Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2006)

5. The Prestige

When I first saw “The Prestige,” I liked it but it didn’t blow me away. I was a little disappointed. Re-watching it now, I realize why. The film really is quite extraordinary. Once again, I’m impressed with Christopher Nolan’s ability to write and structure a screenplay. While the film is impressive in that regard, it’s not the warmest film. There’s not a huge in for the audience on an emotional level. Like something of a magic trick, on second viewing, I am impressed by the spectacle and slight-of-hand. But is there much more to it then that?

There are a lot of intentional parallels in the film. In as few words as possible, the story revolves around the rivalry between stage magicians near the end of the 1800s. We follow both men, Christian Bale as Borden and Hugh Jackman as Angier, each fighting against each other. There’s a fractured timeline here. In a framing device, Borden reads Angier’s journal, flashing back to the previous years. Within the flashback, Angier reads Borden’s journal, further elaborating on events. Borden seems to live a double life, one where he’s a compassionate husband and father, and another where he’s obsessed with his work and having an affair with his assistant. There are two love interests. Both perform different versions of the same trick before updating both of their tricks again. Both characters meet up with Nikola Tesla.

There are other types of parallels. The real-life rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison appears in the background of the story, which mirrors the rivalry between Borden and Angier. Angier, like Edison, is a flashy showman and less of a magician. Borden, like Tesla, is the superior in skills but lacks the ability to sell it to an audience. Early in the film, a character talks about how a magic trick has three acts, a set-up, a turn, and a final reveal… Kind of like a movie script, maybe? Nolan fancies himself a magician with this film, playing by his own rules. It’s a film designed for a second viewing. The first time you’re just watching the trick, waiting for the reveal. Watching it again, you know the answer to the mystery and now you get to see the wheels turning. This reoccurring theme of doubles and twins is just one aspect of an intricate story.

The plot really does drawl you in. The non-linear structure works fantastically. The character reads a journal, revealing an amount of information to themselves and the audience. That is until, they reach the conclusion of the writing. The film hides the correct information from the audience, holding off on showing it until the right moment. Any gimmickry you could level at Nolan’s narrative trickery is designed to grab your attention and, more importantly, to keep you watching.

It’s not a totally heartless story, even if I’d say Nolan is more interested in his plot mechanism then the characters. Borden and Angier start out as friends, playful with one another. A friendly rivalry soon goes bitter and the two are compelled to destroy one another. You like both men, even if one is pretty clearly established as the villain by story’s end. Both are flawed people and their insecurities and imperfections make them relatable.

Quite a cast is assembled here. Christian Bale is well known for the constant intensity he brings to seemingly every role, an intensity that sometimes boils over in to real life. You see lots of that in here too, especially in the latter half of the film. It’s his softer moments that are more interesting. When he’s interacting with his wife or daughter or when he’s marveling at the art of magic. It shows Borden as a human being who can do more then just bluster and scowl. As good as Bale is, Jackman is the high-light performances. Like Bale, he starts out with his standard persona, that is someone with a flashy charm. There’s no denying that Jackman is a born showman. (Why else do you think they let him host the Oscars?) As the film progresses, he takes on some of Bale’s morbid intensity. The character definitely sells some of his soul in his quest to out-do his rival. It’s one of the strongest narrative turns in the film.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Michael Caine is good if not spectacular. He mostly does the same old thing. By this point in his career, Caine could play the wise old sage part in his sleep. It’s when his more rakish personality shines through that he’s at his best. As a huge fan, it’s great to see Bowie but I would have like to have seen more of him. Nikola Tesla is an iconic personality in history and I think the filmmaker realized that casting an equally iconic personality in the role would do a lot of the creative heavy-lifting. As Tesla’s assistant, Andy Serkis is having fun in a rare live-action role for him. He’s the film’s primary comic relief. Scarlet Johansson looks awfully nice in the Victorian lingerie but it’s not much of a performance. She’s supposed to be in love with Bale but never really conveys that level of emotion.

You could make the case that the film is something of a love story. A man’s devotion to his wife partially forms the basis of the story. But there’s absolutely zero investment in this part of the film. Nolan’s women characters are always his weakest and this film is no exception. Aside from Johansson’s thin performance, there’s the issue with Bale’s wife. She’s a woman ravaged by the manipulations of her husband and the other men around her. Too frequently, her pleas don’t come off as sad, desperate cries for help, but rather as petty annoyances. There’s a reason for this, we discover, but a character you don’t’ like or can’t relate too doesn’t help things, especially when that character’s fate is an important element to the story. And there’s the dead wife again, two for the price of one. What’s up with that?

The film is more visual then most of Nolan’s work. The entire Colorado sequence is a stand-out. He’s proven before he has a strength for snow and fog. The shot of the town’s lights going out over Jackman’s shoulder is a wonderful act of visual slight-of-hand. Overall, the field of light bulbs is a hugely memorable images. Tesla’s gets an appropriately epic entrance into the film.

