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The Prestige & Schrödinger’s Magician: Would the Real Robert Angier Please Stand Up?

No one cares about the man who disappears, the man who goes into the box. They care about the man who comes out the other side.

– Robert Angier

I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan. Anybody who regularly reads the blog will attest to that. I believe, genuinely, that he’s one of the best directors working today. However, my favourite Nolan film is a rather eclectic choice. I appreciate all his films, but I think that The Prestige stands as the pinnacle of the writer’s work to date. After all, in a career built around movies exploring the power of narrative, it’s hard to resist the film that compares cinema to magic. I think it’s a deftly-constructed and cerebral film, one of the few movies that still intrigues and confounds me when I stick it on. Of course, the narrative is relatively straight-forward once Nolan reveals the technique and the tricks in the final act, but I always find it rewarding to chew over the implications in the film, the story of two dueling magicians who take their rivalry as far as possible, and even beyond that.

Are you watching closely?

Note: By its nature, this post will include spoilers for the film. I have written a review of it, in case you are looking for a recommendation. It’s the most divisive of Christopher Nolan’s films, and I’d recommend seeing it at least once – love it or hate it, it’s a film that you won’t quite forget.

It took courage to climb into that machine every night, not knowing, if I’d be the man in the box, or the prestige.

– Robert Angier

Nolan, adapting the film from the novel by Christopher Priest, has been accused of cheating with the movie’s central revelation. A lot of Nolan’s films feature a fairly hefty third-act twist. There’s the revelation at the end of Memento, for example, or even the identity of Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins among others. Hell, people are still trying to figure out the final image from Inception. However, Nolan is generally shrewd enough to include all manner of hints as to the nature of the reveal at the climax of the film, to the point where the twist is a pleasant surprise rather than a sucker punch.

The two twists at the climax of The Prestige are both aptly foreshadowed. In fact, I was quite proud that I could work out the twist involving Alfred Borden about two-thirds of the way through the film. However, the nature of the “magic” that Robert Angier performs is something of a bit harder to deduce the first time around. It’s not that the foreshadowing isn’t there. Nolan gives us the answer in the first frames of the movie, as we discover on rewatching the film. “Now you’re looking for the secret,” Cutter explains, “but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking.”

Funny... the lightbulbs generally appear above my head after watching the film...

Of course, it’s hard to figure out what exactly is happening in the film because our expectations are defined by genre. We’re watching a movie about two magicians at the turn of the century trying to perform a trick where they appear to move across the room simultaneously. Nolan introduces us to a fairly grounded and relatively realistic world, where he explains the technique behind tricks like the bullet catch and other staples. Even when Robert Angier brings Nikolai Tesla into the film, we’re still harbouring the expectation that this is a pseudo-realistic drama.

That’s why, on first viewing, it’s so easy to miss the actual evidence and foreshadowing that explains exactly what Tesla’s machine does. It’s actually, on second viewing, pretty clearly explained even before Angier makes his first attempt to use it in an abandoned studio and discovers that it’s actually some strange and exotic combination of a cloning device and a transporter. Those aren’t radical concepts in genre fiction, but the twist works so well because the audience isn’t expecting such radically science-fiction ideas to be inserted into a period piece so late in the game. As Cutter teases, we’re looking for the trick, but we’re not really looking – because Nolan has misdirected us, and because we weren’t really trying to figure it out.

Getting Jack(man)ed up...

Of course, with the revelation that Angier is actually cloning and copying himself, the movie becomes something entirely different. It actually becomes quite incredibly darker – despite a concept borrowed from science-fantasy. Of course, the bitter feud between the two magicians was never especially pleasant, it seems that Angier has very definitely crossed an invisible line. While Borden’s sacrifice of “half a life” feels like far too much to give up for a simple magic trick, Angier amplifies that sense of self-sacrifice. He is literally and repeatedly killing himself for that audience applause at the end of the night.

Cloning is an ethical minefield, after all. There’s a whole rake of philosophical questions that tend to get raised when one suggests the idea of “duplicating” an individual. Is the resulting entity its own being or merely a “copy”? While The Prestige doesn’t get too bogged down in bio-ethics, it does make it clear that Angier’s actions, driven equally by revenge and spite and the pursuit of audience validation, are nothing short of monstrous. Each night of the show, he drowns himself inside the same sort of device that killed his wife, while still emerging triumphant on the balcony to the applauding masses.

Hats off to Christopher Nolan...

Confronted with his actions, he muses on the anticipation that he felt every night, wondering whether he’d end up as “the man in the box” or “the prestige.” It’s an interesting line, because it implies, somehow, that the choice is exclusive: that Angier must be either and that he couldn’t be both. It sounds like lame self-justification, as if to suggest that he was the same Angier who had survived each night, and the man in the box was just some empty husk left behind. It suggests that either “the man in the box” or “the prestige” must be “real” and the other must be somehow “fake.”

It creates the impression that his “soul” (for lack of a better word) or his “inalienable self” was somehow beyond being copied and had somehow been transferred, making “the prestige” somehow more valid than “the man in the box.” Such a claim, based on what we see, seems to make little sense. The black cat sent through the machine show two halves of the same animal able to function perfectly. In the moment when Angier first uses the machine, both copies seem self-aware and higher functioning. Angier wasn’t going to end up either “the man in the box” or “the prestige”, he was going to be both.

No watered-down tricks for Angier...

