The Prestige (2006) / Thriller-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Samantha Mahurin
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan (based on the novel by Christopher Priest)
Review published October 30, 2006

I guess it goes without saying that the success or failure to any magic trick is in fooling the audience.  If the audience is fooled, they will think the magician to be a true artist, while if they are not, the magician is ridiculed, scorned, and booed off the stage.  There are many that might praise a film like The Prestige because it fooled them, but try as I might to ignore the twists and turns that occur in the story, I could not.  If the reaction of a few people in the audience I saw the film with were any indication, there are some that did not see the tells that I did, and consequently, they enjoyed the film much more.  While I could still admire the presentation, the trick performed was blown early on, and once it was in my head, nothing that happened within the story interested me strongly, save perhaps the hope that everything I had concluded in my mind would not come to pass.  Unfortunately, it did.

Based, somewhat loosely, on the 1994 novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige tells the tale of two Victorian age magicians, Robert Angier (Jackman, Scoop) and Alfred Borden (Bale, Batman Begins), who regularly competed on stage for the attention of the public, each wanting to provide them with the greatest trick they'll ever see.  Their competition is so fierce, they eventually begin to try to sabotage one another's performances, and conspire to steal each other's acts, the main one dubbed "The Transported Man", which involves a man seemingly appearing to go in one door and out the other across the stage simultaneously. 

As recounted in the film, there are three acts to any magic trick.  First, there is The Pledge, where a magician shows the audience something ordinary.  Second, there is The Turn, where the magician makes the ordinary act extraordinary.  The third and final act is The Prestige, where the twists and turns reside, and the audience sees something they've never seen before. 

Somewhere en route to the third act of the film's namesake, it lost me.  While I will concede that the film features good performances, an interesting story, and enough good twists to thrill most audiences, the fact that the characters, who theoretically spend an inordinate amount of time closely watching each other, cannot see that which is most obvious to me, makes me think that they aren't written very intelligently, despite the fact that they are all looking for clues throughout.  It just doesn't work as a story.  If a magician performs a trick that fools most of the audience, even though there are still several within the audience that can guess rightly how the trick is done, can he claim to be successful?  This is a question that I have struggled with since my viewing of the film, and now that I sit and type this, I can only conclude that the trick is successful only to those fooled.

Honestly, I'm far from a genius, and would have loved to have been tricked completely by the film as much as anyone, but it just didn't go down that way.  As a result, the final half hour seemed exceedingly drawn out and extremely overdone, and it left me wondering more about the state of a legal system that would see someone get the heaviest punishment for a crime they clearly were trying to prevent.  It also makes me wonder how some people can go on being the person they were when they no longer are supposed to exist. 

The Prestige is like any sleight-of-hand: being fooled is the key, but even if you aren't, you have to at least admire the presentation in order to not feel outright cheated.  Despite guessing the ending of the similarly magic-themed period piece, The Illusionist, before it occurred, I still enjoyed the film. The key difference between the two films is that The Illusionist's enjoyment didn't hinge as completely on playing the audience, and I had been much more engaged by the characters and story, despite expecting the twist in the end.  

Not so with The Prestige, which actually challenges you to look closely at it as a trick, with the tagline of "Are you watching closely?"  It puts all its eggs in one basket and succeeds or fails mainly off of its attempts at trickery.  When the events of the film make little logical sense, even given the fact that ostensibly people could be tricked, it still doesn't stand up to the most fundamental levels of narrative scrutiny, regardless of the cliffhanger ending's success. 

Writer-director Christopher Nolan nails the The Pledge and The Turn, but fumbles in the third act by delivering The Turn again, only in reverse;  it makes something extraordinary ordinary.

 Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo