25 Director’s Cuts That Changed a Movie’s Plot

Some of these classics hit a lot differently once you watch them the way the director originally intended.
Martin Sheen on the set of "Apocalypse Now"
Martin Sheen on the set of "Apocalypse Now" / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Whether because of a dispute with the studio or just a plethora of unused material, a director often feels the need to re-release a classic (or not-so-classic) film. Typically, these directors’ cuts or extended editions are just bloated versions of the original, but on occasion, they represent a complete departure from it. Here are 25 movies that look very different when you watch the director’s intended version.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now Redux changed its masterpiece-or-misfire predecessor by the sheer weight of how much was added to it. Specifically, Francis Ford Coppola inserted 50 extra minutes, with the hindsight of two extra decades of filmmaking knowledge and the devolving historical understanding of the Vietnam War.

Separated from the chaos of filming the damned thing, Coppola crafted a bulky behemoth with a beefed-up final conversation with Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, extended scenes, and two added sequences: a dreamy vision of French colonists waxing on the pointlessness of fighting in Vietnam, plus a hollow moment that sees Willard (Martin Sheen) and his buddies score time with Playboy bunnies.

Individually, the scenes don’t feel like they change anything. Still, the simple fact that we spend more time with Willard and the others gives this version added heft. It repaints all the silly stuff with a nihilistic brush, taking it from Dr. Strangelove to its Heart of Darkness roots.

Brazil (1985)

It’s funny how many movies on this list are dark comedies or tragic satires that ended up with happy endings stapled to them. Terry Gilliam’s dreamy dystopia is a rarity in that the studio lost. In his original version, everyman Sam (Jonathan Pryce) flees his torture and escapes with his love, Jill (Kim Greist), into the sunset before the audience learns that it’s all a delusion caused by his pain.

It’s a fitting ending. Yet, without Gilliam’s knowledge, nervous Universal executives had a second editing team assemble a happier alternative to test it head-to-head with the director’s version. Gilliam called them out publicly, and Universal threatened to dump the film. Still, their hand was forced when the movie (already released everywhere but the U.S.) won three big awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. What they released was still a compromise, but it was overseen by Gilliam, who kept most of the original ending intact. 

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

In this classic tale of an auteur battling a budget-minded studio exec, the legendary Sam Peckinpah squared off with MGM’s James Aubrey, who just wanted the film finished so he could focus on launching a hotel brand.

Peckinpah’s contractually-obligated rough cut of this anti-western was shown to test audiences, but then Aubrey fired the director and supervised his own cut. It was later released to a baffled public who couldn’t make heads or tails of it—it really was that bad. According to well-known film buff Martin Scorsese, Peckinpah’s rough cut is “genius.” In this instance, the forever-unfinished version changes a terrible, stock western into a beautiful piece of artwork that challenges our romanticism of the violent period. 

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Sometimes, directors win out against the studio, but often times, they don’t. Director Frank Oz is one such case; he was forced to give a happy ending to this delightfully strange musical about a hungry plant. The original cut saw Audrey II win—killing Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) and then taking over the entire world with an army of human-eating plants.

Test audiences hated it, though. To be fair, the sweet ending is nice—plus, telling an epic world-invasion story in the last few seconds of an offbeat, botanical Sweeney Todd is a hard left turn. But it’s much more fun thinking about the entire planet covered in killer vines.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner has actually gone through many iterations. There was the theatrical cut released in 1982 with a “happy ending” shoehorned in by the studio. Both director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford hated it, and Ford has even confessed that he wasn’t giving it his all when recording a voiceover that he called “not an organic part of the film.” Then came the “directors cut” in 1992 that Scott also disowned.

Finally, Warner Bros. worked with Scott in 2007 to release the Final Cut of Blade Runner, the only version over which Scott had complete control. It contained several changes (particularly to the score) and new scenes, but perhaps the most significant was the confirmation—or close to it—that Ford’s character Deckard actually was a replicant.

Instead of the “happy ending” that shows Deckard and Rachel driving through a beautiful landscape, Scott’s ending is more ambiguous and simply shows them leaving Deckard’s apartment. Plus, the appearance of an origami unicorn in front of Deckard’s door hints that he is, in fact, a replicant (a similar calling card had been used earlier in the film to denote replicants). In interviews about the new release, Scott confirmed that Deckard was a replicant in his version, although Ford said he believed the character was human.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Despite the cult success of the mind-bending film, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly repeatedly apologized for the theatrical release of the movie, stating it was not his original film. To make up for it, he convinced 20th Century Fox to release a directors cut in 2004 that he felt would be more cohesive and easier for viewers to understand. The most notable change he made was literally adding in text from the fictional The Philosophy of Time Travel, which had previously been a DVD extra. Fans were split: some loved the explanations that filled in previous plot holes, others hated the notion that they needed to be spoon-fed the story.

Metropolis (1927)

Although it’s considered a masterpiece of cinema, the plot of Metropolis can still be a bit difficult for some viewers to understand. But a recent extended version that uses footage from prints discovered after some 80 years in Argentina and New Zealand helps remedy that—by filling in plot details as director Fritz Lang had intended. Film historians had long been looking for the extended footage from Metropolis, which was cut before its original release to ensure a 90-minute running time.

Mostly, the new footage (which is intercut with title cards and still images to fill in for damaged or missing frames) serves to smooth out plot details, including a crucial scene in which the sorcerer Rotwang explains his plan to use robots to stir a labor revolt. But historians said it also helped them learn about how the legendary film was made, including the fact that it had been tinted by hand.

Aliens (1986)

The special edition released in 2009 makes this horror sci-fi sequel even more impressive thanks to one specific scene where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) learns that her daughter died while she was in suspended animation.

The scene was cut for the original release to pare down the runtime. Still, it recontextualizes everything about Ripley’s protection of Newt (Carrie Henn), offering a vital emotional drive that wasn’t fully present in the earlier version. 

Touch of Evil (1958)

The restored version of Orson Welles’s mid-century noir isn’t exactly a director’s cut, as Welles died before it could be put together. Still, it’s an honest attempt at using the director’s notes to construct his preferred version after he was locked out of the editing bay.

The greasy story of a crooked cop and the man he’s trying to frame remains largely the same, but the film’s tone changes drastically thanks to the new sound design. The standard score is removed in favor of natural sounds, the murmuring of crowds, and the crunch of traffic. The score is especially evocative in the famous opening tracking shot. The removal of the orchestral score helps make the film feel even grimier. 

Caligula (1979)

The history of this notorious erotic drama that star Helen Mirren described as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals” is pretty tangled. First, screenwriter Gore Vidal quit over significant creative differences with director Tinto Brass and wanted nothing to do with the final product. Then, Brass was barred from the editing room so that producer (and Penthouse founder) Bob Guccione could add in hardcore, unsimulated sex scenes that Brass had refused to shoot.

Vidal’s version was never filmed, but a toned-down “Imperial Edition” of the film has been available since 2007. It doesn’t have the explicit sexual content shot by Guccione and changes the film’s overall tone from pointlessly exhausting excess to one of excess in service of a larger narrative point. 

Almost Famous (2000)

The bootleg cut of this nostalgic flick about a boy journalist on tour with a ’70s-era rock band adds nearly 40 minutes of hanging out time to the experience. Beyond an added scene where Stillwater visits a radio show hosted by a lazy lout (played by Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass), the added time allows a bit more breathing room to get an even fuller sense of the characters. It also hints more strongly that Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) won’t be the only love of William’s (Patrick Fugit) life. It doesn’t send the plot careening in a different direction, but it makes the band’s growing tensions more pronounced so that the possibility of breaking up feels more potent and realistic. 

Salt (2010)

There sure are a lot of different versions of this film floating around. On the DVD release, director Phillip Noyce included an extended version and a director's cut that adds more intrigue to the film. In the original, a Russian sleeper agent played by Liev Schreiber follows the U.S. President to his secure bunker, then knocks him unconscious. But in the director’s cut, Schreiber’s character goes even farther and assassinates the president. In a voiceover on the director’s cut, it is revealed that the new president is also a Russian agent waiting to be activated, which would make a sequel a serious bummer.

Payback (1999)

In the theatrical release of this Mel Gibson film, almost the entire third act differs from director Brian Helgeland’s original vision, which was unresolved until the release of a 2006 director’s cut. The most notable change, however, comes at the very end of the movie. In the theatrical release, Gibson’s character kills two top mob figures, then drives off happily with the female lead, Rosie, and his dog. In Helgeland’s version, Gibson is shot in a train station showdown. Rather than driving off happily with Rosie, she picks him up while he is bleeding and his fate is left up in the air.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

In the original film, the relationship between the hitman Léon and his 12-year-old neighbor Mathilda was already a little dicey, what with the two of them collaborating on a series of murders. But the directors cut adds a whole new level of discomfort. In it, Mathilda—played by Natalie Portman in her film debut—is shown to be far more involved in the assassinations of a crew of drug dealers. She also sexually propositions Léon and plays a game of Russian roulette to force Léon to say that he loves her. Those scenes were in the original European release, but were cut because producers were concerned about how American audiences would react.

Superman II (1980)

Due to a number of disputes between him and the film’s producers, director Richard Donner left the set of Superman II without completing filming (he had been filming both the original and the sequel simultaneously). Notably, the producers refused to include any footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El in the sequel because of the massive cut of the box office gross he was requesting. The studio then brought in Richard Lester to replace Donner, forcing him to reshoot some scenes, rewrite others, and edit out most of Donner’s work. That left a movie with roughly 25 percent of Donner’s footage and 75 percent new work (and zero percent Brando).

The 2006 “Richard Donner Cut” brought back the director’s original vision, although the editing was choppy and Donner had to use some unfinished test footage to fill in the holes. But fans generally agree it makes more sense. For example, the theatrical release never fully explains how Superman gets his powers back after voluntarily giving them up, but the Donner cut shows that Jor-El “dies” again to restore the powers. The new version of the sequel also ends with Superman flying around the world to undo the damage of the supervillains and purge Lois Lane’s memory of the fact that he is Clark Kent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that scene was written into the end of the original once it became clear it wouldn’t be used in the sequel.

X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)

There’s no denying that the return of not-bald Professor X (James McAvoy) and his team of student mutants was a big hit, but fans noticed one glaring omission: Rogue (Anna Paquin).

Though she’d been a central figure in the film series, she was absent for this outing due to edits, as they were looking to reduce the runtime. Fans already knew Paquin had shot scenes for the film though, so the hashtag outcry went out into the universe.

Fox responded by crafting the Rogue cut. The new version includes the team breaking her out of Professor X’s mansion and a team member dying during the effort. It also focuses on her involvement in helping keep Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in the past. The added 17 minutes fly by, enhancing the already excellent superhero adventure

I Am Legend (2007)

Everyone involved with 2007’s I Am Legend learned a valuable lesson about why it’s generally not a good idea to water down a classic horror novel with a “simpler” Hollywood ending. While not a genuine “director’s cut,” the alternative version of the apocalyptic tale of Robert Neville (Will Smith) trying to survive vampire-zombies ends with far more of a powerful gut punch.

This one swaps out the original theatrical version’s hopeful, generic action movie ending. In it, viewers learn that the film’s monsters are actually loving, thoughtful beings who just want to rescue the woman Neville kidnapped. They’re a new dominant species, with Neville as the accidental villain. While the original ending plummets a B- movie down into D territory, the new ending (more faithful to the novel) elevates it into A territory. 

