I’m still scratching my head a day after watching The Prestige, and it’s not because of the plot twists (though there’s plenty of those) but I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about the movie. From Christopher Nolan, director of Memento (which is more of a similar work than his other more-hyped project Batman Begins), we get another brainy suspense movie full of feints and distractions, jumping back and forth in time, and leaving the viewer unsure of what he/she is actually seeing. Is there any more suitable subject matter for such a film than stage magicians? After watching The Illusionist a few months ago, I went into this similarly-themed movie expecting the same kind of thing, but The Prestige is more than just a “How did they do that?” kind of movie. As much as it’s about the tricks, it’s also a psychological story about two intense rivals and their obsession to outdo one another.
Hugh Jackman (from X-Men) and Christian Bale (from Batman Begins) star as the two competing magicians in turn-of-the-century England. As each grows in success, each is determined to figure out the other’s secrets and get the better of him. They sneak into each other’s shows in diguise, sabotage each other’s acts (sometimes violently), and even play the same woman against one another. However, it’s more than just a professional one-upmanship. They have a shared past and a shared tragedy that fuels their animosity. The movie is as much about revenge as it is about magic, and that’s what makes it both interesting and confusing.
I think that the audience goes in with an eye watching for the tricks, whether it be how the magicians pull-off a stage trick or how the director fools the audience with a cinematic trick. However, most of the stage tricks are revealed pretty plainly, and even the big twists in the film are hinted at so much that you kind of guess before they happen. Nevertheless, I was dragged along by the intensity of the plot and the characters. Their motives were always mysterious: Were they really interested in figuring each other’s tricks? Or was that just another way to harm the other guy? Even the big climax was not the jaw-dropping shock that I expected (though the noisy guy next to me seemed obviously taken aback from the sounds of his hooting [… eyes roll]). So I’m left scratching my head: Why did Nolan give away his big secrets? What was he trying to say with the ending? He also kept me wondering about what the various characters were actually all about: Did she know his secret? Did he know that secret? [Scratch, scratch, scratch.]
If layer upon layer, enigma after enigma wasn’t enough, there’s the addition of the back and forth time jumping. As the trailer to the movie suggests, we’re all meant to be taught about the three acts of a performance: the Pledge (where we see the “ordinary” thing), the Turn (where we see that it’s not so ordinary), and the Prestige (where we drop our jaw at how extraordinary it appears to be). Tada! The movie is meant to follow that formula to some degree, and it starts with what appears to be a murder. Then it flashes back to try to tell us what led up to this, but then it keeps flashing back and then forward, and then back. I count three main time periods that this movie follows, and it is a bit confusing despite the cues we get to tell us when we are (e.g. When we see Hugh Jackman walk with a cane we know it’s after he has an accident). Another confusing element is the inclusion of the real-life character Nikola Tesla (played by a subdued David Bowie), a 19th century scientist who came up with more than 700 patents, but in the film might be even more of a true magician than the rest of them. I guess the intention of that third act (i.e. The Prestige) is to leave the viewer with a lingering sense of amazement, so that they just can’t stop applauding. But by the time we reach that point in the movie, it’s bittersweet. The ending is creepy, tragic, and puzzling. While I certainly want to see this movie again, it’s less amazement that lingers in me and more of a desire to decipher the intriguing confusion. (4 out of 5)