The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review
littlereview

Long Incoherent Blather on 'The Prestige'

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a movie that much, nor spent so much time thinking about it afterward, trying to decide whether it had plot holes (which don't particularly detract from the enjoyment even if they are holes) or mysteries I haven't figured out yet. The Prestige does not feel like a two-plus hour film; I saw it with my kids, who get very squirmy if their interest is not being held, and they were completely riveted. It's like an anti-Peter Jackson movie, particularly since the showiest effects are not at all what makes it engrossing. I would also be hard-pressed to say who gives a better performance, Jackman or Bale. Caine, Johansson, Hall, Bowie and all the others are equally superb. And while I don't usually mind being spoiled -- in fact I often go out of my way to be spoiled, so I have some sense whether the payoff of a movie is going to make me glad I spent my money or whether I will walk out with steam coming out of my ears a la Thelma and Louise -- in this case I am very glad that I knew nothing about the ultimate direction of the plot.

I felt a little gypped by the fact that there was impossible technology being used, until I thought about the fact that I was watching 1) a movie about 2) a competitor of Thomas Edison. (Edison invented the motion picture camera, right? Actually, there is quite a body of evidence that Louis Aimè Augustin Le Prince invented the single-lens motion picture camera and Edison stole his work...Le Prince disappeared under very strange circumstances and there have also been allegations that either Edison or the patent lawyer he and Le Prince shared conspired to have Le Prince killed. If Tesla had actually invented a transporter, odds are good that in his effort to prove himself the better magician to the world, he would either have stolen the technology or have all evidence of it destroyed, as he did to Tesla's research in The Prestige.) My son was upset after the movie about all the birds he was sure had been killed in the making of the movie, and I pointed out that not only does the film carry the standard "no animals were harmed..." disclaimer, but tricks involving killing animals like that are, if not illegal which I think they are in most US states, then at least subject to civil suits under dozens of statutes about cruelty to animals. Which means the dead bird we saw in the film was a special effect. We take "magic" for granted in our popular entertainment, and it's true, I don't want to know how the Phantom of the Opera gets from one part of the theater to another (yeah, yeah, doubles) in a way that's entirely unrealistic in the real world but is supposed to be "real" from the perspective of the characters in the drama with him. Does it matter if, so far as we know, Tesla never invented a matter replicator/transporter?

I will say that, given that we saw the hillside with the hats as well as the drowned body which I suspected all along did not mean that Angier was dead at the very beginning of the movie -- that aspect was completely predictable, that the presumed corpse was not in fact dead, though I would never have guessed the mechanism -- I expected to find out that Tesla had not really invented anything at all but had merely given Angier an idea for misdirection. It would have been very like the film to misdirect the audience, because that is what mystery films DO with their special effects and cross-cut timelines and resolutions shown before climaxes, and suggest that Tesla had invented something outside the range of 19th century science when all he had done was try to trick Angier by suggesting his machine could transport or replicate matter when really all it could do is electrify him. Okay, yeah, I guess I still am bummed about the scientific implausibility; you can't create matter out of nothing, no matter how much electricity you have. Something has to be turned into the something else. But I think we're supposed to think of it as the Frankenstein device it resembles, unnatural and just plain wrong, like Angier's and Borden's different yet similar double lives.

Because I love the fact that Angier believes Borden must be using "real magic" since he's not a good enough showman to do the transported man trick otherwise; Angier doesn't believe Borden could pull off using a double, even though Cutter insists all along that he must be. In fact Borden -- both Bordens -- is the consummate showman at every moment of his life. And because Borden knows that all of his own tricks depend on that sort of illusion, it doesn't really occur to him that Angier is using "real magic" with Tesla's machine. He thinks it must be a more elaborate version of his own Transported Man trick. Even Cutter thinks something of the sort is being done that Angier just won't share with him (Angier insists that he needs Cutter onstage for this one and has blind workmen taking out the tanks, hee!) Borden has Tesla lying and claiming he made a machine for Borden so Tesla can get the funding he needs -- they're both the poor underdogs, while Angier, like Edison, is the rich bastard who feels gypped of having had everything he wanted because his wife died in an accident that could as easily have been some other person's fault as Borden's. One of the Bordens presumably knows the correct answer to the question of which knot was tied, though...did Angier get unlucky and never ask the right one, or did the one who tied the knot genuinely not remember? We see the knot being tied and then reversed, and Julia's nod of acquiescence, but I don't know enough about knots to know which was which.

I'm a little bit disturbed about all the dead women. I accept that historically, women were far more restricted by their choices in careers and spouses to begin with and were really forced into situations that led to accidental death and suicide, but having two major female characters die and a third pull a disappearing act right out of the movie -- probably the safest place for her -- never pleases me. The extent to which this is a man's world in which a woman's role is to look pretty on the magician's arm or in his tank until he gets bored or something goes terribly wrong is rather a turn-off, and I don't quite know how to feel about Sarah both demanding truth and not wanting to know about the dead birds from the very beginning. When Borden gets into her rooms moments after saying goodbye to her, are we to assume that he snuck around or that it's another day and the filmmaker has just played a time-trick on us? I would need to see it again to know.

And finally...was Borden's explanation that he used a double on the sheet that Angier tore up at the end, laughing that he didn't need it, not knowing that half the man he wanted to destroy was alive and coming to get him? How come Borden took the secret of the twin to his grave...so he could have revenge, or just so the twin could have the life he was losing, even though the twin had lost Borden's livelihood, though between him and Cutter maybe even that isn't the case? I need to see it again, as 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 you didn't know you were watching a magic trick. The non-magical fact -- that Borden secretly has a twin -- is ultimately more critical than the genuine magic of Angier's machine, and allows Borden to "triumph over death" in a way that Angier cannot, so it is the human diversion rather than "magic" that is the payoff for the audience.
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