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

The runtime-slashing edit on Sergio Leone’s last film released in American theaters was egregious. It rendered almost half the movie gone, replacing its artful time-hopping with a plodding, insultingly chronological order of events.

Comparatively, the restored version (including 22 minutes Leone had to cut for Cannes) is a revelation—an entirely different version of the sprawling crime epic, like a masterpiece emerging from a mule.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

A 2003 “special edition” release of the much-lampooned Kevin Costner vehicle doesn’t contain many earth-shattering changes. But it does introduce a new backstory for the Sheriff of Nottingham by revealing that he is, in fact, the son of the evil witch Mortianna (who murdered the real son of the original sheriff and replaced him with her own). Sadly, the special edition doesn’t do anything to fix Costner’s uneven English accent.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

By adding some 50 minutes of footage, director Ridley Scott said his new cut of Kingdom of Heaven also adds a whole heap of context for the violence in his Crusades epic. For example, a priest that the blacksmith Balian kills at the beginning is revealed to be his half-brother, making their feud more about family relations than religion. The new cut also introduces an entirely new character, Baldwin V, who even becomes king before his family discovers that he has leprosy. Although the director’s cut was widely praised (unlike the theatrical release), at three-and-a-half hours, it never really took off with viewers who already hated the original release.

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron’s exploration of his twin passions (filmmaking and going way, way down into the ocean) got a second life in 1993 after his production company secured a special financing deal with 20th Century Fox for all of his completed pictures. As part of the deal, 20th Century Fox earmarked $500,000 so Cameron could revisit 1989’s The Abyss and redo certain sequences, including the tidal wave scene.

The new version is strikingly different in the sense that it helps transform good characters into great ones by allowing viewers more time with them and more access to their personal lives beyond the mission to retrieve a damaged nuclear submarine. At the same time, it also ups the ante in terms of the stakes, shifting it solely from a race against a hurricane and the Soviets into a truly world-threatening affair.

Until the End of the World (1991)

A bored woman stuck in traffic and a mysterious man with a bounty on his head travel across a world on the verge of collapse in this 1991 epic sci-fi drama. Wim Wenders’ planet-sized road trip movie was initially 20 hours long, but the director worked to reduce it to around five hours. Despite asking his backers for a two-part release, they balked, and the Cliff Notes version of this massive tale is all the world has ever known until fairly recently. After specialty screenings at museums, Criterion released a definitive director’s cut edition that feels fuller and more fantastical in ways the smooshed theatrical release did not.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)

These aren’t directors cuts per se, so much as two directors using the same script and lead actor to make the different movies. Paul Schrader was hired to direct Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and managed to finish a final cut of the film. But producers at Morgan Creek weren’t happy with the result—too much religion, not enough blood—and decided to scrap that cut. But rather than get rid of the investment, they hired on Renny Harlin to retool the script and film a new version with star Stellan Skarsgård staying on board as Father Merrin.

Harlin’s version was released in theaters as Exorcist: The Beginning. But Schrader soon won the rights to release his own version, leaving audiences with two Exorcist prequels that both starred Skarsgård. Neither was well-received and both followed the same basic plot. But critics looked slightly more favorably on Schrader’s, which includes a love interest (that does not get possessed by a demon) and deals more with Merrin’s loss of faith.

Justice League (2017)

This 2017 superhero flick is among the most famous examples of a directorial vision restored for all to see. After stepping away from the film due to a family tragedy, director Zack Snyder was replaced by Warner Bros. with a reshoot-happy Joss Whedon.

The original release was a bit of a mess, with out-of-place quips and plot holes aplenty. Snyder’s cut definitely utilizes its massive runtime to provide better backstories for all the heroes who didn’t get their own films ahead of the team-up. Most importantly, it makes Cyborg more of a fully fleshed-out character whose previously cut story is really at the heart of the film.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in 2011 and has been updated for 2024.