The Prestige (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
There's one important way in which movie critics are expected to be like magicians: We don't give away secrets. Unfortunately, that makes it so hard to explain why a movie like The Prestige is such a disappointment. It will require a certain verbal sleight-of-hand, showing you something that's not there without showing you the thing that really is there.
In turn-of-the-century England, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) stands accused of murdering Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), with motives that become evident only in flashback. The two men were rival stage illusionists, their antagonism born from an incident in which Borden may have contributed to the accidental death of Angier's wife (Piper Perabo).
Over the final years of the 1890s, the two men vied for the greatest renown, each one developing variations on a trick called "The Transported Man." And both made sacrifices to achieve the truly amazing in Angier's case, this includes traveling to America to visit reclusive inventor Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) in a little mountain town called Colorado Springs.
To the credit of director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Returns) and his brother Jonathan, they pull off some pretty amazing tricks with their adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel. The result is an impressively efficient condensation of the book's essential plot elements, adding both effective foreshadowing and concrete motivations for the rivals' ongoing battles. They work perhaps a bit too hard to bulk up the roles of Scarlett Johansson (as Angier's stage assistant/lover) and Michael Caine (as Angier's prop designer), but it's impressive that they take a literary conceit and give it flesh and blood.
The Nolans' achievement might have warranted unconditional applause, if not for a few horribly misguided decisions. One of the film's major plot points is a revelation about the identity of one of the main characters. The Nolans could have chosen any number of ways to provide hints as to this ultimate revelation, but the manner they choose to build up to this revelation is monumentally wrong-headed. The Big Secret should be patently obvious to anyone who is paying even the slightest bit of attention which would not necessarily have been fatal, had the film made it clear that the Big Reveal was not the point of it all.
Unfortunately, the Nolans take The Prestige in precisely the opposite direction and fall into the same trap that doomed the sloppy The Illusionist: building everything around the assumption that the audience will be amazed and surprised by the Big Reveal, and leaving little for those who watched with more than one eye half-open.
And it's a shame in this case, because there's such a foundation for The Prestige to work as a tragic tale about the fallout from a personal arms race. And it's hard to believe the Nolans really believe in the importance of that message when one character gets an undeserved happy ending. So instead of resonance, we end up with little but the surface pleasures of a studio film worried about wasting the casting of Batman vs. Wolverine.
Filmmakers who could have been proud if their audience felt moved seem content to be proud if their audience felt fooled. The Nolans can have their secrets along with their apparent belief that the essence of movie magic is the same as the essence of stage magic.