When I first saw The Prestige, I was unfamiliar with the novel by Christopher Priest upon which the film is based, so I did not know that the book had won the World Fantasy Award. I gather that I was not alone in this, since several other critics whose reviews I have read seemed unhappy with the supernatural element that is introduced in a film about magic . . . which, as ingénieur Cutter suggests, is something audiences generally understand to be illusion rather than reality, though they want the secrets of those illusions kept from them so they have the possibility of belief. I, too, had trouble accepting at first that I was watching a movie whose second-best trick was predicated on a scientific impossibility, and kept looking for the twist. But here's the secret of The Prestige: ultimately, the twist doesn't matter. This is a story about two magicians and the lengths to which they will go to protect their secrets; the nature of the secrets is ultimately secondary.
And one might say that the same is true of the movie magic necessary to make The Prestige, directed by Batman Begins ingénieur Christopher Nolan from a screenplay by himself and his brother Jonathan Nolan. The two have made some significant changes from the novel -- for one, they've dropped the framing story set in the modern era, and for another, the functioning of the supernatural scientific device is somewhat different, which makes one of the characters seem rather more homicidal than suicidal as in the book. I can't imagine that anyone who has read the book (as I rushed home and did after seeing the film) would find the film disappointing. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale both give stunning performances as magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, though their shows are stolen to some extent by Michael Caine as a grounded old stage inventor and David Bowie as a wizard named Nikola Tesla.
The plot of The Prestige seems simple enough. Two rival young magicians -- Angier, a showy stage performer of aristocratic bearing, and Borden, a working-class man who understands that for a true magician, the performance doesn't end where the proscenium drops -- work as assistants to an established magician. In a terrible tragedy, the pretty showgirl who is married to Angier dies during a water escape gone wrong. Angier blames Borden, who is never able to tell him which knot he tied around the woman's wrists during the trick. The two become competitors and enemies in an escalating rivalry that leaves one limp, the other maimed, until finally Angier concludes that he must visit the scientist Tesla, whom he believes has given Borden the means to perform an astonishing trick called The Disappearing Man in which Borden steps into a box and scarcely a heartbeat later reappears in another box several yards away. The two are helped along by their mysterious ingénieurs -- Angier's friend Cutter, who warns him of the dangers of obsession, and Borden's assistant Fallon, a peculiar shadow who never seems to speak aloud.
But with Memento's Nolan directing, the plot does not unfold along such linear lines. The movie opens with Angier's death by drowning in a box very like the one where he lost his wife; soon after, Borden sentenced to death for Angier's murder, while a mysterious Lord Caldlow attempts to buy his magical secrets before he hangs. As a show of good faith, Lord Caldlow sends Borden Angier's diary to read while he decides whether to divulge his greatest trick. Thus we learn Angier's story -- at least, the parts he wishes Borden to know -- from Borden's perspective as he suffers in prison awaiting execution. In the folded story-within-a-story, we learn that Angier's decision to contact Tesla was the result of reading another diary, for Angier had sent his own assistant to work for Borden in the hope that she could steal the secret to The Disappearing Man, and she provided Angier with Borden's diary.
Underlying this story of two rival magicians is the story of rival wizards, as Cutter calls the scientists bringing electricity to the world. Nikola Tesla is living as a recluse in the mountains above Colorado Springs, having provided electricity to the town in exchange for use of the generator when everyone is asleep, and Thomas Edison's men are eager to find him and steal or destroy his secrets. Angier and Borden both attend an exhibition of Tesla's when he is in London, and not long afterward, Borden incorporates Tesla's electrical effects into his show. When Borden believes Fallon's life depends upon the revelation of the secret of The Disappearing Man, he tells Angier that Tesla holds the key, which sends the wealthy magician to America seeking a device that will allow him to perform the same trick.
