When you stop and think about it, comparing filmmakers to magicians is an obvious metaphor. They both use everyday, seemingly normal objects to create the illusion of something being there that isn't. Those normal objects are actually carefully constructed set pieces, and when used well, they get the audience so wrapped up in what is happening, the fact that it's not really happening ceases to matter.
In my review of The Illusionist, my main beef was that the creators of the movie did not live up to their own title. Their was no illusion, I was not caught up in the moment. As I noted then, they had blown their opportunity of being the first on the street with their magic show; they could have blasted their closest competition, The Prestige, out of the water by two months. As it stands, though, The Illusionist is the equivalent of a birthday party performer, while The Prestige is the real deal. Not only will you believe in its magic by the end, you will marvel at how it made you so eager to be fooled.
To push the metaphor even further, the competition for Best Magician Movie of 2006 is a little bit like the competition between the two performers in Christopher Nolan's movie--one has tapped into something special, and the other can only struggle to figure out how. Hugh Jackman is Rupert Angier, a well-bred boy from a well-to-do American family. Christian Bale plays Alfred Borden, a lower-class Brit with plenty of rough edges. Both of them work as plants in the stage show of Milton (real-life magician Ricky Jay), a popular performer who maintains his fame by playing it safe. The real man behind the curtain is actually Cutter (Michael Caine), who designs the illusions. He's also the one who explains the three acts of magic: the pledge (the basic set-up), the turn (when we see all is not as it seems), and the prestige (the payoff, when whatever has been transformed or disappeared returns). Anyone can figure out the first two, but it's the prestige that separates a basic card trick from a full-blown sensation.
Such as Milton's show-closer, when he seals the lovely Julia (Piper Perabo, Coyote Ugly) in a glass tank filled with water, covers her with a curtain, and unveils her after she has escaped. Julia is Angier's wife, and he and Borden are responsible for tying her up. One night, however, she doesn't make it out, and Angier believes it was Borden's fault. His quest for revenge kicks off a lifelong rivalry where the two men consistently disrupt the act of the other. That is, until Borden comes up with a new illusion with a prestige so amazing, Angier has to find out what it is.
Christopher Nolan is no stranger to playing tricks on his audience. Fans of his film Memento know how good he is at toying with viewer perceptions. For The Prestige, he reteams with his brother Jonathan, the man who wrote the original Memento story, to adapt a novel by Christopher Priest. I really don't want to write much more about what happens in the film because all three gentlemen have worked really hard to concoct a tale that is full of storytelling magic tricks. The magician's greatest weapon is misdirection, causing you to look one way while the real trick happens the other way. All the different zigs of The Prestige won't be unzagged until the very end, and the less you know, the better time you will have.
Just go see this movie. If Bale, Caine, and Jackman--who are all in their element, all at the top of their game--aren't enough to entice you, then maybe Scarlett Johansson as the sultry assistant torn between both men or David Bowie as Nikola Tesla will. It's an excellent supporting cast, and each person is an essential part of Nolan's illusion. Additionally, the costumes and art direction are stupendous. All of these things are elements The Illusionist was missing. In fact, The Prestige is everything The Illusionist is not. The filmmakers let us in on the secrets of magic so that when the tricks defy our logic, we are torn between believing they are real and wondering how they are done, and because those tricks are integral to the mystery of the movie, The Prestige maintains its hold on us all the way through. Even when the secrets are uncovered, you still won't believe your eyes.
That, my friends, is true movie magic.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.