Two Can Play That Game

For his next trick, filmmaker Christopher Nolan has conjured up “The Prestige,” about two competing magicians in the early 20th century London. Oddly enough, Robert Algiers (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) began as friends who were both mentored by a man named Cutter (Michael Caine). Their bitter rivalry is initiated by a stage accident, which results in the tragic drowning of Algiers’ wife. Algiers blames Borden for this and harms him in return. Borden, not willing to back down, seeks vengeance as well. Ever since, they try to upstage one another inside and outside the performing stage and it evolves into a destructive obsession of figuring each other’s secrets and strategies.

It’s funny that “The Prestige” has a competition of its own against the similarly themed “The Illusionist.” Both movies are about magicians and have screenplays armed with tricks and misdirection. I’d like to take this time to measure up the two. By doing so, I see the flaws and achievements of “The Prestige” more clearly when I’m comparing it to “The Illusionist.” Let the battle begin.

To me, “The Illusionist” seems more magical. I say magical, in the sense I was more filled with wonder and awe. It’s more mesmerizing to look at and its cinematography is exquisitely somber. Meanwhile, “The Prestige” lacks a certain beauty. Its portrait of its time is gritty and unappealingly moody. The set designs come close to being cheesy, because they remind me of laughable laboratories from old movies. On the other hand, “The Prestige” is the more intriguing movie. It shows us the fascinating science of deception, giving us an inside on how a trick is done. Tadaa!

I think the cast of both movies are equally talented, but I do give “The Illusionist” a slight edge. This is because Norton, Giamatti, Sewell, and Biel are more successful in disappearing in their roles. Jackman, Bale, Caine, and Scarlett Johansson look like themselves and they play their basic parts as we expect them to.

In terms of screenplay, “The Prestige” has a better and more complex story. It’s certainly not underwhelming as “The Illusionist,” which limited its tricks in trying to dupe the audience. “The Prestige” is more ambitious. I like that “The Prestige” shows off most of its trickery between Algiers and Borden. It’s fun to see them outdo each other. There’s a sense of exhilaration in their battle of wits.

However, just like “The Illusionist,” it falters towards the third act. In my opinion, “The Prestige” cheats. At least, “The Illusionist” tries to stay credible to its time period. “The Prestige” tries to up its game so much that it ends up looking ludicrous in retrospect. But I do have to give props to Nolan, because the film is never boring. I love the plotting. I love how the story keeps building and building. Its complexity brings up a lot of themes and also makes the film less predictable. I had a blast watching, but when I reflect on the movie, it suddenly bothers me.

Ultimately, I think “The Prestige” is more satisfying than “The Illusionist.” Nevertheless, both are fine films with flaws to be fixed. I think gullibility becomes a critical factor in enjoying these movies. Those who are easily fooled will be the most affected. Those who want to be fooled will like them too. And how about those who don’t want to be fooled? Well, they’re silly rabbits. They’ll soon learn tricks are for kids.

Grade: B+

Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, and Piper Perabo
Based on the novel by
Christopher Priest
Screenplay by
Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images