I can't talk about what makes this film so powerful and significant as a work of cinematic wizardry without destroying its illusions, so at this point I must ask any readers who wish to maintain their innocence to turn away: **MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW.***
What Tesla invents for Angier is a machine that does the impossible, though it's not what Angier initially requests. The magician simply wants a device that can transport him instantaneously from one place to another, like Borden's Disappearing Man trick, which Angier has already tried to replicate using a double, only to have his double turn on him and give Borden the upper hand in their feud. Tesla is unsuccessful in making Angier's hat or his own assistant's cat move from the center of his electrical device, but a hillside covered with black cats and hats soon gives away the fact that he has created something very much more extraordinary: a device that perfectly replicates whatever matter is placed within it, whether that matter is inert like a hat or alive like a cat. The possibility for amazing audiences is instantly evident to Angier, who realizes that he can disappear onstage and make himself reappear seconds later in the upper balcony. There's only a slight problem: the "him" who reappears may not be the "him" who disappeared, and either way, what is he to do with the extra Angier the device creates?
It doesn't take long for Angier (who balked at the idea of killing birds for a disappearing-dove trick) to come up with the brilliant plan of killing his doubles, starting with the very first one created by the machine. Each night when he performs his definitive version of The Disappearing Man, one Angier stands triumphantly on the balcony while another drops into a tank of water identical to the one where his wife died; that Angier drowns, and the tanks are hidden in the theatre basement by the blind stagehands who are the only crew Angier permits below the stage. As obsessed with learning the secret to Angier's trick as Angier had once been with learning his own, Borden sneaks through the wings into the theatre's lower levels, witnesses the duplicate Angier drowning, cries for help, attracts the attention of Cutter and is soon on trial for "murdering" his rival while the surviving Angier takes up his family title of Lord Caldlow and attempts to gain both Borden's secrets and custody of Borden's only child.
But Borden has the last word, for, as Cutter suspected all along, Borden did use a double in The Disappearing Man: his identical twin. The two have been taking turns for years playing the parts of Alfred and Fallon respectively, and while the one obsessed with spying on Angier goes to the noose for his murder, the other stalks Angier a.k.a. Lord Caldlow, fatally shooting him but giving him just enough time to understand that his rival still lives and will retake his daughter and his magic while Angier joins all his dead doubles in death in the theatre's basement. How does Borden know where to find Angier? With the help of Cutter, who is so appalled by Angier's real-life disappearing trick -- letting Borden be executed for the murder of a man who is still alive -- that the ingénieur's loyalties change.
Like a number of reviewers of this movie, I felt disappointed by the fact that Angier's trick depended upon impossible technology. But once the film ended, I realized that was a specious disappointment for two reasons. The first is that The Prestige is a movie about magic. There are all sorts of tricks being played by the filmmaker, who can alter time and space with tricks of lenses and editing, but the biggest is the fact that he can perform the Disappearing Man effortlessly. Unlike Angier himself, Nolan does not need to hire a double to stand in for Hugh Jackman; he can duplicate Hugh Jackman, using the wonders of special effects, thus allowing the actor to play both Angier and the mediocre performer Gerald Root whom Angier hires to double for him in his first attempt at copying Borden's trick. Similarly, Nolan doesn't need to hire identical twins to play Borden and Fallon; Christian Bale takes on both roles, even when the two men are conversing with one another. We know that such trickery exists, we see it all the time in movies like Dead Ringers where Jeremy Irons played a pair of twins; we just don't like to spoil the fun thinking about it any more than a receptive audience wants to know how a magician saws a lady in half.
And then there's the fact that, beneath the rivalry between Angier and Borden, this is a film about the magic of electricity and the rivalry between Edison and Tesla. Speaking of movie magic, Edison invented the motion picture camera, right? That's what I learned in school. But actually, there is quite a body of evidence proving Louis Aimè Augustin Le Prince invented the single-lens motion picture camera and Edison stole his work. Oddly enough, the two men shared the same patent lawyer, and Le Prince disappeared under very strange circumstances. If Tesla had actually invented a matter replicator like the one in The Prestige, can anyone really doubt the lengths to which the notoriously combative Edison would have gone to steal or destroy that technology? He characterized Tesla as a dangerous mad scientist and contributed to the ruin of his career, though Tesla's research on the safety of alternating current was later borne out.
