Revealing the Prestige’s Method
An eyes wide open review of Christopher Nolan’s magical movie, The Prestige.
The Prestige Explained
“Are you watching closely?” Thus begins Christopher Nolan’s masterfully crafted period piece that seems to have a lot more going on than one might initially see occurring on the surface. This review assumes you’ve already watched The Prestige. If you haven’t – go away. Watch the movie, then come back. Are we clear? Great.
To set the stage for the reveal – I really must quote R.J. Carter, a science fiction author and a Senior Editor of “The Trades”, and how let down he felt upon originally watching the movie:
“So why do I feel cheated?… Because after committing so much time and faith to the plot, I find out that the story is one of science fiction. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good science fiction story; just tell me in advance.”
What Carter doesn’t realize is that he’s only understood the first two epiphanies. It is the third that makes the movie make sense. It is the third that makes Nolan one of the most brilliant writers in cinema history. To convince you, here is Newsweek’s thoughts on the movie:
“At the end of this dark entertainment three twists await: one you will certainly see coming, another you may have figured out just before it happens, and the final may be so tricky you won’t quite piece it all together until after you’ve left the theater.”
So the challenge is in front of us. There are THREE surprises awaiting the diligent. Let’s not waste time – we’ve got some discovering to do.
A Prestige Primer
The plot of the Prestige is simple at face value. We are presented with two young aspiring magicians. Angier (played by Hugh Jackman) a very good showman but less than stellar magician. And Borden (played by Christian Bale) a natural magician in every right but a bit dim in the showmanship category. The prime mover of the entire movie’s sadistic tendencies is a tragic event that ends up killing Angier’s wife and it is believed Borden is to blame. The two quickly develop a rivalry to end all rivalries reminiscent of the Montague’s and Capulet’s that basically consumes them night and day. It begins with Borden and Angier racing to become the best magician in London and ends with mayhem, blood and death.
Possible Prestige Methods
The point of this review is not to speak to the surface level plot points of the movie, but rather to address a deficit I am seeing in the larger Prestige discussion arena. Many people that have seen the movie and have discussed the various intricacies gravitate more towards the more philosophical and moral nuggets held within. And that is a great discussion to be had – don’t get me wrong – but think all of these discussions completely miss the larger reveal – or Prestige if you will – that is going on here in front of everyone’s noses. So to that end I will first recount the more populist of theories out there that most ascribe to (at least in one flavor or another). And then I will sketch out for you my version of how the movie played itself out.
We Have Seen The Populists And We Are Them…
When the dust of this movie settles for most people it is fairly clear, if not a bit disappointing, what happened throughout. But what makes this Populist theory so widespread and overwhelmingly popular is that you have to work to come to this conclusion. Its not a simple thing to understand this movie even at the most basic of levels. So, when most people rearrange the anarchic timeline in their heads and finally makes sense of that, they then begin cogitating on the whole “reveal” with Borden and his twin at the finale. Once they get that bit they progress to the larger questions circulating around Angier and the Tesla machine. At this point the chaos is so thick and the hip-waders are so completely and totally mucked they’ll take even some of the more outlandish of answers as fact.
Where the disagreement within this camp lies is usually within the “How exactly did Tesla make the machine work”, “which Borden was hanged” or the “how many Angiers were there that drowned?” veins. The really adventurous within this camp may posit something as outlandish as – “The Tesla machine isn’t a cloning machine, it’s a teleportation machine that leaves a new clone behind.” – which creates reams and reams of discussion fodder. So all that to say, this Populist vantage on the movie takes the ending literally. The Tesla machine clones all those who enter and the only thing left to sort out is how do we dispose of the extras?
The Prestige’s Prestige…
The Man Behind the Curtain
The first point I would like to make in regards to this larger reveal within The Prestige would have to be a completely unrelated movie. Anyone who has experienced any of Christopher Nolan’s other movies will know, the Director of The Prestige is not afraid to layer ambiguity over ambiguity in order to create a powerful tapestry that ultimately overloads the senses. Memento is the perfect example of this illusion folded in on top of illusion with the intentional objective of avoiding a definitive answer to the problems played across the screen. The Prestige is yet another example of this, where we are confronted with constantly conflicting evidence that may, or may not, point in 42 different directions. All that to say, everything I am about to posit here and now was intentionally placed within the Prestige strategically by Mr. Nolan. I guarantee it. Now, as to whether or not my vantage on this movie is correct, or not, I will leave this question in your capable hands to ascertain.
What is the third reveal?
Quite simply put I believe that the Tesla machine is a sham and it doesn’t do anything but throw pretty sparks. Already many of you are hefting your rocks in order to stone me for heresy. To understand how I can posit something that contradicts everything we are told as the movie wraps up will take some effort. But if you will stick with me – and then if you watch the movie again – you will see not only how plausible all of this is but how necessary it is for the entire movie to make any sense at all.
