Illusion aficionado Kiki Penoyer rewatches that other magician movie from 2006 and reveals its hopelessly dour tone, its proficiency at making three-dimensional women disappear from the plot, and how not even wizard David Bowie is enough.
How can a movie that is literally about a community of magicians feel so disappointingly un-magical?
To preface: I first saw this movie the weekend it opened. It holds the distinction of being the very first date I ever went on with anyone ever. My very brief high school boyfriend heard I was really into magic (true) and Hugh Jackman (very true) and figured this would be a great first date for two very awkward nerds who spent more time at Barnes & Noble arguing about whether Mackers or Lady M was more responsible for all the deaths in the play. And being a kid who grew up obsessively taping Lance Burton every time he turned up on TV, the idea of a movie that explored the lives of magicians in some kind of complex film puzzle was very appealing to me.
Unfortunately, I figured out the “twist” about an hour in, which left what felt like another seven hours of waiting for the movie to be over so I could find out I was right. I was pretty obnoxious about it, and I completely forgive said high school boyfriend for his thinly veiled irritation at my glowing smugness. I am a very, very hard person with whom to watch movies. This has not changed about me. I’m so sorry everyone ever.
The Prestige—alternatively: Batman Vs. Wolverine: Con of Justice(?)—is essentially the story of two attractive dudes whose staggering hatecrush on one another destroys the lives of literally everyone around them. David Bowie guest-stars as a wizard who can make an infinite amount of cats. Colorado guest-stars as the most beautiful state in the Union. In spite of these three things, which are some of my favorite things, the movie’s actually low-key boring to rewatch, and I wonder if that’s because I already know that the ~secret~ is and can now appreciate just how convoluted the storytelling devices are, or because I’m a salty old woman who can’t appreciate anything anymore.
I’d like to summarize this movie for you, but it’s told in a series of increasingly-hard-to-follow flashbacks that take place largely inside both men’s notebooks, each of which is being read surreptitiously by the other—or not, as both men end their journals by directly addressing their rivals and admitting it was their plan all along that the journals would be found. The opening shot is a pile of top hats (see above) and the whispered catchphrase, “Are you watching closely?” as if to remind us THERE IS A TWIST, HEY, EVERYONE, START PAYING ATTENTION EARLY BECAUSE A TWIST IS COMING. Michael Caine gives us all a tiny bit of exposition about stage magic and how a magic trick is constructed: you have The Pledge, which is whatever you show the audience initially; you have The Turn, where you transform the Pledge in some way (in the case of this film, this is literally always making something “vanish”) and catch the audience’s imagination; and then you have The Prestige (Peter Griffin giggle), where you bring it back, surprising and delighting your crowds while leaving them wondering how you did it.
In spite of all this talk about an audience—and, later, a truly heinous end speech a bug-eyed Hugh Jackman attempts to feed us after the screenwriting team realized they needed to shoehorn in some kind of grand moral—we actually very, very rarely see audiences doing a damn thing. What we do see is Batman and Wolverine, aspiring stage magicians, begin a long-form game of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, with the basic takeaway moral being Don’t Fucking Add Things To The Show After It’s Opened That We Didn’t Practice In Rehearsal.
In flashbacks, we learn that this whole bullshit is due to two tricks that I distinctly remember Lance Burton performing on live TV to my absolute fascination: the transported man, and the tank escape. Batman, playing the oldest song in the Young Stage Performer’s handbook (“I Have Literally Never Done This Before But I Am Convinced I Am Better At It Than You, Person Getting Paid To Do It Professionally”) begins bitching about how he hates working as an audience-plant to a magician he doesn’t respect. Michael Caine admonishes him, reminding him that You Had One Job—binding the wrists of Piper Perabo, Wolverine’s wife, before she is dropped into the water tank for the escape trick; the knot must look very convincing so that the audience thinks she is in danger, and it must hold well enough that she can be lifted by the metal hook and dropped into the tank without risking it slipping early and breaking her leg, but it must also be something she can easily slip once the rope starts to swell underwater. Batman insists on using a different type of knot, which looks stronger and will hold more reliably, which Piper Perabo assumes she can handle; Michael Caine and Wolverine insist it’s not safe, as that knot is not rated for underwater movement, and to stick with what they’d practiced for the remainder of the run.
Because Batman is THAT GUY, he decides the following night to do the scary knot, which predictably fucks everything up; Piper Perabo dies, Wolverine loses his mind, and the two spend the rest of the movie sabotaging one another’s careers in an effort to break even on this emotional trauma. AND THAT’S WHY YOU DON’T CHANGE SHIT HALFWAY THROUGH THE RUN WITHOUT A PICKUP REHEARSAL TO PRACTICE jesus christ dudes this is basic Theatre 101 shit.