We take "magic" for granted in our popular entertainment, and we take electricity for granted in our daily lives, but that wasn't true for the people of Angier and Borden's era. When Angier steps off a train in Colorado Springs and realizes that the entire town has electric lighting, it's astonishing to him, though he's so obsessed with his personal vendetta that he doesn't dwell on it. Similarly, when Tesla invents a machine that could eradicate hunger (by replicating food), poverty (by replicating necessary items for living), even offer healthy children to families who have lost their own, Angier sees it only from the repulsively short-sighted perspective of the stage magician wanting to impress an audience of one. He takes an invention that could end suffering all over the world and uses it to kill off pieces of himself, all to amaze a rival.
Given that we see the hillside with the duplicate hats at the very start of the movie, I suspected all along that Angier was not dead -- that aspect of the story was completely predictable, even projected. The Prestige is very nearly a parody of a mystery film in that sense, even if the mechanism by which the dead man lives is so far beyond the range of expectation. I later expected to find out that Tesla had not really invented anything at all, but had merely given Angier an idea for misdirection for his trick; it would be very like a magician-director to mislead an audience in that way, because mystery films, like magicians, use special effects and cinematic trickery to accomplish the same things pretty assistants, colored scarves and other diversions did for 19th century magicians. Star Trek aside, most people know that you can't replicate matter unless you have power supplies that are unimaginably vast -- Einstein may have had an equation, but no way to demonstrate it in practice -- so why base Angier's trick on an impossibility? I think we're supposed to think of Tesla's machine as the horror-movie device it most resembles, the machine that infuses Frankenstein's monster with the spark of life. It's unnatural and just plain wrong, like Angier's and Borden's different yet similar double lives.
Angier believes Borden must be using "real magic," since Angier does not believe that Borden is a good enough showman to do the Disappearing Man trick otherwise. Angier doesn't believe Borden could pull it off using a double, even though Cutter insists all along that he must be. In fact, Borden is the consummate showman at every moment of his life, even with his wife and child, even with his mistress. (I've said very little about the women in this film, because to a large degree, the men and the film both treat them as props; both wives end up dead from their proximity to men obsessed with magic, and the woman who is the mistress and assistant of both survives by knowing when to flee, announcing that the men deserve each other. I accept that, historically, women were far more restricted by their choices in careers and spouses and were often forced into situations that led to accidental death or suicide, but having two major female characters die and a third pull a disappearing act doesn't please me.)
Because Borden lives his craft even in his private life, because he knows that all of his own tricks depend upon illusion, it doesn't really occur to him that Angier might be using "real magic" with Tesla's machine. He assumes it must be a more elaborate version of his own Transported Man trick. He sends Angier to Tesla as a joke of sorts, assuming that Tesla will take his money and leave him nothing to show for it but some fancy fireworks. Tesla and Borden are both poor underdogs, while Angier, like Edison, would prefer to keep his hands clean and be celebrated for skill alone but then doesn't shirk from destroying a rival in a vile and underhanded manner, even one that may deprive the world of wizardry that could help thousands of other people.
The non-magical secret -- that Borden has a twin -- is ultimately more critical to the plot than the genuine magic of Angier's machine, since it allows Borden to "triumph over death" in a way that Angier ultimately cannot. With so much of The Prestige about doubling and misdirection, it is the human diversion rather than "magic" that is the payoff for the film's audience, so it doesn't really matter whether Tesla's machine is unrealistic. This is a film that needs to be watched once for the plot twists, and again once the plot twists are revealed, to see the things that didn't seem important the first time out because we didn't know we were watching a magic trick. Though maybe that isn't true for everybody: maybe, to paraphrase Cutter, aren't really looking because we don't really want to know.
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