In this photo provided by Touchstone Pictures, Cutter (Michael Caine) observes a new trick performed by magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in “The Prestige.”
I approached the theater with noted trepidation this weekend. The new dueling magician movie, “The Prestige,” certainly looked good. But I’d been disappointed more than once this year and I was trying to keep my expectations low.
There was no need for such negativity, however. The film starts with a bang and leads you on a twisty-turny journey to a creepy and powerful, if headscratching, ending. Just when you thought it wasn’t safe to go back to the movies, Hollywood has finally produced something entertaining, spellbinding, and though slightly nonsensical at times, completely watchable.
Hugh Jackman is Rupert Angier, otherwise known as The Great Dantn. Christian Bale is Alfred Borden, professionally known as The Professor. Both men are magicians, delighting crowds with tricks, illusions and feats of derring-do.
It is the turn of the century, the perfect time for an illusionist. People have begun to reject the supernatural in favor of science, but they still crave the unknown and someone that can inject mystery into their increasingly ordered and rational lives. The magician, for a brief moment in time, achieves the prominence of a superstar, and both of our protagonists are determined to ride that wave to the top.
Borden and Angier begin their careers as partners, shills for a minor magician of the time. After a terrible accident on stage, the two one-time-friends part company, becoming the bitterest of rivals. Between them stands the technician, Cutter, played by Michael Caine, and the beautiful assistant Olivia, played by Scarlett Johansson.
The plot, carried on the winds of jealousy, betrayal and sabotage, centers on an obsession, that of the greatest magic trick of all time, “The Transported Man.” The trick, in which the magician enters a door on one side of the stage and immediately exits on the other, is impossible, at first glance, but each man is determined to master it. Borden, who has been working on it for years, finally masters the secret, but refuses to divulge his methods.
Angier, desperate to solve the mystery, travels to America where he encounters real-life scientist Nikola Tesla, a man whose early experiments with electricity mastered those of Edison himself, leading some to wonder if Tesla wasn’t a modern-day wizard.
Having enlisted the help of the master of electricity, Angier returns to England with his new act. What follows is a war of performance, one in which only the ruthless will survive.
“The Prestige,” written and directed by “Memento” helmer Christopher Nolan, is fascinating and fun, but a little frustrating at first. As told in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks, it is somewhat difficult, at times, to keep track of what’s going on. I think this is by design, however, to put you off your guard, much the way a magician might when performing an illusion.
After a while the story starts to make sense, and you are able to follow it ably. That is not to say that it won’t leave you scratching your head at the end. It may be that the film requires multiple viewings, as did “Memento,” to figure out it took the car ride home to work out a few of the details, and a few I’m still pondering over.
There is a fine line between inscrutable and illogical, but I’m willing, for the most part, to give a movie like “The Prestige” the benefit of the doubt. I’m not sure that watching a film like this one would be near as enjoyable the second time, however.
The whole point of the magic trade is that no one really knows what’s going on. Once you know the secret, the whole trick seems pointless or worse. On the other hand, Nolan does a masterful job of keeping us on the edge of our seats, even as the secrets are gradually revealed.
In the end, I was of two minds, one having been thoroughly entertained, and one slightly disappointed. Finding out how it was all done is never as much fun as you think it will be.
Still, the acting, directing and writing are all top-notch, and I especially liked how the magic tricks felt as though they were really being performed by the actors, as opposed to being shot with special effects. Very classy.
“The Prestige” was bound to be entertaining, a break, as it was, from grunting Marines and unreasonably angry ghosts, but it stands up well in its own right. At turns thrilling, haunting and tragic, it’s a perfect film for the fall season. Though it will try to misdirect you, it’s one movie from which you won’t be able to look away.
“The Prestige” is rated PG-13 for some violence and mature themes.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.
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