The Prestige’s Prestige on Autopilot
How can it possibly be? Let’s just cut to the chase and I will walk you through the explanation in a timeline format:
- Angier and Borden work together as plants in a show where Angier’s wife is accidentally killed.
- The two go their separate ways and begin developing their own shows.
- Borden and Fallon (Borden’s twin) develop the transporting man.
- Angier becomes obsessed with understanding the trick at all costs.
- Angier steals Borden’s notebook and realizes it would take him years to decipher.
- Angier captures Fallon and gives him back after Borden reveals the method/key – “Tesla.”
- Angier embarks on a trip to Tesla in order to have him build him a teleporting machine.
- Tesla is tipped by Borden of Angier’s goals and Tesla takes him on a wild goose chase.
- Angier “discovers” the hats and the cats and is convinced the machine works.
- Angier receives the machine under dubious circumstances.
- Angier learns that the machine, in fact, does not work and realizes he’s been duped.
- Angier begins plotting his revenge by staging a limited engagement of the new teleporting man.
- Borden visits both the show and the backstage removal of the tanks.
- Borden then goes onstage and then down below where he witnesses Angier’s double drowning.
- Borden is arrested for murder and put on trial.
- Angier – as Lord Caldlow – still wants to know Borden’s method and so he attempts to purchase the method for the drowning man from Borden while he’s in prison.
- Borden receives Angier’s journal and begins learning about Angier’s trip to visit Tesla.
- Borden discovers that Angier has apparently anticipated Borden’s murder of himself prior.
- Borden sells the transporting man trick in trade for his daughter’s safety.
- Angier visits Borden in prison to make him aware he’s won.
- Borden is hanged – says “Abracadabra” just beforehand.
- Fallon – now dressed as Borden – goes to Angier in his theater basement and shoots him.
- Angier attempts to get Borden to notice his surroundings – Borden doesn’t bite.
- Angier dies and Borden is reunited with his daughter.
- Roll Credits.
I have intentionally avoided explaining some of the stickier issues with this theory above. Instead I have differed a few of the more obvious rebuttals until later. But first, you have to admit that walking through the movie in its proper chronology along with this new view of how the events unfolded sheds quite a bit of light on certain aspects that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example – why would Angier still be trying to get Borden’s method after having reproduced the trick with the Tesla machine? It logically doesn’t follow. He’d been duplicating himself successfully for months – why does he still need the method?
Or another anomaly: Towards the end Borden (not Fallon, but Borden) became obsessed with trying to figure out how Angier accomplishes his final Teleporting Man technique. Recall Borden saying to Olivia (Scarlet Johansson), “All we know is that there’s a trap door! What’s going on under that stage?!?” So… explain that to me. If Borden was the one that directed Angier to Tesla in order to get the cloning machine, why would he be so flummoxed by the trick? Wouldn’t it be obvious to Borden that his rival was using the same cloning methods as himself, only plotted out in a different way?
There are also other minor things that stand out as well, but I will leave those to you for now. More importantly would be for us to explain how such a contrary chronology is even possible by only watching what we are shown by Mr. Nolan.
How can it be that a movie can physically get away with lying to our faces? The first (and maybe the most important exercise) thing we must consider is the source. Can you remember who does the narration of this movie? Yes, you are correct, Cutter does narrate a fair amount. But who else narrates the action as it proceeds? No, it isn’t completely accurate to say either Borden or Angier narrates. Actually if you look closely you’ll realize that the two key narrators in this story are Borden’s diary, read by Angier, and alternately Angier’s diary being read by Borden.
The next question that we must ask ourselves is this – can we trust Borden’s or Angier’s diaries? Obviously not. One of the greater sub-plot twists is the reveal to Borden that Angier is writing to him “from the dead.” Similarly, we feel Angier’s unfettered angst and loathing for Borden when Borden’s diary reveals that the entire document was crafted solely for his consumption. So, if this is the case, why should we believe a single thing that these sources have revealed to us? Right, so please keep that in mind as we continue forward.
If we consider both of the two main characters, Borden and Angier, what would we say that their main motivations are? For Borden, I think it is fairly obvious that he is intent on developing the world’s best magic trick that will turn the world upside down. You recall his arguments on behalf of the bullet catch and his hopes for doing something new and exciting, as opposed to the litany of tried and true tricks. Angier, on the other hand, feeds off of the love and approval only the audience can give. One of the really great threads buried deep within this movie is the juxtaposition of these two extremes. Natural talent and savant versus the ever envious showman. These two men obviously are out for blood and nothing is going to stand in their way.
