At first glance, two films released this fall dealing with magicians from times past, The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, and The Prestige, starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, would seem to invite comparison. However, like the trickery employed in each movie, this is only from a cursory glance. Having recently seen both films, I found the former to be, while enjoyable, rather thin and easily predictable, and the latter to be dark, sinister, complex, and containing a thoroughly satisfying finish, one that I'm still grasping and relishing in its concept. In short, a far superior movie to its apparent cousin.
While it is true that to discuss The Prestige in any sort of detail is to begin to reveal its secrets, I can contrast the two movies with vagaries to explain why I found one to be much more satisfying an experience. First, The Illusionist, a tale of a poor child who becomes a mysterious conjurer in 18th-century Europe, by coincidence reunited with his childhood love who was ripped away from him and now the fiance of Austria's jerk-of-a-prince. I don't need to go any further to tell you this is a tale of romance, and that no matter what you are shown during the film, you can probably deduce the truth fairly quickly. In fact, probably too quickly; I'm not one to analyze films during the action -- I have a healthy case of disbelief and I like to enjoy the experience the film is supposed to deliver. However, if it's obvious to me what is going on, well, you get the picture.
Additionally, the movie ends without any of the magician's key tricks being revealed. While I know this isn't the sign of any true magician, it leaves you feeling that there's no way this stuff could be accomplished, which, again, is probably the intent of the moviemaker -- we feel a bit like the 18th-century audience. However, from the perspective of the filmgoer as opposed to the theater-goer, this ends up feeling like a screenwriter who didn't know how to write conclusive storytelling.
One particular instance happens at the end of the film, when one of the characters is given his wish to learn how one of the magician's tricks works. He is looking at the notes (we are given cursory glances at them), chuckling and saying 'oh, ho!' to himself, revelling in his understanding of the deception. Now, at that moment, I'm hoping that the filmmaker will let me in on the little secret, too, but alas, I realize that one of the reasons why I can't see how it's done is that no one knows, which cheapens the movie.
Which is not to say that The Illusionist isn't entertaining, nor worth the four bucks to rent. It's a handsome movie with excellent performances by all involved. As long as you stay with the trick and try not to peer into its 'secrets', you'll be fine. However, once you begin to look closely at its secrets, you'll find you're looking a little more than thin air.
'Are you watching closely?' is the tag line of Christopher Nolan's uniquely different magical film, a tag that invites, almost dares you to figure out the deceptions hidden in the movie. We know that something isn't right, that there are to be twists and turns, and like any good trick, the clues are right there for you to see. Only, like a good magician's presentation, they are nearly impossible to see even if you know you are a looking right at them. And when they are revealed, and all the tricks are indeed revealed, there is an exhilarating rush of disbelief, bewilderment over the commitment involved, and, just a little bit of giggling over how you've been had. The Prestige's payoffs are absolutely stunning.
But of course there's more to it than just tricks. Nolan creates a atmosphere of chilling tension throughout the film, using slippery, mysterious supporting characters and wonderful and invigorating settings. But the most tension comes from the two leads' amazing hatred of the other, which is unveiled through a series of mortally threatening tricks on each other. The ends to which each man will go to get the best of his rival knows no bounds, and after finished, is truly breathtaking to comprehend.
Are you watching closely? The difference between the two films is that one is light supper, and the other is a pulse-pounding unexpected treat. One is indeed an illusion, while the other a well-executed cinematic conjurment. Abra cadabra.