Illusionist v Wizard, Part 2

The Prestige

"It is more than entertainment," the stage magician Vinovich declares in Lord of Illusions. "We are bringing miracles back into their miserable little lives."

Fellow illusionist Robert Angier, villain-protagonist of the aforementioned film's spiritual successor, echoes that declaration in his parting words to archrival Albert Borden.

"You never understood why we did this. The audience KNOWS the truth. The world is simple. It's miserable. Solid... solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second... then you can make them wonder. "

In 1995's Lord of Illusions, Clive Barker explored the dichotomy between prestidigitation and real magic; between illusionists and wizards. Christopher Nolan presents an even deeper meditation on the personal consequences of blurring that line in his 2006 psychological thriller The Prestige.

Long regarded as the black sheep of Nolan's catalog, The Prestige depicts an atypically gray moral universe instead of the clearer delineations between right and wrong most of his movies make. In that regard, it's inferior to Barker's tawdry yet objective mystery play about the moral hazards of dealing with demons.

That's not to say The Prestige descends into relativism. As far as magic is concerned, Nolan's cautionary tale presents clear right and wrong answers. What it doesn't do is take sides. Unlike knight in tarnished armor Harry D'Amour, Robert Angier is a scoundrel driven by envy and vengeance. He is only a protagonist by virtue of his all-consuming drive to achieve his goal, and that obsession compels him to cross a number of irrevocable lines.

For whatever reason, Hollywood seems incapable of making an easily intelligible magician movie. Whereas Lord of Illusions suffered from most of its expository dialogue ending up on the cutting room floor, The Prestige labors under a sometimes literal flashback-a-minute story structure.

The plot of Nolan's film is actually quite straightforward. Aspiring illusionists Robert Angier and Alfred Borden work for a C list magician in Victorian London's cutthroat theater scene. The two part ways when Angier blames Borden for his wife's onstage death.

Potentially significant observation: The Prestige shares an end of Act I pinch with Lord of Illusions in the form of an illusionist's death in a dubious trick gone wrong.

Now bitter rivals, Angier and Borden strive against each other to perfect the ultimate magic trick. Despite his superior showmanship, Angier finds himself outmatched by Borden's total commitment to the craft. Spite moves Angier to instigate a ruthless war of tit-for-tat that leaves both men physically and spiritually scarred.

In desperation, Borden unveils the trick he's been working on his entire professional life. His "Transported Man" causes a sensation that catapults him to the top of his profession. Mad with envy over his rival becoming the toast of London, Angier stoops to copying Borden's trick. 

Angier's more commanding stage presence initially gives him an edge over his enemy, but his vanity precipitates unforced errors which deliver Angier's secrets into Borden's hands. His act in shambles and his career hanging by a thread, Angier makes the fateful decision to cross the line about which Lord of Illusions warned.

Realizing he can't defeat Borden in the realm of illusion, Angier seeks out a wizard. In an odd turn, the forces of true magic are here represented by real-life inventor Nikola Tesla.

Nolan's framing of Tesla as an actual wizard seems strange at first, but to his credit, he manages to sell the conceit. Angier finds the eccentric genius sequestered atop a remote peak in Colorado. 

Consider the reason Tesla gives for his exile:

You're familiar with the phrase, "Man's reach exceeds his grasp"? It's a lie. Man's grasp exceeds his NERVE. The only limits on scientific progress are those imposed by society. The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time, I was asked politely to retire. The world only tolerates one change at a time. And so, here I am, enjoying my "retirement". Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive. 

At first glance, Nolan seems to be appealing to Clarke's "any sufficiently advanced technology" handwavium to ground magic in physics. But The Prestige's portrayal of "real" magic hints that the relationship may be reversed.

Edison's men react to Tesla's wizardry exactly as Swann feared the world would react to his in Lord of Illusions. They even go so far as to burn down the inventor's lab.

