The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s innocently dumb The Prestige was released the same year as at least two other films about magicians — those would be The Illusionist and Scoop, in case you’ve forgotten either of those very, very memorable motion pictures — but if you’re confused about this, we’re here to help. The Prestige is the one where Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, is involved and the solution to the magic tricks is actually so batshit elaborate it seems kind of not like totally worth the trouble at all! There are secret twins and cloning machines and probably sea monkeys involved. And also a lot of petty hurt dude feelings, and women be whinin’ about the relationship. There’s also no performance as strong or memorable as Edward Norton’s dazzling turn in The Illustionist, but at least you get half the cast from Scoop in the form of the improbably well-named Hugh Jackman and popular SodaStream spokesperson Scarlett Johansson. To recap: Woody Allen is not in this movie. David Bowie is. Got it?

The Prestige isn’t much more than an extended act of goofball escapism, tinged with the same wild world-hating nihilism familiar from most of director Christopher Nolan’s films. But this is the last gasp of Nolan’s contentment away from giganticism — as in Memento, he keeps things simple and breezy enough and shows us things in moderation. That’s in terms of set and production design, not so much storytelling. And in sharp contrast to Memento, we have here a wildly bizarre story that will make your Occam’s Razor radar spin crazily unless you really are fond of narratives about live burial — the plan seems to be to find the most unnecessarily ludicrous way to get our dudes from Point A to Point B in sufficient Tumblr-friendly steampunk-magic fashion to keep us gazing into the eyes of hunk superstars Christian Bale and Jackman.

The cast is a strong breed of Hollywood power-flexing indeed: Bale and Jackman engage in a very extended and very macho series of one-ups that ends up encompassing everything from cloned cats and drowned babes and estranged daughters to fake diaries and bouncing balls and Bowie walking through a field of electricity or something. Michael Caine is there in the same role he seems to always play these days, of the man who knows everything and doesn’t mind telling you. Johansson gets to read some lines. Rebecca Hall does too. And to reiterate, Bowie is here too for some odd reason, not so much playing Tesla as reprising the role John Wood played in Wargames, I think (the guy on the hang glider or whatever). Holy god, I give up, this makes no sense.

Whether something more sophisticated and less gimmicky could be made about turn-of-the-century magicians I don’t know; The Prestige, in the defense of my entire generation, kids of the future, seemed like a sorta fun night out at the time. It looks pretty miserable in retrospect. The Nolans — Christopher and his brother, scribe Jonathan — puzzle over every silly “gotcha” moment but can’t be bothered to write a female character whose purpose and existence isn’t telegraphed and vapid. You can already see the hackneyed dialogue and cardboard characterization of the next non-Batman film, Inception, coming into force. Plus the story makes not a lick of sense even putting aside the automatic ridiculousness of the twist. Remember when John Lennon said Help! was like having clams in a movie about frogs? The production design team of The Prestige were told it was a frog movie. It’s a clam script. The stars were convinced they were performing in a Chris Isaak video.

It’s kind of perfect that all of the interesting and potentially revealing emotional dialogue, mostly involving Hall telling her lover on alternate mornings that she can tell if he does or doesn’t love her that day, ends up just amounting to a bunch of stupid “clues” about the climax. Can’t wait to see a romcom from this guy — is anyone better at making human relationships and passions the most rote and boring thing in the universe? He’s the modern master of strained seriousness. The Prestige might be a fun movie — it is, in a couple spots — if the point were “haha, that’s really goofy” rather than OH MY GOD I AM SO SHOCKED, SHOCKED BY ALL OF THIS FACE-MELTING BRILLIANCE. And did you know that the movie itself is, like, a magic trick? Fuck, man. At least there’s no fast cutting.

[Expanded from a more earnest 2006 review. We were all younger then.]

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