Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Polarization of The Prestige


I’ve discussed this a few times now, but early last week, as I watched The Prestige for the first time in two years, I innocently tweeted my admiration for the movie. It was a random, almost thoughtless tweet that turned my Twitter timeline into a firestorm. Within 10 minutes, I was flooded with people bashing the living shit out of Christopher Nolan’s dueling magician thriller.

I was stunned. I honestly – no bullshit – have never once heard anyone saying anything remotely negative about the film, so when people shared their distaste for it, I was completely thrown off. The following morning, I asked Twitter outright: do people love or hate The Prestige? This time, the response was unanimously positive. Since then, of the responses I’ve seen, the split is almost perfectly 50/50. Some love it, others hate it. Who knew? But fair enough.

You can place me proudly in the Love column, but because I’ve shared my opinions on this topic ad nauseam, I thought today would be a good time to let two bloggers I love step in. Below, you’ll find the reasons as to why Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle adores The Prestige, and why Nikhat from Being Norma Jean hates it.

Note: The many twists of The Prestige are going to be spoiled below.

Love by Josh
The Prestige is packed full of themes that are a breeding ground for great drama and compelling mystery. Though the number of twists in this film is enormous, it remains absolutely stunning. The film is really a magic trick in its own right, and that's what makes it so intriguing, so fantastic. As great as the riddle is, the way Nolan puts it together is even better.

A problem for some could be that the film does not offer a straight protagonist and antagonist. I love this ambiguity, since it is just another element to misdirect the viewer. If you think you know the villain at the beginning, just wait until the end. But this battle of wills is not only essential to the narrative, but it also provides a tug-of-war throughout that doesn't end until the final scene. Due to this rivalry, the story never drags, as the magicians are locked in constant conflict.

Hugh Jackman is the perfect showman, and Christian Bale is the perfect magician. One is flashy and dresses up his tricks, while the other creates a simple but mesmerizing act. Of the two, Bale outshines Jackman largely due to the part Bale is playing. More importantly, Bale's performance is one of things that makes this film so great. In a carefully manipulated portrayal of a man living with a secret, he tailors his performance to the tough demands of the script, and he's so subtle it's almost too hard to dissect. He creates a character that is nearly impenetrable, which is what the vast mystery of this story requires.
Despite all of these characteristics, the chilliness of this film can be quite polarizing. These magicians are not so much unlikable, as they are unrelatable. Granted, Borden (Bale) and Angier (Jackman) are two tortured men who have sacrificed greatly, seeking to outperform each other. But the emotional connection to these characters isn't fully realized. And why should it be? Borden is a man who wears many hats (so to speak), and Angier only wants to see his rival fall. These characters are part of a puzzle, and the puzzle is the most important – and the most successful – piece of the film. Everything occurs at a distance here. We can't quite get in on what is happening until the very end. Despite the negative connotations of most of this paragraph, I say bravo to Nolan for that. The puzzle is so elaborate, yet subtle, that it renders this film an unforgettable entry in Nolan's filmography. It may not be as entertaining as other Nolan films, but it is one of his most complex ones to date.

Why do I like The Prestige? I like it because it's challenging, technically sound, and wonderfully put-together. The performances are attuned to needs of the material, and Bale's turn as Borden is one of the film's highest selling points. The magicians' rivalry gives way to the mystery, which continues to baffle me as to how Nolan was able to create such a puzzle. I mean on the screen, not the page. (After all, it is an adaptation.) The disconnect to these characters only adds to the trickery that is made plain before our very eyes. Try as I may, I don't know that I will ever fully grasp all of subtleties of this film, and I admire it wholeheartedly for that. It's a magic trick full of misdirection and ambiguity that remains a mystery. It dazzled me. It shook me. It fooled me. And I wanted to be fooled.

Hate by Nikhat
The Prestige is a film that I did not like the first time I saw it, but I have been blaming my sleepiness at the time for that. After rewatching it recently, I must admit that there are things to like in it, most notably the absolutely gorgeous look of the film. I believe that it is the best-looking film in Christopher Nolan’s repertoire, with the Victorian settings and steam-punk elements. However my main issues with the film remained. The biggest reason why this film annoys me is because how unattractive the two protagonists, or maybe antagonists were. They weren’t villains, just complete bastards whose motivations become unnecessary and irritating and not worth rooting for. True that other Nolan films like Memento, Inception, and even the Batman series have heroes with questionable motives and traits, but we sympathize with them and want them to succeed. None of that happens in The Prestige, and someone like me, who is admittedly biased towards good-looking actors no matter what they do, really hated both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in it. They were just that infuriating.

