Movies We Love: The Prestige

Movies We LoveNow you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t want to work it out. You want to be fooled.

In the late 19th century, the magician Alfred Borden, “The Professor,” is on trial for the murder of rival magician, Robert Angier, “The Great Danton.” What the prosecution is trying to prove and what the consensus seems to say is that Borden, furious that Angier had stolen Borden’s “The Transported Man” trick, drowned Angier in a Chinese water torture cell on the evening of his final performance.

The murder was not random, they say, but a calculated climax to culminate a long-running bitter rivalry, the genesis of which can be traced back to a botched knot tied by Borden that resulted in the drowning of Angier’s wife.

Ever since, the magicians’ stories have paralleled each other in both career success and an unshakable determination to ruin the other’s life. But when it comes to magic, where deception is the only guarantee and secrets are guarded with one’s life, a simple revenge tale isn’t quite so simple. In fact, it features many twists and turns, double crossings, revelations, murders, suicide and even a little bit of Nikola Tesla.

Why We Love It

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen this film: there’s no such thing as magic. Anyone with half a brain knows that. Funnily enough, the industry most commonly associated with magic (aside, obviously, from professional magic) is the movie industry. When it’s revealed to audiences that CGI has been employed to seamlessly composite or remove something, that consecutive scenes in an edit were actually shot years apart while remaining visually consistent, or that an iconic location was actually a dressed up set, it’s often the “magic of movie making” that gets credit for upholding the illusion that nothing was out of place. Similarly, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to consider an audience’s emotional investment and reaction to a film, which is more often than not a work of pure fiction, as magic.

The similarities do not end there, though, for great films, just like great magic tricks, rely on unforeseen twists and developments in order to make their big reveals (the climax for a film, the prestige for a trick) worth the price of admission and should those secrets be revealed beforehand, all that follows seemingly becomes simple and vapid. Ask anyone who first saw The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects after they already had the twist spoiled for them (such as myself), and they’ll tell you that both films hold up poorly afterward. The same could be said about anyone who watches a card trick after it’s been explained to them. The reaction in both cases is one similar to, “it’s so simple. Why didn’t I see that before?” Like I said, there’s no such thing as magic. And Christopher Nolan knows that very well.

In between the stunning cinematography from Wally Pfister (ranked by American Cinematographer Magazine as the 36th best shot film of the decade), the great performances Nolan coaxed from Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and David Bowie (just to name a few) and the way that the non-linear storytelling increases tension and conflict as the story progresses, there’s plenty to really like about The Prestige. But none of those attributes are what make me love The Prestige. I love this film because it so perfectly mimics in its structure and theme that around which its entire premise is based: a magic trick.

For as much has recently been hypothesized about Inception acting as an analogy to the filmmaking process, I think there’s even more validity in saying that about The Prestige. With Memento, Nolan took what everybody knew about the storytelling structure of a screenplay and turned it completely on its head to great success. With The Prestige, I believe that Nolan took an intricate work that effectively stood on its own – Christopher Priest’s novel – and used it to create a hyper-aware commentary on films, which just like magic tricks, quite often lose their luster and initial appeal upon re-examining the tricks that made them surprising.

And this one is no exception. The twist at the end of this film is so incredibly simple that Cutter actually mentions it and continuously insists on it until the end. I realize it would seem odd that I praise a film for not holding up on repeat viewing, especially considering that I earlier chastised The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense for the same thing, but I think why it works in The Prestige is that, unlike those two films, this film still works despite the twist, and there are no glaring plot holes to ruin its integrity. The Prestige doesn’t hold up as well on repeat viewings because it’s not supposed to. This is the nature of every film and the nature of every magic trick.

Moment We Fell In Love

For who knows how long, Angier paid a hefty sum of money to the brilliant Nikola Tesla for a machine that would use science to allow Angier to duplicate Borden’s “The Transported Man.” After multiple electrically-charged tests that seemingly result in nothing, the men stumble upon a field of countless hats, all of which are Angier’s, all of which are duplicates that came from Tesla’s machine. Up until that point, the film had relied entirely on illusion, deception and trickery to keep me engaged. I may not have known the solution to all the trickery, but I at least knew there was a logical explanation for it all. Then Nolan showed me a field of hats and I knew that the film has crossed the bounds into pure fabrication.

And I didn’t mind.

There’s no such thing as machines that can clone hats, or cats, or people, and the fact that such a relative absurdity could be included into a story about deception and I was still emotionally engaged is a testament to the gravity that Nolan attached to the rest of the film and the characters he presented.

Final Thoughts

There’s no such thing as magic, at least, not in the literal sense of influencing events with the use of mysterious supernatural forces. But in the sense of possessing a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, I think there’s no arguing that Nolan has that in spades. Take a look at the man’s track record when it comes to filmmaking and you’ll see nothing but films that are and will be talked about over and over again, including this one, which is so much simpler than would initially appear and is still exalted by so many. Indeed, there’s something to be said about any filmmaker who is so adept at his craft that an audience chooses to get lost in his or her work even if they already know the outcome. In that sense, Nolan is one of the greatest magicians of the last decade. Abracadabra, Mr. Nolan.

Fall in love all over again with more Movies We Love.

Jim Rohner knew he wanted to get into movies the very first time he watched Night of the Living Dead on a dark and stormy night. However, instead of moving out to Hollywood after he graduated film school to pursue his passion, he opted to work in New York City and write snarky things about other people's movies. He loves horror movies, Tina Fey, and Groundhog Day. He hates the French New Wave, hipsters and Armond White. One time he ate 2 pounds of Swedish Fish in one sitting and threw up profusely later that evening.

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