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If only A to B were as easy as A, B, C

A weekend home alone gave me a chance to catch up on some overdue viewing. In between the obligatory bouts of hoovering, staring uncomprehendingly at a malfunctioning kettle, and multiple trips to supermarket hell, I watched two films which, in retrospect, feel like natural companion pieces – even if outwardly they couldn’t be more different.

First up was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial on Blu-ray. Unoriginally, but at least unpretentiously, this is my favourite film of all-time. My very first date-specific memory is of December 1982, and going to see the movie at the old Cannon Cinema in Woodbridge Road, Guildford. This fact alone probably secures it the foremost spot in my mental Hall of Fame, but each time I revisit it I find that the film really is that good. The storytelling is taut yet never contained, the score emphatic but economical, and the performances – of which more in a moment – infectious in the extreme. As for the Blu-ray transfer, E.T. brushes up grainlessly well, and is complemented by a great new special feature, The E.T. Journals, chronicling principal photography via original behind-the-scenes footage shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll.

The second film was Michael Winterbottom’s latest, Everyday. Reuniting Winterbottom, John Simm, Shirley Henderson and screenwriter Laurence Coriat for the first time since 1999’s under-rated Wonderland, Everyday spans five years, and charts the experiences of a mother bringing up four children while her husband languishes in jail. Some critics have ranted about the lack of incident, but I found that the serial glimpses of the family’s life extremely powerful. Like Wonderland and (another Winterbottom favourite) The Trip, Everyday is largely a mood piece, providing plenty of breathing space for each viewer to fill in the blanks of his or her own volition, developing a powerful personal bond with the characters in the process.

The fascinating thing about seeing these movies back-to-back was the spontaneity of the two young casts. Who knows exactly how this was achieved. Certainly, one of the best things about The E.T. Journals is seeing Spielberg direct his young actors, explaining the action, helping them relate, then looking on with glee as something brilliant and unrehearsed occurs after he shouts ‘Action’. I’m sure Winterbottom adopted a similar approach, albeit with the additional advantage of his kids being real-life siblings, with much of the film even filmed in their own house.

What I think unquestionably helped the two casts, however, kids and adults alike, was that both films were shot chronologically: Everyday over the five year period of its story, and E.T. pretty much from a to b, specifically to enhance the kids’ plot comprehension and emotional responsiveness. In a weekend when I also squeezed in the director’s commentary on the muddled and emotionally confused Prometheus – in which Ridley Scott bemoans the seeming impossibility of ever shooting a screenplay in the right order – the comparable successes of E.T. and Everyday led me to wonder: how much better would all films be if only production managers could find a reliable way of shooting them in sequence? How many dreadful, jumbled messes would be redeemed – and how many masterpieces would be made even better?


Will questions be answered?

The recent DVD/Blu-Ray release of Prometheus has revived a lot of the disappointment that followed the film’s cinematic release in June. People watching it for the first time feel let down, while most of those re-visiting it see no need to alter their original opinion – some critics, like Nigel Floyd, have even hardened in their stance that the film is bad, whether over-hyped or not.

I haven’t yet seen Prometheus at home, but I did see it twice in quick succession at the cinema – quick enough, indeed, to grant me a perspective which may have eluded those who waited longer to re-watch the film.

I should stress that – initially – I shared everyone’s disappointment, so I’m not really defending Prometheus’s shortcomings. If a film seems simultaneously jumbled and over-simplistic on first viewing, then it’s failed to do its job, regardless of any post hoc revisionism. But by seeing it again so soon after my first viewing, I knew exactly where the flaws were – the knotty plotting, the unexplained events – and actively looked for solutions.

And they they were. In fact, I found, the whole thing hangs together pretty well, as long as you pay attention and are happy to fill in the odd gap.

The question then is: why did I – and countless others – struggle the first time around? Were we just being lazy?

Well, yes and no. Yes, there may have been complacency among audiences, but no – it wasn’t our fault. Because what’s really fascinating is how quickly Prometheus gained a reputation for explaining too much, and rightly so. Certain parts of the plot – mostly the ‘big ideas’ – were flagged up so early, clumsily and prosaically that the screenplay itself set expectations to snore. Rather than being alerted to stay sharp, audiences were lulled into thinking everything would be explained for them. If anything, however, the balance of exposition needed reversing: the big themes given less exposition (they permeate the story by default), and the creepy little details highlighted more.

The film isn’t bad. It’s just self-defeating. When you actually assemble the myriad elements of the plot – which, I stress again, requires far nerdier attention-to-detail than it should (see right and here) – you’re left with a fascinating set of questions which, potentially, lays the foundations for a really good prequel series.

And that, in the end, is the truth about Prometheus. It is just a start. What follows next is key. If Lost-writer Damon Lindelof can shed his reputation for failing to answer his own questions, and show us that the buried meticulous detail in Prometheus is more than mere ornamentation, the hype might yet be justified.

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