Angier, Borden, and Cutter acknowledge Tesla as a wizard in direct contrast to their status as illusionists. Tesla himself acknowledges that distinction in his conversations with Angier, going so far as to proclaim, "Exact science is not an exact science."

In meta terms, Nolan is probably referencing The Wizard of Oz, whose title character is widely theorized to have ben based on Nikola Tesla.

Then there are the effects of the machine Tesla builds for Angier, a demonstration of which leaves a jaded London booking agent humbled.

"Forgive me," Ackerman, the world-weary sophisticate implores a triumphant Angier. "Real magic is so rare. It's been years since I've seen ..."

Nolan deftly conveys that if real magic exists in the world of The Prestige, this character would be the one to have seen it. He tantalizingly never tells us what Ackerman saw those years ago which he recognizes in Angier's act, but it convincingly places Tesla's machine among marvels.

And in using that marvel, Angier removes himself from the ranks of illusionists and steps into the boundless - and dangerous - realm of the wizard.

Lord of Illusions mainly shows the illusionist's view of the wizard. The latter are despised, even feared, as freaks meddling with forces beyond human ken.

The Prestige gives insight into the wizard's view of illusionists. In sharp contrast, the wizard respects the illusionist as a fellow craftsman whose trade takes the utmost dedication to master. Tesla gives the impression that he envies Angier's ability to bring people joy by showing them false miracles that can never really challenge their conception of reality.

This point is reinforced when Ackerman tells Angier to disguise his miracle with stagecraft. "Give them a reason to doubt it," he warns the fledgling wizard.

And still, when Angier debuts the Real Transported Man, the audience is too stunned to clap.

In contrast to Barker, Nolan depicts the evil which taints the wizard's art as a subtler vice than trafficking with demons. Tesla sees in Angier a reflection of the obsession that drives him and warns him to destroy the machine. 

Like Barker's Nix, Angier makes a terrible choice that renders him a monster. His magical power wins him worldly success, but it also incites his descent into mass murder, including framing Borden for Angier's own.

Also like Nix, "a man who wanted to be a god ... then changed his mind," Angier's sweet victory turns to ashes on his tongue. In terms of quantity, his evil exceeds that of Nix, even if his foe proves much less righteous than Harry D'Amour.

Taken together, Lord of Illusions and The Prestige present two parts of a trenchant morality tale with the same dire warning: Don't traffic with diabolical forces.

Including those now in charge of Hollywood

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier


  1. I liked 'The Prestige,' although it was difficult for me to accept it was presenting "real magic" as part of the story. I felt it a bit like cheating, but you explain the point of it nicely. I regard this movie as coming in the middle of Nolan's artistic peak, bracketed by the first 2 Batmans. His excesses started to get the better of him with 'Inception'. Each movie since then has been worse than the last.

    1. With the exception of Interstellar, which is far and away his best.

    2. I accepted the fact that Angier's trick is that he uses "real magic" as a bit of misdirection, in two ways. First (and this is the part that people generally like less) in that many people will look for a non-magical solution to Angier's trick despite many bits of foreshadowing in the movie that it's real. But more importantly, by keeping you looking for the gimmick in Angier's trick, you are distracted from examining Borden's trick in greater detail, and his does turn out to be a "fair" trick. Anecdotally I haven't had anyone watch the movie with me and figure out Borden's trick before the end, despite there being clues to it in nearly every Borden scene, and I think a big reason why is because of the misdirection with Angier.

    3. 'The Prestige' really is brilliant in the way that, if you know the ending, the second viewing is like watching a different movie. Something subsequent viewings of 'Memento' I think fail to achieve.

  2. I'm digging these movie reviews--don't know why they're not getting more comments.

    Anyway, I have actually seen this one. Believe it or not, I went to see it in the theaters twice, but haven't seen it since. I thought it was exceptional, and I really liked the theme of obsession. I didn't pay too much attention to the illusionist versus wizard distinction, though it's obviously there. I guess it went over my head, or to put it more accurately, I didn't articulate it very well in my head while I was watching the movie.