The other thing I didn’t get behind at all was the whole Nikola Tesla’s “cloning machine.” I mean come on! When Thomas Edison was inventing light bulbs, Tesla made a cloning device – really? Like really? My belief can only be suspended so much, even in a film about magicians. Yes I got that Tesla’s and Edison’s rivalry mirrors that of the two magicians in the movie, but it is just so unbelievable. Although, casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – masterstroke!

There are certain themes I did like, and yes, magic tricks are cool, but at the end of it all, it was a completely unsatisfying experience for me.

Agree with Josh? Nikhat? Or are you completely indifferent toward the film? Let us know in the comments section!


The Week of Nolan:
Monday July 16
the Directors: Christopher Nolan

Tuesday July 17
My Favorite Scene: Inception

Wednesday July 18
In Character: Joe Pantoliano

Thursday July 19
The Polarization of The Prestige

Friday July 20
My Favorite Scene: Insomnia

Saturday July 21
Review of The Dark Knight Rises

Sunday July 22
Why You Need to Follow Following

45 comments:

  1. @Alex: Thanks for including me man. Glad to have someone else in the Love column.

    @Nikhat: It's interesting that the "cloning machine" bothered you. I accepted it without a second thought, which was probably due to nature of the genre. Since it was a fictional account of a real person, I overlooked it. I agree on the casting of Bowie though - just brilliant.

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    1. My pleasure buddy! Thank YOU for drafting your portion so quickly.

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    2. No problem. Sorry if I overwhelmed you with my ramblings. :)

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  2. I might be biased since I do like 'The Prestige', but I have to say Josh's reason is much more compelling. I do not think it's Nolan's best, but Just because the leads do horrible things to each other and neither are by-the-book protagonists, doesn't make the story have any less impact. I for one, had points of empathy for both magicians, Bale is just trying to make it in the business supporting a family in the process, and Jackman needed someone to blame for his lost love (She knew the risks, she didn't have the experience needed). It is a good ole morality tale of learning to move on with one's life instead of harboring contempt and malice.

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    1. I'm definitely agree with everything you said here. I've always felt Jackman's character threw blame at the wrong places. Yes, he lost his wife, but like you said, she knew what she was getting into. A fine morality tale indeed.

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  3. I like The Prestige though I put it somewhere in the middle of Nolan's films so far. There's a few things about it that I don't like such as Scarlett Johansson's performance which I found to be mediocre. Anyone could've played that part but for her, it really wasn't that compelling. I was also a bit annoyed by the twists and turns in the film such as the revelation of Jackman's true character which baffled me a bit. Still, I did enjoy the film for what it is.

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    1. I'll meet you halfway on Johansson. She was hot off of Lost in Translation and Match Point and a real "steal" for studios at the time. But yeah, I don't think she's fantastic in it or anything. Rebecca Hall, for example, does so much more with the brief time she's given. Still love the flick though.

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  4. The Prestige is not Nolan's best. It is my favorite though. Granted I haven't watched in probably a year I love how dark and horrible they are, how they literally only care about being the best. And this may be biased but the argument of a cloning machine is absurd. When should you ever let reality get in the way of a good movie? Plus Tesla was a better inventor he created sustainable electricity we just don't use. Nicholas Cage and Christian Bale are both in talks for a biopic on Tesla. Finally, anyone remember The Illusionist? Just a bit too similar...

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    1. I like the notion of you not thinking The Prestige is Nolan's best, but it's your favorite anyway. Best and favorite don't always correlate. I also don't take issue with the cloning machine, simply because I've never considered The Prestige to be a movie based in "reality," you know?

      I liked The Illusionist a lot, but it had the great misfortune of coming out a few months before The Prestige. Oh well. I'd love to see a Bale/Cage Tesla flick.

