THE PRESTIGE: 1901: Prologue to Science-Fiction

The most enduring image in Christopher Nolan’s underrated noir thriller, THE PRESTIGE, for me is the one from the enormous, mysterious box. The appearence of it is menacing; it is the slow approach of the camera, like the intimidated people around it, and the score’s economical but dooming theme that serve it a spellbinding aura. The box is reminiscent in a lot of ways to the strange, mystifying monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as both of their presences are ominous, and their existence incomprehensible. The people who are around them aren’t able to understand or fully identify them, and thus these objects remain as enigmas. Both of them are mysteries, but mysteries about our humankind and the future, which predicts men’s gradual insight into a place where we will understand and build these things. They represent men’s evolution into something Godly.

But THE PRESTIGE is focused on something different. We don’t hear loud orchestras or triumphant music through the narrative. Nor do we see large images of incredible technological locations in endless landscapes of space. For over two-hours, the movie is painted with an aesthetic in which civilization and nature still are together as a sophisticated yet primeval society, in which the space humans inhabit is still limited and claustrophobic. Almost as if it was some sign of puberty from a culture that is changing, the film journeys around houses and streets that are elegantly constructed but still not very well refined (almost all the pieces of wood need more hand in this). It is a prologue to the genre of science-fiction, if you will, and the technophobic-era that is about to come; but it doesn’t see it as a celebration of men’s evolution; it sees it as a dangerousness in which men is about to embark in through time, a threatening advancement and growth that is to be feared.

Nolan’s calculated narrative has an attractively ominous tone with this storyline, as he creates a suspenseful and threatening momentum that flows smoothly in the pace of their different timelines and wonderful dark visuals, amid pictures that get more oppresive and miserable in their atmospheres. The lack of electricity results into continously obscure and dim scenes, presenting the characters like cavemen in classy clothes, but with magicians and scientists whose use of light make the ambiance even more fearful than the darkness. It is helped by a score from composer David Julyan that feels like it is singing about horrific spectacles rather than magical celebrations, as Nolan’s filmmaking evokes the tension that something to be dreaded will happen in the film, as in humanity’s upcoming future. Instead of Godly, perhaps it is more Satanic.

In this point in time, we don’t start with primitive monkeys, but instead, with people who are starting to question themselves, are finding answers and thus are losing their belives in special wonders. The movie‘s setting is at the turn of century, Victorian-era London, one-hundred years before Kubrick’s 2001 and men is just starting to develop deeper comprehension. We’re presented with magic acts, and we’re expecting a natural revelation about the falsehood of these great acts, and so is the audience inside the film – not even the children believe in magic. They’re starting to know better.

Magicians, then, have to find a way to reach great highs and keep their audience at their feet. The film is premised on the mysterious, great magic trick from magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), and the “search for answers” journey from magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in order to resolve it and steal it for his own show. But the “search for answers” is more than a voyage to resolve Borden’s mysteries. The journey and the film’s title are about a prestigious comprehension, metaphors to reach an ultimate divine level from men and answer life’s mysteries.

The characters are symbols of human desires, both narcissistic and humble, and the often inability to distinguish one from the other. They want to be great, but the levels of greatness they want to archive become tyrannical. This material is Bale’s home, and Jackman isn’t far behind, either, as they make the audience greatly torn as to which one is to root for in each scene of this splintered narrative, one that blurs the self-absorbed and the modest desires endlessly between each character and their respective narrations. Scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) – the non-fictional scientist who is considered one of the important minds of the 20th century and of the modern-era, and thus the symbol of the film’s ideas and commentary – he has the key quote in the film: “Have you heard of the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? Is a lie: man’s reach exceeds his nerve.”

Nolan plays very well with that line and the moral thinness of it. He begins his film with the prophetical death of Angier in the hands of Borden, and thus, we believe that the character will meet his end as depicted, and most importantly, that Angier is then a victim of his rival magician, who also killed his wife. But once he finds scientist Nikola Tesla in a Faust-type deal, the magician with an aspiration to steal his rival’s trick becomes an executioner with a desire to steal his rival’s life, even to the point of adopting his daughter. The mortal also becomes immortal, as he cheats the film’s prophetical death at the beginning. As the image of Angier’s ovation demonstrates, he is able to stand above everyone as if he were an idol to worship, leaving his wife’s ring along with everything else in order to rise above them. The man becomes a God, once he evolves to gain his bigger technological muscle, greater knowledge, and sacrifices his friends, his righteousness, and literally himself for it.

What was then illusion is then reality: God is men. Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE isn’t a film about a magic act, as much as humanity’s transformation of magic into science, mythology into reality; all in the bridge of technology. It is a frustrating turn for a film that promotes and premises itself so much on neat but false tricks, and then actually tells you that the tricks were in fact literal. But repeated viewings allow one to understand how natural it is in the studies of the characters and themes, a storyline in which people were gradually heading to a Faust-like climax. THE PRESTIGE studies the moral line of technological advancements from the people who use it and the belief systems from those who witness it – foreshadows or commentaries that could be taken as directed to the last century in society, from modern weapons and performance enhancing drugs (and the audience that gets fooled by their secrets), and all other self-destructive liberties scientific advancement has allowed for both the better and worse of one-self.

The image of the top hats at the beginning and end of the film, it is representative of the Borden’s and Angier’s development and how they continued to grow into people who are too big for their own good. The Borden brothers cannot co-exist with their lovers. Neither can Angier co-exist with Cutter and the others. Neither can Tesla and Thomas Edison, for that matter. The bigger the people get in technological power and narcissism, the more difficult it is to co-exist with them, visually concluded with the image of the numerous hats appropriately transitioned into the numerous dead Angiers and the destruction he created. Only the characters that avoid ambitions further than families and friends – indeed, their humanities – survive. The large box then lies in the background as a sign of that future, in which great technological possibilities will be an event to wonder but create descruction, and Cutter (Michael Caine) narrates about the self-destruction of knowledge and ambition. THE PRESTIGE makes us aware of something terrifying through this: how the discoveries, growth and future of men will be as tragic as it will be victorious. 

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One Response

  1. Great write up on the movie,
    I like some of the theoretical discussions you dive into regarding the morality of the characters actions and their giving into this … thing. But I would agree that this movie is definitely a discussion of two ex-friends and how far they will go to get revenge – I will part with you there.

    I actually don’t believe the Tesla machine works at all. No clones ever existed in this movie. Not a one. There was no killing of clones and there was no moral decline down that route. To see a little bit more about how this could even possibly be true you can read more here: http://taylorholmes.com/2009/08/26/the-prestige-explained/

    Love to know your thoughts…
    taylor

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