Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #72
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman
Nearly everyone who I've asked about The Prestige has said some variation of the same thing: "Is that the magician movie with Ed Norton or the one with Christian Bale?" Alas, that was the thing that killed The Prestige in the box office and has only recently stopped affecting its legacy. It was a movie about magicians released at almost the exact same time as The Illusionist, a movie about a magician starring Ed Norton. The Illusionist was decent in a popcorn movie sense, and it was basically about magic and love. It was a harmlessly good flick to see at the theater that probably indirectly sold some magic sets. The Prestige, on the other hand, is a classic Christopher Nolan mind-bender. The illusions are brilliant, but what's more brilliant is the two – not one, but two – God-damning, Earth-shattering plot twists that Nolan throws at the audience. It was enough for me to rent this movie from my local video store for one night (these were dark times indeed) and watch it twice. I needed to verify that what Nolan told me happened had really happened. The fact that it had made the twists that much more satisfying.
Stripped down to its essence, The Prestige is less a movie about magic than it is a movie about the nature of competition. The magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman are both willing to push themselves to their absolute limits at what they do to one-up the other. They start out working for the same magician as assistants, but when they go their separate ways after a terrible onstage accident, each makes it his only goal to outperform his ex-coworker. Each illusion is more insane than the last, and for basically the last half hour of the film, you'll be scratching your head and wondering if they seriously just did that. But they did. Oh, they did. The only potentially annoying thing that drives the plot is some seriously bad pseudo-science is used to explain how one of the illusions works, and within the context of the otherwise totally possible film, it's a little disappointing if you linger on it for too long. That being said, the first time you see it, if you don't think about it too much, you'll have your brain blown out the back of your head in awe.
It's difficult to talk about this movie without talking about the two big plot twists, but for the sake of spoiler protection, and because I know full well that simply typing out the twists has approximately zero percent of the impact that actually watching them has, I'll steer clear of specifics. The first twist involves Hugh Jackman's character, and despite the frustrating pseudo-science, it's pretty great. It explains the opening scene where we see Jackman drowning in a locked tank of water backstage at his show with Christian Bale frantically trying to let him out, and it would totally suffice as a cool plot twist to make The Prestige a little bit more complex. But then the Nolan (I keep saying Nolan, but I suppose I really mean Christopher Priest, the author of the novel the film is based on) brings out the big guns. He gives us a wickedly satisfying yet totally simple twist that we feel like we should have seen coming from a mile away but didn't because we were so engrossed in watching the movie unfold. It's a perfectly executed plot twist, but we shouldn't really expect anything less from Christopher Nolan. Finally, we're left with a highly ambiguous parting shot – much like he would use in Inception – that leaves us wondering what really just happened. It teases, it tantalizes, and yet, it satisfies. If there's a more consistently excellent director working today than Christopher Nolan, I've never seen his films.
The Good: Those two plot twists should be the gold standard for plot twists. No one can pull those off right now like Nolan.
The Bad: The pseudo-science used to explain away the first twist might bother some of the people who have a harder time suspending their disbelief than others.
The Skinny: Definitely deserves its spot.