Ode to The Prestige
I’m detouring a bit here in that usually these Odes are about more obscure books/ movies that were seminal in my development as an author, which is to say things I encountered when I was young that left their imprint upon me. The Prestige came out in 2006, which meant I was already an adult (physically at least) and living in NYC.
However, The Prestige’s influence should never be overlooked because it is what I always aspire to in my writing. Because this is one of the best movies ever made.
Christopher Nolan (and brother Jonathan, who is his writing partner and wrote the short story that their breakout Memento was based upon) may be best known for Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, and the abominable Dunkirk (seriously, it was terrible), but The Prestige is by far their best work. Don’t get me wrong, I love their other films (minus Dunkirk, obviously), but The Prestige was them firing on all cylinders before their slow decline into symbolism over characters. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
But what makes The Prestige so great? Well, let’s start with that cast to get the elephant out of the room. This cast would soon go on to become a who’s-who of comic book movie superheroes in that we have Wolverine, Batman, Alfred, The Black Widow, the villain from Black Panther, AND the villain from Iron Man 3 (and inspiration of Wonder Woman). PLUS David Bowie, who if didn’t already conform to your definition of superhero in his real life, was meant to do a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 if that whole pesky death thing didn’t get in the way first.
(sidenote: It must be a joy to work with Michael Caine since I assume all acting is measured in units of Michael Caine, where the directors simply ask actors if they could “add about 20% more Michael Caine to that scene,” or perhaps “dial it back about three Michael Caines.” When working with the actor himself, it’s got to be a blast just to say “that was the perfect amount of Michael Caine there, Michael Caine.”)
But that cast is just the icing on the cake to an incredible story involving stage magicians, revenge, dedication/ obsession to a craft, the birth of the modern age, and maybe some steampunk-ish magic thrown in as almost an afterthought. And also THE BEST TWIST in the history of film.
SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t seen this 10+ year old film, go watch it right now.
No, there aren’t really any spoilers to be had in this post. I just think this film should be required viewing. In fact, I have handed the DVD to people on multiple occasions to personally fill that gap in their lives.
But why is the twist the greatest when compared to other luminaries like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense? Well, unlike the former, there are actual clues littered throughout The Prestige, so much so that it almost feels like it shouldn’t be a surprise (opposed to, say, a name chosen from the bottom of a mug that the audience never sees until after the reveal). This is similar to The Sixth Sense, where upon a second viewing all the clues slap you in the face.
However, unlike the Sixth Sense, The Prestige is fairly overflowing with clues. They’re almost on every page of the screenplay and every minute of the film itself. Little things like the kid asking where the bird went when Wolverine does some magic (I redacted the actual quote for spoiler reasons) not only foreshadow the reveal, but the thematic gut punch from the finale as well. I’ve watched the movie and read the screenplay upwards of 20 times now, yet every time I review it I find another clue I missed, which just goes to show how well-crafted this thing was.
The reason these clues remain so well hidden is because Jonathan Nolan hides them in plain sight in his characterization, which wonderfully camouflages Chekhov’s Gun and is worthy of its own blog post someday soon. It really is a sleight of hand magic trick he’s mastered here, and I remember an interview with him in which the interviewer stated how the concept of “the prestige” as explained in this wonderful trailer really does fit the idea of the three-act structure to a T and how cool it was that screenwriting and the art of magic were so similar.
At this Jonathan Nolan laughed and stated he made the whole “prestige” concept up just to make that scene work. Which it does.
In fact, this whole movie does more than work. It’s really the Nolan brothers at their very best. Again, I like The Dark Knight and Memento, but The Prestige is the movie that, in a perfect world, they would be famous for. Mainly because this is their last film where they focused on characters as living, breathing things rather than mouthpieces for their themes. Yes, some people have complained that the characters in The Prestige are a bit cold, but as is pointed out in the story, to be a magician you’ve got to be willing to get some blood on your hands. Their callousness fits their characterizations, opposed to their later works where characters just serve the plot/ symbolism.
I really don’t want to end this post on a negative note about the Nolans’ later work and sound like a hipster saying he preferred a band before they sold out, so I’ll just say go watch The Prestige right now. This is their Paul’s Boutique, their Exile on Mainstreet, their Nighthawks at the Diner, in that there are definitely more popular works out there, but none finer.