I thought about this recently when I saw extended DVD versions of two movies I'd originally seen in theaters.
One was accidental. I'd enjoyed A Perfect Getaway in the theater, and I ordered the DVD from Netflix in order to see it again. It's not a great movie, but it was a good, tight thriller. When I got the DVD, which Netflix had told me was the theatrical version, it was very disappointing. Longer, padded out with irrelevancies, and slowed down with extra flashbacks when the big "secret" is revealed... it was the extended version.
That's a cardinal sin, by the way: you don't throw in extra scenes when you've hit the accelerator and the story is really starting to move toward the climax. As I've said before, the most common reason I've heard for removing scenes from movies is that the scene killed the momentum of the story.
This experience made me curious to doublecheck my original assessment. It was only ten minutes of additional footage – would that really hurt the movie so much? So, I located the theatrical version (the secret with Netflix was to look at the length, by the way – that was listed correctly). I got it as a download from Google Play, and it was as good as I remembered. It moved along quite briskly, and it trusted the audience to understand the big twist when it was revealed* without extra explanation [footnote contains spoilers].
The other thing about the added scenes that was annoying was the Unrated Director's Cut indicates that there's nudity. Which turned out to be a few extras, doing yoga on a beach, at a distance, naked. It really makes it seem that the "Unrated Director's Cut" is a shill, getting people to pay for a bunch of extra content that makes the movie a lot less than it was before.
The other movie was Total Recall (the remake – I've never seen the original). I would have to say it was "okay" when I saw it in the theater. Entertaining, but not great (derivative story, terrific supporting cast but bland leads, good production design but a lot of plot holes, a big fight at the end between the wrong characters). But then I read that it had got chopped up, both for length and to get a PG-13 rating. That got me curious, so I rented the extended version.
It's a mixed bag, but it's definitely better. There's more of a sense of the political underpinnings and class divisions that motivate the hero and drive the story. The added scenes tend to be in the early parts of the picture, where more background can be welcome.
And, yes, there's more of the three-breasted prostitute.
But the additional (and, in some cases, different) footage doesn't address the movie's real problems, including that some elements of the plot makes no sense, and Len Wiseman is not a good enough director to overcome that (he's no Ridley Scott 🙂 ). Some of the different footage alters some plotlines, perhaps as an attempt to have the story make more sense, but it just means they make no sense in a different direction.
So, the lessons?
Once the momentum kicks in, respect it. You can alter the pace, but don't slow down too much.
Less can be more. Extra scenes, the ones that don't advance the plot, can be great if they're entertaining enough (the "disgusting English candy drill" in Gravity's Rainbow does nothing to advance the plot, but it's three pages of such hilarity that I've laughed uncontrollably on the subway from reading it – more than once), but they should be early in the story, not near the end.
If you really like a little scene but having it in the story cripples your big finale, the little scene has to go, even if it is really good.
If you have a major antagonist, the final confrontation has to be between the protagonist and the antagonist. Luke has to face Vader.
* Full disclosure [spoilers!]: A Perfect Getaway was a good thriller even though I knew the "big twist" before I entered the theater. As I talked about in my post "Don't Put Shepherd Book in Your Book," actors can do a lot to improve your story, but how you cast a movie can also reveal how the story is going to go (Roger Ebert talked about this a few times). That major actor who's playing a secondary character, like the protagonist's best friend who isn't involved in the plot? He may be there because he'll turn out to be the murderer in the end.
When I heard the premise of this movie, that a honeymooning couple in Hawaii learns that another, unknown couple is going around killing honeymooning couples, and I learned that the bride was played by Milla Jovovich, I knew that the theoretical protagonists would turn out to be the serial murderers themselves. Because Hollywood, which does tend to typecast, would probably not hire Jovovich to play a victim. Oh, and this switch allowed them to do a few big, corny hero moments, and they work really well because, until then, it hadn't been clear who the real hero of the movie was.