The Prestige (2006)
2006’s The Prestige has since been overshadowed by director Christopher Nolan’s other works. Released between the success of Batman Begins and the high anticipation for The Dark Knight, The Prestige was Nolan’s chance to allow plot to flourish over special effects. While the film does feature a talented and high-caliber cast, it strives to be more of a puzzle than a major film event. As it stands, it’s an engaging little film with glaring flaws, but one that still holds its own against the director’s more notable work.
Set in 19th Century London, The Prestige follows Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as a pair of magicians who, after a shared apprenticeship, become bitter rivals. As the story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards, we’re first shown a magician named Cutter (Michael Caine) making a bird disappear to both explain and demonstrate the title. According to him, there are three parts to every great magic trick: The pledge (where you present an ordinary object to the audience), the turn (where you do something extraordinary with it), and the prestige (where you bring the object back to the world of the ordinary).
While this is playing out, we get flashbacks to an illusion performed on stage by Robert Angier (Jackman) that has him bombarded with electrical arcs and then secretly dropped into a glass tank filled to the brim with water. Alfred Borden (Bale) has snuck under the stage and sees Robert struggle to get out of the tank. It would seem that Alfred has tightened the locks of the tank, and he’s quickly arrested for murdering Robert.
As his trial begins, we jump back in time to visit Alfred and Robert as apprentices for Milton the Magician, with Cutter working as an engineer helping to design the illusions. Robert’s wife is part of the act, and the trick is that she gets tied up by Alfred, dropped in a tank of water, and escapes from behind a curtain. Unfortunately, she drowns, and Robert accuses Alfred of tying a faulty knot. Alfred denies it, and they both go their separate ways and each become headlining magicians.
As you can guess, they meet up again quite soon. Robert sabotages Alfred’s new bullet-catching trick by shooting at him with a loaded gun. Alfred loses two fingers from this, and is spurred on to get his revenge and ruin Robert’s new trick involving a collapsible birdcage. Robert’s trick is sabotaged to such a degree that an audience member gets seriously injured, as does Robert’s reputation.
Soon, Alfred is gaining a huge following due to his new and seemingly innovative trick. In the illusion, he bounces a red ball across the stage before running into a cabinet; the ball is then caught as he emerges from a different cabinet on the other side of the stage. The trick is simple, yet seemingly impossible, and Alfred’s newfound fame drives Robert to near madness.
The film mostly follows Robert as he tries to discover Alfred’s secret and recreate it himself. First he uses a helper, played by Scarlett Johansson, to try and seduce Alfred into giving up his secret, but this backfires. He tries to imitate the trick by using a double (also played by Jackman), but Alfred sabotages that, too.
Finally, Robert follows several clues to Colorado, where he consults with a fictionalized Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, to see if science can give him the answers he craves. Tesla seems to know the key to the illusion, which is that it may not be an illusion after all. The movie then takes a detour towards the fantastical, as Tesla demonstrates a machine that can create a perfect duplicate of Robert’s hat.
After witnessing this, Robert believes he’s discovered Alfred’s secret: he used similar technology to create a duplicate of himself. Robert then uses Tesla’s invention to perform a teleportation act, which brings him great success. However, it’s not without a price. When he performs the trick, the duplicate Robert appears amongst the crowd, while the original Robert drops below the stage and drowns in a tank of water. This means he basically dies each night to perform this illusion, but somehow convinces himself it’s always the “copy” who’s really dying.
Finally, it’s revealed that Alfred “murdering” him at the beginning of the film was really only Alfred being an innocent witness to the copy of Robert dying as he usually does.
Major spoilers follow…
Robert takes on a new identity, and is more than happy to see Alfred take the fall for murder. As Alfred is hanged for his supposed crime, we learn how he was really able to perform his famous illusion: Throughout the film, we saw an associate constantly at Alfred’s side named Fallon. At the close of the film, it’s revealed that Fallon is really Alfred’s twin (and Christian Bale under heavy makeup).
Alfred and his twin continually swapped lives to perfect their act, sharing a girlfriend and a wife, with one twin even cutting off his own fingers to match the other, and this was the secret to their trick. At the end, the twin is reunited with his daughter, and as payback for his brothers’ hanging, he leaves Robert to burn to death in a flaming theater.
The Prestige is an interesting puzzle that’s complex while still being fun. Well, as “fun” as a Christopher Nolan film can be, anyway. The actors play their roles with enough melodrama to elevate the film’s energy, and the bleakness of the story is often captivating. The movie’s color palette is mostly gray and drab, and the script toys with lots of startlingly dark ideas.
Like all good cinematic puzzles, The Prestige weaves in and out of timelines and perspectives to plant lots of clues. The film is based on a novel, and for those unfamiliar with the source material, the addition of science fiction elements late in the movie might come out of left field. The story may have been better served by being a bit more upfront about impossible technology being possible, but it does provide an extra layer of intrigue to the story that makes it feel truly unpredictable. Plus, the sci-fi elements are introduced by David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, and if that doesn’t provide a small bit of joy in an otherwise joyless film, I don’t know what will.
But while the film does work the first time you see it, it really falls apart on subsequent viewings. Once you know the twist, the film offers very little else. Nolan’s more well-known cinematic puzzle Inception was equally simple to piece together after some thought, but it stayed with us much longer. Not because of the larger budget, grander special effects, or because of Leonardo DiCaprio, but because the ending was left ambiguous. Sure, it wasn’t an entirely open-ended story, but it raised just enough questions to make you want to think and talk about it afterwards.
The Prestige, on the other hand, simply says “this is what happened; case closed!” It’s akin to David Lynch spelling out every scene in Mulholland Drive. When a film’s primary purpose is to be a puzzle, then some parts of it should at least remain mysterious enough for the viewer to, well, puzzle over. Another similar and recent cop-out was Scorsese’s Shutter Island, where the film’s mysteries were, quite literally, drawn out on a whiteboard. It’s like paying $10 for a cinematic IQ test and having a big 52 as the final frame.
The film does provide entertainment and is well-crafted. But remember when I mentioned that David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla provides joy in an otherwise joyless film? I lied. David Bowie doesn’t play Nikola Tesla—he plays David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla. This role could have been eccentric in all of the right places, but there’s really not much to it. It feels like an entirely wasted opportunity.
In a way, that describes the rest of the film, which never reaches its potential due to trying to play it safe. You might think the movie will fly off the tracks and become a dark, macabre, and enjoyable ride, but it doesn’t. Overall, there are too many missed opportunities to even list here.
Why have the film solved and answered in such a limp manner? Why not leave it open to interpretation to spawn repeat viewings and analysis? Why not amp up the tension? Why, oh why not give Bowie some dialogue to chew on? As it stands, I can say that The Prestige is an enjoyable film if you’re seeing it for the first time. But this one never quite comes alive because it’s apparently too afraid of failing. Without taking any risks, The Prestige is as lifeless as Robert’s sunken twin.