Piper Perabo accidentally starts a trend of women only ever being tools for men who treat them badly; Batman can only love his wife every other day ~for some mysterious reason~ and Wolverine’s a narcissistic douchebag who sends his new girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson, in a British accent that is every bit as convincing as Hugh Jackman’s American one) to spy on the enemy and learn how Batman is performing his trick, The Transported Man. Things are said about these women, but they themselves don’t actually ever get to talk about themselves; every single line the three women say in this movie is about their menfolk and said menfolk’s needs. The men reward this kindness by either ignoring or yelling at them.
Then there’s this like…whole weird sci-fi angle that suddenly appears: Everyone keeps telling Wolverine that Batman is using a body double in his act, but Wolverine is a bad listener; his obsession with learning the full truth drives him to do a lot of weird shit, including stalking Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, obviously) to Colorado, because apparently Tesla has built some kind of machine that aids in the trick—except it doesn’t actually, as the machine Batman is using is just for show, but he somehow convinces Wolverine that it’s real, but Tesla CAN build a real one, but never told Batman…? But Tesla’s name is the key to decode the cipher in Batman’s journal…? I don’t….?
As if he’s unsatisfied with this Kind Of Sci-Fi thing he’s doing, director Christopher Nolan and his writing squad decide partway through that maybe the movie is actually about the tormented life of stage performers. We get treated to increasingly wearying stock jokes about The Theatah—“He’s out of his mind!”; “Of course he is—he’s an out-of-work actor!”; “I’ve booked a comedian—you know I hate comedians!”, etc.—cheaply echoing literally every single other story about how hard it is to be a performer and also live a regular life, because you ruin all your relationships, no one understands your art, someone with more pizzazz will always outshine someone with more raw talent, women are really only good for being half-naked stage candy, etc. Somewhere in the distance, Mandy Patinkin is humming “Finishing the Hat.” In spite of this, Nolan seems to have forgotten what KIND of stage performers these dudes are; for a movie supposedly about magic, we actually don’t really ever get to see a trick work the way it’s supposed to in front of an audience. The same device happens every time: one of the men has a new trick, we see him rehearsing components of it, then when the time comes to do it live, the other man has shown up and fucked it up on purpose to ruin the other man’s career and cause major injury (i.e. a leg that breaks so badly Wolverine is in a brace for the rest of his life, but it’s okay because he sabotaged the Bullet Catch trick in another show and shot off two of Batman’s fingers). There’s maybe ONE trick we get to see work, but the focus is not on the trick and is on what it’s doing to the other dude, so, honestly, this could’ve been a movie about two rival corn maze-growers burning each other’s crops intermittently for all the difference their profession is actually making.
When at last all the confusing-as-fuck flashbacks reach their climax, we discover David Bowie has built a machine that can clone kitties. Or Wolverines. David Bowie begs Wolverine not to use it, but Wolverine is, as mentioned, a terrible listener, and SPOILER ALERT he builds an entire show around it; every night, he steps into the machine, gets zapped, and appears on the balcony overhead, to mass delight.
Lance Burton did this in the 90s—they submerged him in a tank of water in a straightjacket, then put a curtain over it; just as the stage crew runs up with axes “to free him,” Lance magically appears elsewhere in the theatre. Harmless, right?
EXCEPT WOLVERINE IS CLONING HIMSELF WITH HIS TRICK AND DROWNING ONE CLONE EVERY NIGHT AND THEN HAVING HIS BLIND STAGEHANDS WHEEL THE DEAD CLONE OUT TO SOME FREAKY FUCKING WAREHOUSE IN SOME SEEDY BACK-ALLEY ACROSS TOWN. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. ALL OF THIS HOPING THAT BATMAN WILL BE UNABLE TO RESIST SNEAKING BACKSTAGE TO FIGURE OUT HOW IT’S DONE AND THEREBY GETTING FRAMED FOR HIS MURDER.
Yeah, spoilers, this movie is actually dark as fuck.
And hey, man, I can dig a dark movie. But like, let it be dark—don’t give me this Grander Purpose bullshit out of nowhere. EXAMPLE: The ending of this movie is Batman, having apparently escaped from prison moments after his death sentence is carried out, tracking Wolverine to the Hall O’ Dead Hugh Jackmans, shooting him, and burning the place to the ground. Sure. That’s cool. But first, we both need to have the Why I Did It speech. There were two Batmans, we learn—twins, who from an early age decided to lead one life under one name, taking turns with who was actually playing Batman and who was playing Batman’s Buddy, a silent man in mutton chops named Fallon. One twin met and fell in love with a woman named Sarah and had a family; the other didn’t love her and started an affair with ScarJo, but neither could be honest with their respective ladies and it ends with Sarah hanging herself in his workshop when she realizes she will only be loved every other day. I have a huge problem with this whole thing but whatthefuckever. Batman admits the two of them have been carrying on like this their entire lives, up to and including one brother shearing off the other’s fingers with a stone-carving tool after one of them lost two in the bullet catch incident, all because of one fucking magic trick. Literally, that’s it. Two women’s lives completely ruined, a little girl left without a mother, an entire life of secrecy and agony, for one dumb fucking magic trick.
Initially, when Wolverine performs the exact same trick before he meets Tesla, he just hires a guy who looks like him to step out of the other door. That’s cheaper and way easier. And it gives Hugh Jackman an opportunity to do a Drunk Hugh Jackman impression, which is one of the few moments of fun in the entire fucking movie.
After this admission, Wolverine, bleeding profusely and dying at the speed of Villain Monologue, suddenly decides to tell us this has never been about his hatecrush on Batman. Instead, he delivers the aforementioned terrible speech: “You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you…then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was… it was the look on their faces…”
Right, okay, but we have literally watched the last several hours of the two of you trying to destroy one another’s lives and only ever saw audience members in PASSING. You can’t shoehorn in this WHAT I DID FOR LOVE moment at the very end when your entire damn movie was built on the premise that it’s about revenge. You literally built a whole thing where you could drown 100 versions of yourself all for the sake of ~*~*~*their faces*~*~*~? Not buying it. Sorry.
Christopher Nolan is pretty well-known for making things bigger and more intricate than they need to fucking be; this film is no exception, with its convoluted flashbacks and loooooooong drawn-out reveal of both man’s secret. Maybe he assumes his audiences aren’t clever enough to keep up unless he gives us the same beat four or five times and then explains them all in long detail. But he had a pretty okay movie with an interesting premise and then, I don’t know, he made the whole thing really dark and mean-spirited and still tried to sell it as Sunday in the Park with George. Why. DEAR EVERYONE: If you’re going to bill your film as a psychological thriller, assume the audience you attract will be smart enough to follow you without needing to be handheld. We will surprise you. I promise.
There are exactly two moments of actual joy in this movie: One, the aforementioned Drunk Hugh Jackman impression; and Two, when Batman breaks into Wolverine’s theatre and becomes the man to step out of the second door at the end of the Transported Man, looks around confusedly and has a hilarious bit of stage business (in spite of our being told, REPEATEDLY, that he has no stage presence), and lowers a bound and gagged Fake Wolverine from the ceiling, to much laughter. That’s fucking funny. That’s almost better than every time the trick worked like it was supposed to do; something kinda magical has happened, but the best part is that it completely smashed our expectations: a man is ‘transported’ but becomes another person entirely. That’s funny.
In fact, I wonder if the movie would’ve worked a lot better if that had been the device instead: When these men sabotage one another’s tricks, they do so hilariously, thereby giving the audience LITERALLY ANY REASON TO CARE ABOUT THEM, because the entire movie is working real hard to get you to want to see both of them fucking die. It’s hard to root for a brooding asshole. It’s very easy to root for a hilarious brooding asshole. Both of these actors have famously played two of the most famous hilarious brooding assholes in American history (Wolverine and the goddamned Batman). They could easily have pulled it off, as evidenced by this ONE time they were allowed to play.
Instead, we got two hours of sadness and darkness and women getting yelled at? Everything was really drab and dingy and even the magic shows were really washed-out and depressing? The music is all sad and foreboding and everyone’s sulking out of windows the whole time? Where was the magic?
I don’t know. It was okay, I guess. I felt smart for figuring it out as early as a did. But watching it now, it just feels kind of tiring and unnecessarily depressing and couldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test when we DID briefly put The Only Two Women In London in the same room.
But David Bowie cloned some kitties. So like. Solid A+ for David Bowie.
- There’s a guy named Jareth Costello listed as an accounting assistant. I hope he got to meet David Bowie on set and I hope it was every bit as life-changing as I am imagining it to be.
- Someone in the credits is listed with the job title Spacecam Technician and now I’d like to know where I went wrong in my life that this is not my job title.
- David Copperfield was a consultant on this film. That makes it all the more depressing that we didn’t get to see more stage magic at work.
- Hugh Jackman is shirtless twice in this movie. Once it’s because he’s dead, but once it’s because Piper Perabo is making out with him. The jealousy is real.
- The weird steampunk birdcage vest that they spend twenty minutes hyping up only to never actually get to use because Batman ruins the trick is really, really out of place here. We needed either more of that aesthetic or none of it at all, because it REALLY stuck out as not making sense. Actually, now that I think about it, if the whole movie had been Steampunk, suddenly the sci-fi bent would’ve made more sense. DO YOU HEAR ME, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN? I’M RESHOOTING YOUR MOVIE FOR YOU.
- Seeing Andy Serkis’ face is a weird experience after the man has made a career on being a CGI model.
- When Michael Caine introduces the machine for the first time, he tells us “This was made by a wizard.” I’m not unsure they didn’t mean David Bowie the actual literal person and not Nikola Tesla the character.