When people think of Christopher Nolan, the first movies that pop into mind are probably the likes of Inception or Interstellar or The Dark Knight, the high-grossing international sensations that constructed the fan base of his cinematic empire. But to many people, the often overlooked 2006 classic, The Prestige, represent the most iconic piece of Nolan’s story telling.
What The Prestige really comes down to is just Nolan flexing his control of nonlinear narrative structure. The disordered sequence of the narration becomes increasingly mesmerizing as we dive deeper into the film. For example, we won’t know until the very end of the film, that the opening cut is actually the last event in the story.
Intricate details like this offer bits of brain-burning fun, as we struggle to piece the seemingly disorganized story together, yet it does not come across as overwhelming. That is precisely the beauty behind many of Nolan’s works, and it’s infinitesimally augmented here.
Aside from the interweaving narratives, the film closely follows the central idea of passion and its toxic byproduct, obsession. The protagonists, Angier and Borden, are obsessed with magic, an obsession that transcends their worldly status and human limitations. They are plagued by a blinding desire that created a cognitive dissonance and littered them mental stability, driving them into the abyss of sacrifice.
Angier’s passion for magic prompts him to conceal his identity of a noble and become a magician’s protegee. He sacrifices his dignity, comforts, and eventually his wife. The sacrifice breeds more obsession which prompts even more sacrifice. So what is all the sacrifice for? Ultimately, he lost more than status and love. As Angier adopted Tesla’s machine, it began the chapter of his final sacrifice— the sacrifice of self: behind every incredible show of magic, there is one rightful murder. The murderer Angier, the victim also Angier.
The tragedy is that if you examine Angier close enough, you would find he loves magic no more than the audience’s reaction. He’s obsessed with the surprised faces on people, not the art of magic. His obsession is fundamentally a false one, a mere projection of the prestige— completely extrinsic. But what is the value in external gratification? He thought he was obsessed with the magic that he loves, yet in the end, he’s lost in the congratulatory praises. Maybe starting from the moment he desperately tries to surpass Borden’s incredible trick, Angier has already lost himself.
Angier started with a pure love for magic, so decided to assume a fake identity to break away from the constraints of his noble status. Completely noble. But passion drew him closer and closer to hell. Until finally, his need to be better than Borden, to ride on top of Borden, to possess a trick better than Borden made his demise inevitable.
Often times we are told that if we live the life prescribed to us, we’d be losing our identity. But how often do we consider the possibility of losing our true self on the way to personal freedom and validation? Maybe in the end, what matters is not the conflict between freedom or tradition, but that when we look back as we are halfway through our lives, we can still confidently say that we never strayed.
From a cinematic point of view, Nolan completely nailed the narrative and script. The story is beautifully crafted, but also one I find hard to bring myself to like. The performances of Christian Bale and Jack Hughman are beyond amazing. Yet while watching it on my 6-hour flight from LA to NYC, I couldn’t help but abhor the characters. They are all incredibly hateful, incredibly possessive, competitive, the darkest possible portrayal of human nature.
Angier and Borden’s idea of obsession sucks every last drop of kindness from them and leaves them with nothing more than an empty, antihuman shell. Their vengeance paints them completely black, without any hint of the sparkly color of humanity. Even though the script actively tries to bring in elements such as children and birds and love, the story as a whole turns out to be entirely grim and cold, chilling to the bones.
Yet in the end, however, it’s hard to say that they are not human. The competition between Borden and Angier composes a nasty, twisted tale of human dissatisfaction and selfishness, but it is still humanity. There’s the positive side of humanity, but also the negative side. No one can say they’ve never been obsessed, or selfish, or hurt others in our way to success. Perhaps we are all in this together. The film merely amplifies that. It may be dark, but it’s still human.
My favorite part is the monologue:
“Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
In the film, Angier and Borden both wrote journals. Fake journals, more like. Full of things they want the other person to see. They tried to decipher each other’s journal, tried to look for the secret. They were both convinced that they found each other’s secret. But did they? They believed what they wanted to believe. In other words, they wanted to be fooled.
After all, isn’t that just life? We are always seeing things, we are always looking for things. But are we really looking? Do we really want to know? Aren’t we simply concealing the delicate truth from ourselves? Aren’t we all fooled.