The Prestige (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy)


I'm not actually going to spoil the ending of the movie directly. It's a good movie, and many of you will enjoy it, so I don't want to do that. But I'm going to attack the film's script problems indirectly and, in so doing, will give you information that will allow you to make inferences about the ending. To the extent that you hate spoilers, you may want to avoid this commentary until after you have seen the film.

Imagine, if you will, a murder mystery in which I am accused of murdering my ex-girlfriend. I am the only person with any possible motive for the murder, and the witnesses describe a guy who looks exactly like me, a 6'2" blond man running around a small village in China. They even have photographs of the murderer fleeing the scene, and it looks just like me. The fingerprints on the murder weapon are a perfect match for mine. But the police do not pursue the case against me because she was murdered in mainland China and I have never even been there. Moreover, hundreds of witnesses saw me in Austin, Texas within minutes of the murder.

It's a gripping mystery that seems to have no rational solution. Is someone impersonating me? Is it a clumsy attempt to frame me? Did I take out a contract on her? If I hired a surrogate to commit the crime, why would I hire someone who looks just like me and plants my fingerprints?

Here's the big reveal: I committed the crime. I used a super-duper magic wish machine to transport me there.

Oops. Great set-up, but a total cop-out ending. I had been leading you to believe that the story took place in the real world, and it turned out to be a masturbatory fantasy film.

That's exactly what happens in The Prestige. A magician performs an impossible trick. The "hook" of the film is that we wonder how it could possibly be done. The "reveal" is that he can do the impossible with a super-duper magic wish machine.

I started to type this sentence: "Unless you are M. Night Shyamalan, the only possible worse ending you can imagine would involve the magician waking up and realizing that it was all a dream and he never did perform the trick in the first place." Then I realized that would NOT be a worse ending, because it is possible to perform impossible feats in dreams, so that would actually be a convincing, if clichéd explanation!

The script has another major cliché. Is there any possible plot twist cheesier than the unsuspected identical twin? Worse still, it is telegraphed by bad make-up. Two characters are played by one actor, and we aren't supposed to notice because one of them is clean-shaven and the other is wearing a silly beard and moustache. The problem is that the clean-shaven one has previously appeared at least twice in a stage disguise involving a silly beard and moustache, so when we see the bearded character, we just think it's another one of the disguises, not a separate character. Once the script reveals that they are two different men, and we have seen that the bearded one is just the same actor in a beard, an important plot point is spoiled. Of course, since that important plot point is the dreaded identical twin scam, perhaps it doesn't really matter.

Then the scriptwriter asked, "Can I get some Roquefort and Gorgonzola in here? I don't think this is cheesy enough." So he used the ol' "I'm dying, so I'm going to tell you the plot" trick, and matched it immediately with the ol' "I know you're dying, so I'll tell you my secrets as well" trick. On top of that, he followed up in the last seconds of the film with the ever-mysterious "the end?????" twist.

I have to take something else back. I don't think Shyamalan could come up with a worse ending.

Oh, yeah, and did I mention that the two rival magicians are both totally terrible human beings, so we don't really care which one wins, or whether bad things happen to them? And did I mention that Michael Caine plays the part of "Basil Exposition" throughout the movie, popping in and out to explain the plot to us?

Having written all of that, I'm now going to proceed to tell you how much I enjoyed the film. Yes, it has totally unsympathetic characters. Yes it has four of the worst possible movie clichés: the deathbed confession, the preposterous supernatural Shyamalan explanation, the mysterious "the end???" moment, and the identical twin, but what the film lacks in deft and original scripting it more than makes up in sheer panache. The film has a great soundtrack and is dripping with atmosphere and grotesque visual imagination. It manages to transport you completely into its imaginary 19th century steampunk world, and that world is vividly realized. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are intriguing as the two magicians who start as professional rivals and degenerate into bitter enemies. The rivals do everything possible to destroy one another's happiness. And I mean everything. No holds barred. The dark tricks that the two men play on one another are cold and sadistic, and are often richly complicated, involving secret codes, red herrings, false diaries, and a complete disregard for human life and innocent bystanders.

How can I be enthusiastic about this film after all the negatives I wrote? Let me put it this way. Do you like campfire stories? Well, they're all kind of corny, aren't they? If I told you one, you'd be nodding off and just as bored as can be. But some people are really good at telling them, and it's great fun to listen to those masters, even though you know the story itself is bogus. The same story that would put you to sleep if I told it could keep you from sleeping if told by a master. Well, The Prestige is a campfire tale, with an ending no more or less plausible than "that man was ME," but director Christopher Nolan is a great story teller, and I love listening to a good campfire story.

The public and critical reaction to this film has reflected the same ambivalence that I felt. The critics, seeing all the script's flaws and seeing the same tired plot twists they have seen hundreds of times before, were lukewarm: 66/100 at Metacritic, 64/100 from the British critics, and 2.5 stars from Berardinelli. That's basically two-and-a-half stars across the board. The public has been far more enthusiastic than the critics, as they often are about pure entertainment films. The film's opening weekend was an unexceptional $14 million, which was not superlative, but good word-of-mouth kept the week-on-week drops very small, and the final multiple (the ratio of total gross to opening weekend gross) was almost four, which is superior, and indicative of a film that people return to and/or recommend to friends. IMDb voters have been extremely supportive of this film and have placed it at least temporarily among the top 250 films of all time! I don't know if the film's appeal is wide enough to sustain that kind of reputation, but it clearly has the ability to generate an enthusiastic fan base.



  • Features to be announced




The Critics Vote ...

  • James Berardinelli: 2.5/4

  • British consensus:  two and a half stars out of four. Mail 8/10, Telegraph 6/10, Independent 4/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 8/10, Sun 8/10, Express 8/10, Mirror 6/10, FT 4/10, BBC 4/5.


The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+, top-notch genre film.

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