Monday, November 20, 2006

Film: The Prestige (2006): existentialist quandary

It really helps enjoyment of a film to have some sympathy for a protagonist – and this I did not.

It’s a film that may be too clever for most people. This may be what to expect from the Chris Nolan, director of the impressive Memento, which was clever enough for most.

*** Warning: Major spoilers follow the next heading ***

The Prestige revolves around two Victorian-era magicians, and the lengths they will go to for their art. The film itself goes to some lengths to reflect this, down to the near-inscrutability of the plot.

Nolan hired Hugh Jackman because he wanted showmanship, which Jackman has ably demonstrated on Broadway. But he also needed someone who could display obsessiveness, at which Jackman was notably less successful.

Neither did I find it enormously helpful to cast Christian Bale as his antagonist. His character was meant to be, by turns, loving, obsessive and, well, changeable.

The best and the worst about this film was the plot, and how it was presented. There were at least three timelines displayed concurrently. Maybe more. Although there was some expositional logic to the ordering, clues and trickery drove the plot; red herrings abounded. And if the internet forums are an indicator, few people came out of the experience feeling they had untangled the knot.

It may be relatively straightforward. And I may – or may not – have most of it. But I missed something. There were scenes where people were wearing modern clothing. The original tale was bookended by a modern narration, but was it so with the film? I haven’t seen this explored on discussion forums. I'm reluctant to see it again - despite the many impressive flourishes - but I feel compelled to seek out the answers.

The existentialist quandary

Once I drafted a science fiction story that dealt with teleportation. The crux was that it had just been revealed that one’s original self was destroyed with every teleportation, and what was left was always a copy. The scenario would have been rich for someone who mulled over existential issues.

This film poses similar dilemmas. The biggest plot device is that Angier finds himself with a genuine duplication machine. The contraption creates a duplicate of himself, a few metres away. When Angier first duplicates himself, he places a gun nearby as a safety net. When he sees his own double, he kills him instantly. But was it the transported man who reached for the gun or the untransported one?

In fact, both were the genuine article - it's just there were two of them. But for the story to follow logically, it had to be the transported man who killed: “Oh, I’m transported, and I killed the poor sod who threw the switch. Thus, in my act I can kill my double who’s left behind.” Otherwise it would be: “Oh, I wasn’t transported, and I killed my transported copy. But if I put this into my stage act, I'll be the untransported one and die.” But Angier just wasn't that obsessive.

So the trick was, that in performing the trick, he unintentionally killed himself. Every time he performed it, the bloke who threw the switch would be dropped through a trapdoor and drowned. The transported man would then feel he had escaped free. The next time he performed the trick, the one who remained would realise he'd just signed his death warrant - a few instants before he drowned.

The quandary is that, by the logic in this film, both copies of the man are equally himself. So he’s never aware that he will kill himself next time he performs the trick.

Meanwhile, his rival's trick is that there is a twin: the pair spend alternate days in their shared 'real life', then swap over to a shadow existence. For the sake of their art, each twin is doomed to live a life half-lived. With that level of sacrifice, who are you in the end? And what would happen if the act came to an end: would the one life suddenly split in two and take divergent paths? (In fact, this was resolved in the death of one. Then how would the other respond to having to live a complete life with no off days?)

Two existences posing conundrums in different ways. For all of this, it remains a rather brutal film. But it is no mean reflection on Memento.

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