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
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
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.