PC self-defence retaliation.

Spielberg did a similarly lily-livered switch in ET's 20th-anniversary edition, replacing FBI agents' guns with walkie-talkies. Such alterations smack of the pettiest kind of revisionism but widespread technological access means fans can easily whip up their own unofficial edits - famously, the execrable Jar Jar Binks was excised out of DIY versions of The Phantom Menace.

Lucas still isn't finished, as proved by the recent announcement that all six Star Wars live-action films will be converted to and re-released in 3D from 2012. "The cutting-edge conversion will take that immersion to the next thrilling level," trills, though many would swap the word "immersion" for "merchandising".

Such rewriting of history sounds outrageous - unless we prefer the end results. Ridley Scott's spruced-up 2007 "Final Cut" of Blade Runner is largely considered to be the ultimate incarnation of the classic. Devotees of Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, with more Brando, social commentary and Playboy bunnies - what the collaborator Walter Murch calls "the funny, sexy, political version" - probably wish that even more lost footage could be recouped from the legendary five-and-a-half-hour work print. It yet might.

James Cameron, for all his Special Editions, self-imposes a rule not to tamper with anything already edited and only to add new material. "Every movie is a technological snapshot of the moment it was made," he's argued. "You don't second-guess how you would do it now." Yet if Cameron is so altruistic, why authorise Avatar's beefed-up theatrical re-release only to follow it three months later with a DVD / Blu-ray that adds yet another seven minutes of unseen goodies? It's suspiciously akin to those cynical "Greatest Hits" albums topped up with a new track to ensure hardcore fans shell out yet again for material they already have.

Perhaps these fluid developments in filmmaking mean comparisons to other art forms are now in order: different interpretations of plays, remixes of popular songs. Home entertainment in particular has opened up films from top-down-delivered "closed texts" to shifting, open conversations between film-makers and audiences. Let's face it, extended editions (as opposed to deleted scenes randomly dumped on to a disc) usually fall to films with massive fan bases. Peter Jackson's elongated DVD versions of his Lord of the Rings trilogy wouldn't have appeared had his hobbits flopped.

Provided all versions of a film remain readily accessible and changes are made transparently (the Alien Quadrilogy and five-disc Blade Runner box-sets are admirable examples), multiple cuts of a film don't seem inherently a bad thing and can provide a fascinating glimpse into creative evolution, even after a work enters the public domain. But often one also gets the feeling that a Director's Cut exists simply because it can.

Given its muted reception, did anyone really demand more Robin Hood and Russell Crowe's wandering accent? Will anyone bar those passionate acolytes of Terrence Malick's The New World recognise, let alone sit through, three nuanced variations of Malick's cinematic symphony? Could any of Oliver Stone's Alexander changes have eliminated its fatal, fundamental problems of miscasting and script?

Re-editing offers the easiest way to keep on changing your mind and your film. But one suspects that if somehow, the shooting process could be done over and over, Scott, Mann and Cameron would just keep on filming. If actors become digital avatars, perhaps one day the obsessive film-maker won't ever recognise when to say "cut".

'Robin Hood: Director's Cut' is out on DVD & Blu-ray now; 'Avatar: Special Edition' is in 3D-supported cinemas now and on DVD & Blu-ray on 15 November; 'The Last of the Mohicans: Director's Definitive Cut' is out on Blu-ray on 5 October; the reconstructed and restored 'Metropolis' is in selected cinemas now and out on DVD & Blu-ray 22 November.