Looking back, one movie set the stage not only for Christopher Nolan’s final two Batman movies but for the greater trend of superhero movies at large. A wonderful film that established Nolan’s reputation for blending ideas and spectacle, it asks what cost a creator must pay to continually surprise his audiences and rivals with spectacle.
At the heart of The Prestige is Hugh Jackman versus Christian Bale, both of them trained at the hands of Milton the Magician in a too-short cameo by the late, real-life magician Ricky Jay. Jay also played an important role behind the scenes, teaching the two actors, to their great frustration, only enough practical magic skill to make them believable on screen.
Both Jackman’s “Great Danton” Angier and Bale’s “Professor” Borden realize that they have to move on from Milton’s stale act. But before they can leave, a terrible accident occurs. Angier’s wife dies in a water tank trick, horrifically in front of a live audience. Angier accuses Borden of trying out a more dangerous knot, and when Borden says he cannot remember which knot he tied, a feud is born.
Two clear opposing sides are at the center of many works, from The Dark Knight Returns to Tenet. Setting up Side A and Side B is a wonderful way to show a dichotomy of philosophies, but the sides are perhaps more blurred in The Prestige than any other Nolan work. While it’s clear who the audience is supposed to root for when it's Batman vs. Joker, Nolan is decidedly neutral in the fight between these two magicians, each of whom takes turns physically assaulting the other’s audiences and trying to destroy the other’s life.
Their struggle drives away mentors (Michael Caine!) and loved ones, reducing each other to their core traits. Borden is a pure illusionist, eventually creating a trick that Angier cannot comprehend. Borden walks through a door on one side of the stage, dropping a ball, and is able to suddenly appear from another door catching it.
Angier is a showman who is driven to match the heights of Borden through whatever means necessary. While this trick, known as the Transported Man, doesn’t exactly impress Michael Caine, Angier’s obsessiveness drives him out of London and into America, where an obsessed person with enough drive and money can get what he wants.
The American section of The Prestige is highlighted by one of the great late appearances in movie history, as well as one of the greatest bits of historical casting: David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Bowie, whose acting debut as The Man Who Fell to Earth decades prior helped establish him as part of the countercultural vanguard, was long fascinated by the mixture of societal order and obsessive desire.
His Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell was a businessman whose fascination with drinking and marital life eventually lead to his exile, his Tesla is a businessman who has been exiled for trying to push society too far in its embrace of electricity. But recognizing a kindred spirit in Angier, he decided to build a machine for him to capture the magic of the Transported Man.
It would be criminal to reveal the ending to The Prestige if you haven’t seen it, but the shocking conclusion shows the lengths that Angier and Tesla are willing to let their obsessions take them. With a structure that replicates a great magic act, Nolan asks about the cost of the true cost of one-upmanship.
The Prestige is streaming on Hulu through January 31 in the U.S.