Early on Borden discovers a key fact about what it means to truly become a great magician/artist. Borden understood that it took complete dedication to his craft 24/7/365 days of the year. There was no on-stage moment… his life was the stage. But what has this to do with the final reveal? Angier finally understands that to best Borden he is going to have to get his hands dirty. He is going to invest sizably and go to extraordinary lengths to better Borden. And in Angier’s defense, this he does really really well. Angier is solely responsible for this the most extraordinary of surprises in all of the movie. He has finally learned the lesson Borden has been trying to teach him for years. And it is this lesson, this surprise, that 98% of the movie’s audience are blissfully unaware.
The Prestige’s Raison de’etre
The very first prime mover we encounter within the movie is that magic is special in that it frees the audience from their painful and boring lives by allowing them to believe in something that is unreal. It frees them to believe in something greater, that something truly otherworldly exists in this world. Why would we not begin to think, for a second, that the movie The Prestige is doing anything differently? It is then allowing the audience to slip into the fantastical notion that magic is real, and there is an escape from the ordinariness of this life. When, in fact, there really is a solution available to those who are diligent and observant.
Secondly, throughout the movie we are shown time and time again the details of various magic tricks and how they physically work. Then, at the end, all of a sudden this pattern stops and the machine actually works? This answer is disjointed in the extreme. If this occurred in The Illusionist I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But it didn’t… it occurred in The Prestige and it in so doing is a logical fallacy.
And finally, the movie proves its own thesis in that most don’t really want to know how a magic trick is done. We really do want to be fooled. So too it goes with the mechanics of how the movie actually works. Most do not want to be fooled. Ask yourself this question. Is The Prestige a drama or a science fiction movie? It doesn’t logically follow that it would be a science fiction movie. It makes no sense that a writer/director as smart as Christopher Nolan would make this mistake accidentally. Its way too brazen and obvious for such a nuanced and intelligent director.
Q. But the HATS man! What about the hats and the cats? He sees them with his own two eyes! He discovers that the machine works all on his own!
A. Drivel. Are you saying that purchasing 200 identically sized and colored top hats is difficult? That finding five similarly colored cats is hard? Please. The genius here wasn’t in the hats and the cats in the field. It was in getting Angier to believe he solved the glitch in the Tesla Machine. It was the perfect con.
Angier only realizes the machine doesn’t work after the lab is destroyed and he’s already on his way back to England. That was Angier’s turning point. Do I really want to be the greatest magician of all time? Will I live the lie 24/7/365 in order to pull of this stunt and in so doing secure my position atop all the other magicians and showmen that went before me? And more importantly, will I beat my arch nemesis finally? Or will I allow myself to lose?
Q. We see with our own two eyes that Angier is duplicated by the machine. That he had to take the gun and shoot his double upon realization of what he’d done.
A. Earlier in this review I detailed out the narration problem. This, too, is a similar problem. At the point in the story when this scene is shown it is Angier telling Fallon what he’d done, and that the machine had worked. Why would we trust Angier’s word any more than we would trust his diary? This is just one more lie, albeit one that we envision along with Fallon as he is telling it to us. Its nothing more than a lie.
Q. But what about all the bodies in the chambers at the end?
A. That is the essence of a magic trick. There needs to be nearly incontrovertible proof that the trick is real or we wouldn’t believe. It really doesn’t matter how I answer this one, in my opinion. 20 different look-a-likes that Angier has killed. 20 wax figures he’s crafted to trick Fallon (Borden) into believing he’s really made the Tesla machine work. This magic trick was for an audience of one. Fallon. (And You.)
Q. During the wrap up – the explanation – of the movie Nolan did not say anything about the machine not working. Its simply incomprehensible that Nolan wouldn’t have explained everything to us and tie a pretty bow at the ending of the movie.
A. True. American movie going audiences disdain loose ends. They are anathema to us. And for a director to challenge us in this way is almost unthinkable. And as unthinkable a premise as this is – it is exactly what Nolan had done in The Prestige. He has evenly balanced two equally plausible and irrefutable truths perfectly. Either A) This movie is science fiction. or B) It is a magic trick. Neither can be proven wrong. The evidence to both options are equally weighted. It is in this that we see Nolan’s true genius.
Believing that the Tesla machine works would be similar to believing that a magician who saws his assistant in half has somehow created a medical device that will re-weld her back together again. Why would you ever believe this to be true? You wouldn’t. So why exactly would you believe that the machine truly works? You shouldn’t.
But I do admit that ultimately I would have had to concoct evidence to make sense of such an awful movie directed by such a brilliant mind. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to concoct a story when one is right there, if you would just take a moment to consider it fully. The only question is – Are you watching closely enough? Do you really want to know the truth behind the story?
Edited by, CY