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    2. I love The Illusionist :P

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    3. Ha! Go figure. No bastards in that one ;)

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    4. Or stupid cloning machines ;)

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  5. I think this is his best film. With regards to the unsympathetic protagonists, everyone involved is a COLOSSAL dick to Bale's character(s), so I was kinda rooting for him (them) for most of the duration. I guess 'cause he's the underdog, so-to-speak. The cast is unbelievable. Bale and Jackman (x2), Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johannson (in a burlesque costume but no close-ups; fuck the non-linear narrative of Memento, this is the most Nolan's ever challenged me as a viewer), Michael Caine as always (steals just about all his scenes), and then David Bowie just because fuck you, Christopher Nolan can do what he fucking pleases. When I stuck this on I was half-expecting some boring costume drama bullshit, but I loved it, and am making a mental note to watch it again soon as.

    In other news, The Dark Knight Rises comes out on my birthday. Which is tomorrow. Ain't that just the darnedest thing?

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    1. Happy birthday Jack! Lucky lucky man, a fine day indeed. I too thought The Prestige was going to be some throwaway costume drama when I first saw it. Nope. I think this movie rocks ass.

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  6. Yeah, I don't like this film at all. I don't typically link back to my reviews, but I will here.

    http://1001plus.blogspot.com/2010/07/magic-is-cool.html

    My reasons for disliking this film are under the spoiler warning. Suffice it to say that it comes down to the characters acting in specific ways to drive the plot (and the reveals) rather than the plot and reveals coming from character actions. The more I think about this film, the more I dislike it.

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    1. You know, upon rewatching it, I had the same exact thought as you did regarding the clones: why the hell does Jackman always looks so surprised when he falls into the tank? But I remembered a line his character says (which is, admittedly, treated as a throwaway line), to the effect of: "I never knew if I was going to be the one in the tank or the one on the stage at the end."

      That's interesting. Again, I'm not sure I fully understand it - and I have no argument for people that don't like it - but I dig it all the same.

      I liked your review though. You can link your stuff here anytime!

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  7. Really good two takes on the film - what Nikhat wrote, well I can see someone not liking the movie for those reasons. The two guys were basterds sure, but for me it was not a big problem because 1) the film really flawlessly showed how destructive ambition and obsessions can be, leaving the person caring only about one thing with complete disregard for others' feelings 2) the film was so entertaining I didn't think it required the audiance to feel actual sympathy for anyone. As for cloning device it's complete deus ex machina but it worked for me because it created fascinating moral conflict for Jackman's character and truly showed the sacrifice for the art, amplified by perfect ending - to literally kill yourself for what you do and witness your own death, kill another life just so you could succeed, day by day. Profoundly emotional story arc.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with you all the way. I definitely found their obsessions and motives quite profound.

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  8. It's been a while since I've seen this, but I remember liking it and I doubt that'd change with a rewatch. It was clever, well-made, well-acted and generally just brilliant. Wish I could give a more in-depth analysis, but that's basically it off the top of my head: I definitely fall on the LIKE side of this debate.

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    1. Nice, and I was pretty much like you up until a week ago - I knew I liked the movie, but had forgotten a lot about it. Upon rewatching it, I love it. Others obviously do not haha.

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  9. Okay did not think I'll be the only one writing for hate. Gah next to Josh's brilliant analytical review, mine looks like a 13 year old's first review :P :/

    Still, I stand by what I said. What Sati said about Jackman's character's repeated drowning was one of the things I did like about the movie- the themes I mentioned but did not elaborate on. But then the cloning thing ruins it for me. That's pretty much the whole movie for me though. Things I do like are outdone by the things I don't like in it. Ah well, haters gonna hate.

    Thanks for including me :)

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    1. I don't mind the repeated drownings, but I do mind that there's evidently a warehouse filled with dead guys in tanks. Every night, he collects a new Jackman-in-a-box. What, is he saving them up for the deposit? With every 12 he gets a free water tank? No one notices that he evidently needs a new massive piece of equipment for every show?

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    2. Yep agreed. And what you said in your review about Borden and Fallon too. That is why he was a bastard. I really just wanted everyone to die by the end of it.

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    3. First off, Nikhat, you are nuts - I loved everything about what you wrote in the post. It was short, sweet, to the point, and articulated how you feel about the movie very well.

      SJ - I've always been a little irked by that too, but, for me, it isn't enough to damage the flick as a whole.

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  10. You know how much I love this movie Alex! The feel of it is so great, an awesome concept. And as usual Nolan has an amazing ending in place. Michael Caine's 'Three steps of Magic' (I'm tired and can't remember it perfectly) always got me intrigued.

    Definitely agree with Josh and yourself! (Sorry Nikhat!) I do love polarizing movies though.

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    1. I love them too, and I love to hate them even more ha. I do know that you love this movie. Nolan's the man!

