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The Not-So-Final Cut

Spielberg latest filmmaker to tamper with a classic

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In last summer's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, there's a scene in which Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), discussing an upcoming movie based on the adventures of the slacker duo, states, "I don't think I'm alone in the world in imagining this flick may be the worst idea since Greedo shooting first." Make that the second worst idea: The worst idea was Steven Spielberg's decision to tamper with his 1982 classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial before re-releasing it this week for its 20th anniversary.

The Greedo line, of course, is in reference to the Special Edition of George Lucas's Star Wars, the one that was released theatrically in 1997. Back in 1977, the Mos Eisley cantina scene found unscrupulous anti-hero Han Solo (Harrison Ford) having no qualms against blowing away the mercenary Greedo with a sneaky, under-the-table draw. But in the '97 version, that scene was altered -- suddenly, Greedo can be seen firing first, meaning that Han Solo was merely acting in self-defense. In the name of PC-dom, Lucas rudely denigrated his own creation with this offensive tampering, momentarily forgetting that one of the main reasons many of us loved Han Solo in the first place was because he was an unrepentant bastard, not above playing every shady angle known across the galaxy. But with one slight change, Lucas had transformed Han Solo into a "nice guy" apparently incapable of killing anyone in cold blood -- a misguided move on Lucas' part that had true Star Wars fans seeing red.

Now it's Steven Spielberg's turn to muck around with a pop culture mainstay, which he does feverishly in the new cut of his beloved masterpiece. E.T. is back in theaters with enhanced special effects and several tweaked sequences, but truthfully, was anybody clamoring for these changes? That's not to say that viewers should skip this reissue: These alterations are minor in the grand scheme of things, and the movie is just as magical as when you first saw it (see "Film Clips" for a review). But with the recent proliferation, both in theaters and on DVD, of filmmakers monkeying around with their past projects, are we witnessing the further tarnishing of an artform that too often gets little respect in the first place?

Lately, it seems these "Director's Cuts/Special Editions/Anniversary Editions" have been all the rage. In addition to E.T. and the Star Wars trilogy, movie theaters have also recently hosted Apocalypse Now Redux, The Exorcist: The Version You Never Saw, Fantasia 2000 and, in limited release, even a new take of Amadeus. Meanwhile, on the DVD front, countless films have been released offering deleted scenes, alternate endings, and, in some disturbing cases, the removal of existing moments trimmed out to make the film (in the eyes of the director, anyway) more efficient in terms of narrative or emotional content.

I think it's safe to say that no other artform has been treated as such a pliable commodity as the motion picture. After all, it's not as if John Steinbeck ever released a novel called Of Mice and Men: The Author's Cut, in which the ending had been radically altered so that gentle giant Lenny suddenly went on a killing spree, hacking up scores of farm hands and bunny rabbits before being brought down himself. But the bastard treatment of movies is nothing new. How many times have the TV networks taken a motion picture and edited it for "objectionable" content, or so they can squeeze in an extra commercial break or two? How many times has a movie been sent back to the editing room (or even back to the shooting stage) after it fared miserably with test audiences? And how many times has a film been mercilessly chopped down for overseas distribution, either US films sent abroad or foreign titles brought stateside? (Even a genuine classic like the 1949 British thriller The Third Man was shorn of 11 minutes before it reached these shores.)

Like many people, I have mixed feelings regarding supposedly "new and improved" versions of old favorites. On one hand, I gotta admit that I'm a sucker for deleted scenes, sequences that were filmed way back when but not included in the finished product until now. To me, these don't necessarily spoil a movie's integrity because they're snatches of celluloid that were shot back in the day and therefore were at some point considered important to the artist's vision. And while I'm torn about the practice of integrating these sequences into the actual film (it worked beautifully for James Cameron's Special Edition Aliens DVD; it didn't wholly work for Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux), I have no qualms when they're included as a supplemental sideshow attraction on a DVD. In many cases, watching this extra footage after enjoying the feature presentation provides the viewer with added insight into the main movie; for example, the Erin Brockovich DVD contains a full half-hour of scenes not included in the theatrical print, and they're so good in fleshing out characters and filling in plot holes that they could have easily made the final cut. On the other end of the scale, watching deleted scenes often offers viewers the opportunity to see how their initial omission actually improved the picture. On the Young Frankenstein DVD, for instance, there's an interminable (and shockingly unfunny) scene featuring Dr. Frankenstein's relatives that was initially conceived to kick off the picture -- had Mel Brooks retained this footage, it would have been a deadly way to open what instead turned out to be an enduring comic masterpiece.

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