The sudden sci-fi element is a neat surprise, even if it presents a plot hole. You’re telling me Tesla accidentally discovered the secret of teleportation? Accidentally? I guess it’s not impossible but you’d think that sort of discovery isn’t the kind of thing you just stumble on, especially when you thought you were just making a flashy light machine. Of course, it does lead to the fantastically grim final act. That last image is powerful enough to make up for the plot hole.

And about that final reveal… It’s pretty ridiculous to assume and I don’t really think it was the filmmaker’s intention. But the way the camera lingers on that last image of Angier in the tank… Is that a bubble I saw? Is it possible that death isn’t even enough to bring this rivalry to an end? I’m not suggesting some sort of far-fetched sequel hook. Rather, I think Nolan was deliberately creating this kind of speculation, just because its fun and makes sense for the characters.

My initial opinion on “The Prestige” still kind of stands. My appreciation for story structure is obviously stronger these days then when I first saw it. I definitely enjoyed it more this time. There’s some character resonance here even if it takes some looking. I like the movie, don’t love it, but I respect the craft put in it. There’s a charming twinkle to it that’s somewhat missing from many of Nolan’s other films. You can tell the guy has a legit love of magic, or at least tricking his audience. [Grade: B+]


Sean Catlett said...

It was at the time of The Prestige's release that I had a fairly wary opinion of Christopher Nolan. I thought Batman Begins was a sure sign that he was yet another casualty of Hollywood's propensity for ruining good directors. And this now? A film about magicians? It didn't help that the misleading trailer made Christian Bale out to be Satan or something. But I went to it out of, like most movies on my list, OBLIGATION. And as it happens, I left the theatre feeling highly vindicated in my decision to do so. I was blown the fuck away, and could barely sit through two other films afterwards (Flags of Our Fathers and Marie Antoinette). In further contrast to Batman Begins, The Prestige remains my favorite Nolan film to date.

I won't go too much into detail about it, as your review states pretty thoroughly its strengths; I'll say that The Prestige made me realize what I enjoy in films (and stories) these days: a tight narrative and plot, and you can't find many that do it better than The Prestige. It succeeds WHILE juggling a morally complex theme and two smultaneous narrative devices. Nolan deserves a blowjob (Nolans... it seems the films are better when Chris involves his brother Jonathan).

To the assertion of the plot hole: I don't know if it is one, say on the same level as Leonard Shelby knowing that he has a memory problem when its definition states that he shouldn't know about it. Tesla secretly stumbled across teleportation/molecular cloning... sure, why not. I'd make the same leap for sci-fi films set in space. "We'll say, for the duration of this story, that faster than light travel is possible." I'm willing to make the leap also that it is properly and convincingly utilized within the story, and isn't RETARDED

But have you heard this interpretation: that Tesla's character in the film NEVER invented such a machine? That it is actually another sleight-of-hand courtesy of Angiers? The author of this said that because Tesla's machine is borne in the journal that it is highly suspect, and likely invented to torture Borden in prison until his execution. What has actually happened is that Angiers has employed the double from his previous act and has staged his death, killing the Double to frame Borden. Or better, (because the autopsy would likely reveal that the double was NOT Angiers), that Angiers has killed himself to frame Borden, and left the Double in charge of his affairs afterwards. I don't much like this theory (and it leaves the messy business of the bodies in the final shot of the film, which the author said could have been "wax sculptures," please), but I did notice that after his "death," Angiers has a strange, off-putting appearance about him and that he now speaks in a British accent. I don't know, it's interesting.

Sean Catlett said...

Lastly, you've spoken a bit about Nolan's female characters. While I notice his humerous recurring sensibility as well, it doesn't bother me so much. Nolan is a man, thus writes for men, thus the females (not Hilary Swank or Lucy Russell) are personified plot devices. Other films frequently utilize females as comic foils, as sexual fantasies, or as moral/political mouthpieces. Often in far more insulting instances. Nolan's weakness, and it is one, is miniscule in comparison. My friend Steve (you may remember him as Steve Zacharus) also thought the women in The Prestige were one-dimensional. My answer to him was: sure they are, and the men in The Color Purple are also one-dimensional. In both cases, it matters little.

One last thingy: a weakness in Nolan's writing that bothers me more than the one previously mentioned is that his dialogue cannot help but being too on-the-nose when it serves to drive the story. The Prestige has Angiers's line "A man stole my life... now I'm going to steal his trick." Ugh. Memento had the slightly less offensive response to Teddy's "You're living," which was Leonard's "Only for revenge." I'll see if I can remember more for the other reviews but those were the ones that bothered me the most.


Bonehead XL said...

Oh shit, Zacharus drop!

I suppose the thin female characters aren't a major weakness. It didn't subtract from my enjoyment of the film. But, one of the things I've always liked to do with the Report Cards, are point out the filmmaker's trademarks and reoccurring qualities. And the dead wife thing is an oddly specific story concept that reappears throughout many of Nolan's film. It's a little weirder then Tarrantino putting references to other movies in or Spike Lee's dolly-shots is all.

As for the theory that the entire Tesla subplot is an invitation of Angier's journal... Oooh, I like that. Yeah, you can't wank around the tanks full of dead bodies. But it makes sense that he would go to such an effort to fool Borden like that. Interesting...