The Prestige conjures up a dark relationship between science and the desire for power.

Andy Serkis (left), David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and Hugh Jackman   Credit: Francois Duhamel; ©Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved

Earlier this month, physicists in Copenhagen announced they had successfully teleported information through a half a meter of space to a large object. The experiment, the first to transport information from light and matter, is said to be a revolutionary step in the field of quantum teleportation. But while it’s one thing to teleport atomic data, it’s quite another to teleport an entire human being.

The Prestige, a new Hollywood thriller, takes up the question of teleportation as one of its central conundrums: Is it feasible? What would people leave behind after teleporting? And could you bring your hat along for the ride?

Set in turn-of-the-century London during the height of the electric age, the film—opening in theaters today—recounts the rivalry of two magicians, the aristocratic showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and his working-class, hard-knuckled foe, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The men meet as apprentices for the established magician Milton (real-life conjurer Ricky Jay), but their relationship turns brutally bitter after an on-stage mishap leads to tragedy.

The bulk of the film chronicles the escalating conflict between Angier and Borden, their attempts to sabotage each other’s tricks and steal each other’s secrets—primarily the how-to behind a marquee feat called “The Transported Man.” In the stunt, first performed by Borden, a man apparently teleports from one side of the stage to the other in a split second. How does he pull it off? Does he use a body double, as Angier’s sidekick Cutter (Michael Caine) maintains? Or has he enlisted the help of Nikola Tesla, the renowned engineer and early pioneer of alternating current, to devise a machine that facilitates actual teleportation? In other words: Is it simply old-fashioned sleight of hand or, as one character says, “real magic”—an advance look into the scientific “magic” of the future?

Like director Christopher Nolan’s breakout film Memento, a clever mind-bender whose scenes played out in reverse chronological order, The Prestige has a complex contraption of a plot. Multiple storylines set in different time periods run side by side: In the film’s past, Angier gets a hold of Borden’s diary, which leads him to Colorado Springs to seek out Tesla; in its present, Borden sits in jail reading Angier’s diary, trying to unlock his rival’s ultimate secret. Each parallel storyline dovetails in flashbacks of events that both men shared. It’s a neat trick to puzzle together a narrative this way, and neater still to stay ahead of your audience—but not so far ahead that viewers are baffled.

Is it simply old-fashioned sleight of hand or, as one character says, “real magic”—an advance look into the scientific “magic” of the future?

One of the chief pleasures of The Prestige—so named for the final part of a magic trick, when the vanished bird rematerializes or the beautiful assistant cut in half emerges again whole—is that it doesn’t give an answer until very late in the game. Just when you expect Nolan has tipped his hat in one direction, he suddenly veers in another. And when the film finally offers a definitive answer, it only further complicates the layers of intrigue.

The scientific and historical accuracy of the movie are questionable—there is scant evidence to suggest that Tesla ever experimented with teleportation, for example. But those lightning-arrayed “Tesla coils”—which make a number of dazzling appearances in the movie—sure look cool.

If The Prestige were all smoke and mirrors, it might be mere cold, clever theatrics. But Angier and Borden have deep personal flaws: Each is ready to lose loved ones and sacrifice everything for his art —or if you prefer, his science. It’s not the many love triangles that pop up—and are quickly discarded—that fuels The Prestige, but the relentless one-upmanship that absorbs the two protagonists.

When Nikola Tesla eventually shows up in the flesh (a brilliantly nuanced David Bowie, at once suave and subtly bizarre), he warns Angier about the dangers of his creations, forecasting that his own obsessions would eventually destroy him. (The real-life Tesla became destitute in his later years and developed a perhaps unhealthy obsession with feeding New York pigeons.)

The Prestige may touch on the dangers of science and technology, but it’s mainly concerned with men who are driven to invent for the wrong reasons, either for vengeance or prestige, at the expense of family and sanity. If The Illusionist, the year’s other movie magic show, was a middlebrow romantic crowd-pleaser that unveils the joy of an elaborate ruse, The Prestige paints a darker picture of the lies and destruction that accompany man’s quest for technological prowess and domination

Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier   ©Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved

Originally published October 20, 2006

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