Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below. This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately. Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent. It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger. There be spoilers here!
Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers. You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage. I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre. That can be a disorienting experience in itself. One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?” I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all. That assessment was right. While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over. Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here. Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong. And in The Prestige they do go wrong. Spoilers follow.
The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments. Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable. There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all. One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe. In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson. The Prestige plays the same card. Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled. We actually enjoy it once in a while. Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it. Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen. In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento. I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.