The Prestige, the new dueling magicians epic from director Christopher Nolan. I loved Nolan's Batman Begins, and have become a fan of both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, I think they've both been tremendous in starring roles. However, the movie The Prestige was being most often compared to by film critics was Nolan's Memento, which I found to be mildly entertaining but vastly overrated.
My main issue with Memento was that most of that film's creativity seemed to be put into it's non-linear structure. The movie was a puzzle that was amusing enough to follow at first, but held no investment from me for the characters on screen. It seemed more like an exercise in storytelling than a satisfying story in its own right. In the end, Memento was technically interesting but not a truly immersive experience for me.
I was really hoping The Prestige would avoid those pitfalls, and I'm very pleased to report that said pitfalls were avoided, filled with cement, and built upon.
Set in London in the early 1900's, The Prestige tells the story of two rival magicians who's determination for one-upmanship turns into dangerous obsession. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is the consumate showman, while Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is technically the better magician. Their rivalry is born of a personal vendetta which is detailed very early in the film, and just grows and grows from there. I don't want to reveal too many plot points because part of the joy of The Prestige is letting the story unfold in front of you. While watching this movie, I couldn't help but be drawn into the plotting and craftsmanship demonstrated by these two men despite the questionable things they do.
Here's the paradox The Prestige somehow gets away with: our two main characters are obsessive, emotionally scarred, and ruthless. Neither is a traditional hero, yet I was deeply invested in seeing what happened to them. Much credit has to go to the actors and the script here for making me care about what happens to people who are this nasty. Plus, lets face it, magicians are cool. My investment in these characters could also be attributed to the way their story is told. We see the terrible things that happen to shape these guys' perspectives. Once they focus their pain on each other, things just kind of snowball.
The twists are where this movie shines. The constant game of one upmanship is sweet. The subplot involving Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) adds a touch of mystery to the proceedings. Structurally, the film is told in a non-linear style similar to Memento. However, I found the twists here much more intriguing. You see, The Prestige is a magic trick in and of itself. To further illustrate let me quote the words of Cutter, Angier's mentor played by Michael Caine.
Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.
The film goes through each of these steps, it sets up the audience who know they are about to be deceived. The deception in The Prestige is not even that surprising, I had it figured out fairly early while watching the movie. But like all great magic tricks you put it out of your mind, you don't think too hard how it was done because it ruins the illusion while watching it.
I was completely sucked in to the lives of these characters and their surroundings. Not a scene is wasted. This is a brisk 128 minutes, very confident film making.
I'm not someone who's usually impressed by surprise twist endings. Nothing against them when they're done well, but a killer ending to a mediocre movie is still a mediocre movie. It just means the film makers were committed to deceiving the audience for 90+ minutes. Too often, this also means those 90 or so minutes were nothing but set-up and ultimately unsatisfying in their own right.
The way I see it The Prestige seems to be saying that single-mindedly following deception is a road to disaster. Illusion is a two-way street that people who come to a movie like this are happy to buy into. Fortunately, in the case of this movie, the 90 minutes leading to the "surprise" prestige are very entertaining in and of themselves. I wasn't fooled by the reveal but was happy to be part of the illusion. Bravo.
I was surprised by how much I liked The Prestige, I can't remember being this pleasantly surprised by a movie in quite awhile.