    It's gray, but at least to me, it avoided being bleak. It showed how obsessing over revenge could lead to one's downfall. A tale as old as time.

    Regarding Joseph's comment, I really liked Inception. Interstellar too. I have not seen Tenet though.

    1. Gray but not bleak is a fair assessment.

      Inception is a pretty good spy flick with pretensions of epistemological depth. Nolan is at his best when he's making straightforward movies. Sadly he took the wrong lesson from breaking out with Memento.

  3. I have only seen it the one time, several years ago, but I remember wondering which version of him was actually transported. The thing that I find most creepy about this movie are the questions that I expect the movie leaves open on purpose: Who fell into the tank each time - the magician or his copy, who walked away to go on being the magician, and did the magician know ahead of time which would happen? Was every trick a murder, a suicide, or both?

    1. My interpretation, and, I believe, the one supported by the script, is that the machine copies whoever steps into it and projects the duplicate 150 feet away. So the original Angier met a watery death the fist time the act was performed.

      It's foreshadowed in the scene following his wife's death, when he plunges his face into a sink for as long as he can before reeling back and gasping for air. He wanted to know if Cutter's story about the sailor who said drowning felt like going home was true.

      That's what made Cutter's admission that he lied Angier's real moment of comeuppance. Borden shooting him was just a formality.

    2. Note that however the machine works, the real Angier is dead by the end of the movie. If it works as a duplicator only, then the real Angier died in the first trick. But if it both transports and duplicates, then the real Angier was killed by his first clone during his first experiment with the machine.

      The movie seems to suggest it doesn't matter though with Tesla's answer to Angier's question of which hat is his: "They are all your hat."

    3. It's more thought-provoking than the novel version, in which the transported Angier is explicitly stated to be the original.

  4. This comment gets into heavy spoilers for many major twists in the movie. If you have not seen the movie consider yourself warned.

    There's something easy to miss in the movie which further shows the distinction between illusionist and wizard. After receiving Tesla's machine Angier could have perfectly duplicated Borden's trick. Use the machine once to make his perfect double, then done the transportation that way. Since the audience did not see the duplicate come into existence in his "real" transported man, this could have been done identically to his final version of the trick, from the perspective of the audience. His real improvements to the trick would be his better showmanship, since a repeated theme of the movie is that while Borden is a great technician, he is only a passable showman.

    But instead Angier opts for a technique that requires him to murder himself repeatedly. Why? I think there's a few reasons, none of which speak well of Angier. Most obviously for the plot he needs to die if he's going to frame Borden for his murder, he'll have to die and since he doesn't know which show Borden will investigate backstage he has to die every time. But this is a rather slim motivation since surely there would have been hundreds of other ways to frame Borden using Tesla's machine.

    The movie gives us two far more important motivations: First, Angier is no longer satisfied in merely copying Borden's trick. It has to be "better." By using the machine he knows he is using real magic, while Borden is just doing a trick (though at that point Angier doesn't know precisely what the trick is). He can also tell himself that he is willing to make much bigger sacrifices and thus is the "bigger man" (though he doesn't understand Borden's true sacrifice until the end).

    But the biggest problem with using a double is made clear by Angier's earlier version of the trick: both doubles will insist on being the one to receive the adulation of the crowd. Note that even at the end Angier did not think of the obvious solution: alternate between showings. He cannot share the glory of the trick with anyone, even himself. And this above all else is why he had to do the final trick in the way that he did.

    1. Pride is Angier's besetting, and ultimately fatal, sin. He is also a linear, binary thinker. These defects are on full display when Cutter tells him outright how Borden does his trick. In his pride and envy, Angier cannot accept that the solution is so simple.

      As you pointed out, Angier's obsessive one upmanship compels him to mass murder/suicide just so he can boast of having sacrificed more for his craft than Borden.

      And Borden may be a seedy, abusive huckster, but it's easy to root for him over Angier by the end.