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  11. Alex, I'm with you on not really getting the hate for The Prestige. I'm definitely a Nolan fan and think he hasn't missed yet, so I may be biased. I love the mystery of this film and the length rivals will go (especially Angier) to win. I really like how it seems like Angier is the hero and Borden is the villain in the first act, but that flips around nearly completely by the end. I didn't see the twists coming and loved the way Nolan gave hints at the reality while keeping it hidden until the end.

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    1. Yup. Couldn't agree more. Thanks for commenting, Dan! Another tab for the 'Love' column.

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  12. I neither love nor hate The Prestige. I think it was a decent movie that got overhyped because of its director and co-star. I felt the twists were pretty obvious, so the movie held few surprises for me. In all honesty, I felt the similarly themed The Illusionist that came out around the same time was a slighty better movie.

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    1. You know, that's cause for another post: which is better, The Illusionist or The Prestige. I really enjoy both of them.

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    2. Good idea. When I first saw them, I'd go with The Illusionist. Now, I'd lean towards The Prestige.

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  13. Hmmm...I'd have to agree with Nikhat. Especially the part about the cloning machine. Looking back on it, that was the part that most threw me and put me off. I couldn't suspend my disbelief any further, though I would like to watch it again, just to make sure I'm not letting fuzzy memories cloud my judgement!
    Great idea for a post, Alex! I've seen enough Nolan to know that I enjoy his work overall, but there are still a few key films missing from my viewings (namely Memento...yes, I know, very bad of me!)

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    1. Ah gotta get on Memento right away... I rewatched it last night with someone who had never seen it - made me appreciate it even more.

      I was never off-put by the cloning machine, I guess because I never really rooted the film in the reality we live in. Who knows. But I do really like it!

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  14. Y'know, I actually wasn't blown away by The Prestige on first viewing, but I gave it another shot a year later and I had a whole new appreciation for it. It's one of those movies I don't mind seeing again every few years. Memento however, though I think is a brilliant film, I didn't feel like I want to see again.

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    1. Fair enough about Memento - that is a mindfuck puzzle that can frankly "hurt" at times. I love it and can watch it ceaselessly, but I can understand why other people can't.

      You're reasoning for liking The Prestige is pretty much exactly why I love every Nolan film. They get better with time.

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  15. I only found out last week that this movie was based on a book by somebody I associated with science fiction. I must have never noticed the credit before. I've been searching the shops for the book ever since.

    I think it's a decent film that impresses the most first time round (as with Memento) and fades with repeat viewing. Initially I preferred the Ed Norton movie but on repeat viewing it is a dull film especially when compared to The Prestige.

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    1. TOOOOOBY! Oh shit man, I didn't know you were back in the mix. Glad to see you blogging again.

      Interesting thoughts on The Prestige, I actually have the exact opposite appreciation for it - I think The Prestige (and Memento) get better with time.

      Either way, glad to see you back on the blogosphere, thanks for commenting!

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    2. Thanks alex, im enjoying being back. Theres good stuff going around, ive been missing out.

      Im sure when i watch memento again i'll enjoy it more than i remember. Things often happen that way.

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  16. Loved The Prestige and excluding The Batman trilogy I considered it his most 'commercial' movie. I can't help but thinking that people finding fault with it are probably doing so out of a bit of artistic snobbery. One hell of an enjoyable movie for me.

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    1. Oh I love it too. I don't know though, I wouldn't call it snobbery - I think big twist endings are always going to spark some sort of polarization.

      Now, most of the criticisms I've heard about TDKR, for example, indeed tip toward the snobby side. But I think everyone above who has problems with The Prestige back it well. Either way, glad like this movie Ed!

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  17. I just watched this one and it is fantastic. I liked it better than Memento even. I want to watch it a few more times - it's just that good!

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    1. Nice! I love it too. Memento is still tops to me, but I think The Prestige is a solid film.

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  18. Hated the film.
    It's visually dark, the pace really drags, the cloning machine was really pushing it. It fails on many counts. The Illusionist is a far better film.

    I really like some of Nolan's work (such as Interstellar, Inception, Batman Begins) but also find his work quite dull (the other Batman films). The Prestige falls into the latter category. I hate it viscerally.

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    1. Appreciate your comment here. I do love the them, but as suggested, the polarization of The Prestige (and Nolan's other films) certainly lives on.

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