Appreciating Christopher Nolan: The Prestige

Image retrieved from IMDb

SPOILER ALERT for The Prestige. This movie has kind of fallen through the cracks when it comes to Nolan movies, but it’s an excellent movie that I wish had more mainstream recognition.

The Prestige (2006)

Almost every time I watch a Christopher Nolan movie, I think, “Wow, this may be his best one.” The Prestige is no different. Nolan presents this story in such a unique way. If you thought he couldn’t come up with another original and imaginative way of presenting a story than he did for Memento, you’d be wrong. He takes you for a wild ride whenever he can.

Before I re-watched The Prestige for this post, I couldn’t remember if the story was presented in a non-linear way like so many other Nolan films. What I came to be reminded of was that it, in fact, was non-linear. Similar to Memento, Nolan shows us something that happens at the end of the story, at the beginning of the movie. We see Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) being put on trial for the death of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). It’s a “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” kind of thing for both of the characters. This is how Nolan gets you invested right away. You want to know what the heck is going on and your attention isn’t going to wane until you start to understand. And like a typical Nolan movie, you don’t understand everything until the very end.

This is a mystery movie. Three people are trying to solve their own mystery: Angier, Borden, and the viewer. Angier wants to figure out how Borden does the Disappearing Man, Borden then tries to figure out how Angier does his version of the Disappearing Man, and the viewer is trying to figure out everything. But what’s really cool is that Nolan gives you clues to what’s going on the entire time. You just have to be smart enough and be paying enough attention to put it all together. He again uses the opening title card effectively by showing the top hats on the hill. So later on, when you’re wondering along with Angier and Tesla what is happening to the top hats, you should already know, even though you probably haven’t put it together in your head. Everything makes so much more sense once you go back for each subsequent viewing. This is just a way Nolan gets you to re-watch his films. His movies are meant to be re-watched and re-analyzed. Each subsequent viewing brings more understanding and awe.

The Prestige is also the first non-Batman movie that features a number of frequent Nolan collaborators. Obviously, Christian Bale is the biggest one out of this group, since he was Nolan’s Batman for three movies. Michael Caine has also been in a large percentage of Nolan’s movies, and he is a secondary character in this movie. Finally, Wally Pfister is the director of photography, which is what he is best at (Transcendence was a good experiment by him to direct, but it really didn’t work).

Now, one thing I was trying to figure out while watching this was who the main character was. Nolan’s big thing is that he focuses on one character and delves deep into their psyche. Even as his movies have gotten bigger and bigger in scale, most of them are very much character studies. Hugh Jackman is top billed and he’s the one who realizes everything at the end, even though he dies. So I would say that he’s the main character. But the film is really about this unending rivalry, so both Batman and Wolverine – I mean, Borden and Angier are the main characters being looked at.

The Prestige is a science fiction film. But it doesn’t feel like it. It seems like there’s magic, but it’s about Tesla’s experiments and how they worked. It’s not magic. If The Prestige was a magic trick, then its final scene is its prestige. Everything comes together. This is the first time we see Nolan really use the subject of his film to explain what he’s doing with the film itself. And once we realize it, it’s absolutely glorious.

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