As my wife and I were walking into the theater to see The Prestige, two of the theater employees stopped us. “It’s a great film,” one of them said. The other added, “After you see it, you’ll want to see it again.”
“Because it’s confusing?” we asked.
“No, because you’ll want to go back and look for all the clues.”
They were right. Much like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, you want to see it a second time knowing what you know. You want to examine the mechanics of the thing. First time, you’re spellbound. Second time, you’re intent on learning all the moves. Just like a magic trick, really.
I’m going to tell you very little about the plot so as not to give any secrets. (No magician’s pun intended.) Hugh Jackman plays Rupert Angier and Christian Bale plays Alfred Borden. Both are magician’s assistants (and aspiring magicians). Angier blames Borden for the onstage death of his wife during a water escape trick. After Angier’s moderately successful bid at revenge, he and Borden, now working magicians in their own right, attempt to take one another down. This involves ruining each other’s tricks and, more importantly, upstaging each other in the public’s eye.
When Borden comes up with “the greatest trick of all time” – a bit called “The Transported Man” – Angier becomes extremely jealous. If he can steal the trick from his rival, it will help soothe the anger he feels over his wife’s death. Subsequently, he sends his assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), to work for Borden so she can find out how he does the trick. The trail eventually leads to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whose electricity experiments may play a part in “The Transported Man.” Angier pays Tesla to build him a special box using his new technology. All of this happens under the watchful eye of Cutter (Michael Caine), who helps design and build much of the magicians’ apparatus.
The Prestige is a film about obsession. Both Angier and Borden are obsessed not only with creating the perfect magic trick, but also with ruining the other. Their desire drives all their actions. Eventually it becomes clear that the magicians are trying, in essence, to trick each other. The only way for Borden to avoid being ruined by Angier is to figure out his manipulations, and vice versa. In an interesting bit of characterization, Angier is the better showman but creates less interesting illusions. Borden, conversely, devises superb tricks but has trouble selling them to an audience. Bale and Jackman are terrific playing these flawed but oddly sympathetic men.
The heart of the film is the way they do battle. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) takes us deep inside their feud, showing not only their passion for making magic but also the way they concoct their tricks. If you’ve ever been fascinated by the art of illusion, you will definitely get a kick out of seeing how the tricks are accomplished.
The Prestige is one of those movies where you have to pay attention constantly. Get up to go to the bathroom and you might miss a key piece of information. There are double-crossings upon double-crossings. Amazingly, Nolan (who penned the script with brother Jonathan, based on Christopher’s Priest’s novel) keeps it all human centered. There’s an emphasis on the people and the way personal demons often motivate us to new achievements. Even the supporting characters (like Tesla) are richly drawn although, oddly, Johansson’s character kind of disappears at the end, making me wonder what happened to her.
I have to be completely honest about my reaction. For two hours, I was loving The Prestige. It was complex and mysterious, and I was glued to it. Then, in the last 15 minutes, I started to wonder if I was being cheated. Here’s where the film’s many mysteries are explained. Even if you think you understand it all (and I believe that I did), the movie’s final shot presents something that doesn’t fit. If everything else you believe is right, then this has to be wrong. I walked out of the theater feeling that my enjoyment had been diminished by this incongruity.
But this is the genius of The Prestige. It’s the type of film where you don’t necessarily “get” it right away; it’s only later that things really snap into focus. About an hour later (and after turning it over non-stop in my mind), I realized what Christopher Nolan was doing. In Memento, he used the backward structure of the story to create for the audience a feeling of short-term memory loss – just like the lead character experiences. This time, he’s using the structure to mimic the experience of seeing a magic trick. The Prestige has all the elements: the pledge, the turn and, of course, the prestige. So if the prestige is the part of a trick that amazes the audience – the part that shows them something they know is impossible but can’t figure out - then the film’s final shot is perfect. The Michael Caine character has a voiceover at the beginning and end where he states that people don’t see how magic tricks are done because they don’t want to; the fun comes from being fooled. In essence, that’s the idea Nolan is trying to create. You don’t really want the whole movie to be explained because there’s no magic in knowing how it was all done. That incongruous final shot is the thing that sends you home thinking “how did they do it?”
Once this clicked in, I realized that my enjoyment of the movie was not lessened at all. In fact, it was intensified. This is an intelligent, complex, engaging story that isn’t afraid to challenge the audience. I appreciated its willingness to make me think, even after it was over. We’ve all seen magic shows and been dazzled by some of the tricks. We know you can’t really saw a lady in half. We know that somehow the woman contorts herself in that box to avoid the blade. And yet, most of us probably couldn’t tell you exactly how it’s done. If you saw all the way through the trick, the fun would be gone, so you need that feeling of disbelief. The Prestige quite brilliantly replicates the experience of a great magic trick. You know what you have just seen isn’t possible, and while you recognize some of the trickery, you can’t spell it all out. You walk away completely amazed.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Prestige is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
To learn more about The Prestige, check out AskMen.com: The Prestige
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