However, even if we accept Angier’s claim at face value, there are other problems. By his own logic, Angier must have been “the prestige” for every night of the show. This only makes sense, as the man left standing on the trapdoor would have been drowned and kept as part of the magician’s grisly and grotesque display. Based on Angier’s comments to Borden, he seems to consider this more to be the more “valid” self left after the magic trick.

As such, I always found a rather delicious irony in the fact that even Angier’s self-justification falls apart if you watch closely enough. Like any real trick, if you look at it too closely you can see the flaws. The first time Angier goes through the device, he keeps a gun by the transporter. “Today I tested the machine,” his diary explains. “Taking precautions in case Tesla hadn’t ironed out the kinks in its operation. If it went wrong, I would not want to live like that for long.”

Allow me to introduce... a plot device...

As the device operates, a duplicate is created. The person left inside the device would be “the man in the box”, to use Angier’s terminology, while the man who appeared across the room would be “the prestige.” Acting on impulse, the version of Angier inside the device promptly draws his pistol and shoots the copy who appeared opposite him. This is the version of Angier that got into the device every night – the version whose empirical experience suggested that he stayed inside the machine while the copy appeared elsewhere.

This lends a rather tragic feeling to the way Angier constructed the device. As far as he could be aware, based on his own experiences, the real him would stay put and would drown under the trapdoor. Rationalising from his own first experience, every night was designed as a form of suicide for Angier. Despite how incredibly monstrous and grotesque the whole operation is, it still makes him somewhat pitiable.

An electric bunch of friends...

Of course, logically, no matter whether Angier is “the man in the box” or “the prestige”, he appears to have all the memories and personality of the person who got in the device before either off-shoot is created. So each version of Angier has the memory of going through the device. However – since one of the two is killed each and every time he uses it – there is one continuous thread of “memory”, where Angier can remember being both the man in the box (the first time he uses it) and the man on the balcony (every night of the show).

As such, he can logically be assumed to be aware of the fact that both parts are equally him. It’s only retroactively that he decides one is more valid than the other – in each case, it’s the one that survived who is deemed to be somehow more important or more essential, if only because Angier’s memories derive from that one. Which makes his finally observation seem all the more hypocritical and self-justifying, making it even clearer that he was sacrificing everything for the applause and recognition of an audience, knowing that neither of the two resulting versions of Robert Angier were more or less valid than the other.

All the world is a stage...

The use of the cat to test the machine by Tesla seems to allude to the theory of Schrödinger’s Cat, a hypothetical feline that is both dead and alive until proven one or the other. Much like that cat, the validity of each version of Angier is assured only by the outcome rather than by any moral or ethical principles going into the device. I think this is why I like The Prestige so much. There’s still so much to think about and to digest and discuss even years after its original release. Of course, that’s true of a lot of Nolan’s filmography, and I think that’s why I am so fond of him as a film maker.

10 Responses

  1. I’m starting to feel like I have a movie twin between this and Collateral. For years I’ve felt that The Prestige was his strongest work. It feels nice to find out someone feels similarly.

    • That’s awesome. Glad to know I’m not alone! (I think The Prestige gets a bit of a bum deal – I think it’s the lowest ranked of Nolan’s work on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth.)

  2. I commend you for making me think of this film in a slightly different way. I’d always liked it, but was among the crowd that was a bit disappointed. I saw it as a fascinating period piece trying to ground itself in reality, that finally gave up and threw in a sci-fi element. Normally I wouldn’t mind this, as I love sci-fi and fantasy even more than period pieces, but the end twist felt a bit overplayed for something that I had figured out half an hour before.

    But looking at it as a science fiction story primarily, I can better appreciate Nolan’s restraint and his careful building of a realistic world for this all to take place in. I had some comments relating to your theories about how much Robert Angier assumed, but it’s been long enough since I’ve seen the movie that I’d rather wait to see it again before revealing my ignorance. ‘-)

    • Thanks David. If I made somebody stick it on again, it’s worth it!

      I think the genre twist is ingenious, because it really is just that. The evidence of what the machine does and how Angiers uses it is up on-screen, we just ignore it because we don’t think Tesla’s going to build anything that couldn’t actually exist.

  3. How do you respond to the film as a metaphor for God’s existence? I think this passage brings it about quite subtly

    “The audience knows the truth- that the world is simple. Miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, you could make them wonder. Then you got to see something very special…”

    • I haven’t ever thought of it that way. I always just loved the surface metaphor (cinema as magic) that I never really jumped in much deeper.

      If you add a religious element, though, you get all sorts of fascinating ideas. After all, if you believe in (or if the film believes in) an immortal soul, then Angier’s actions become simultaneously more reprehensible and tragic. It’s almost like the horcrux from Harry Potter, with Angier tearing that immortal part of himself in two time and time again.

      I might need yet another rewatch.

  4. I want to see all those movies again. You make me feel that another viewing of each of them would be rewarding. Thank you for a great and thoughtful post.

  5. Bravo, Darren. I love this piece on ‘The Prestige’. Like others here, I, too, felt this is Nolan’s under-appreciated masterpiece. Out of all of his films, I’ve re-watched this one the most, easily. Well done.

  6. The idea of a cloning/transporting devise made by tesla is the first thing that comes to mind…but thinking about it its not the field of work of Nikola Tesla, the cloning part i mean… Now if you put atention in the movie tesla said that he was working in something secret that he cant disclose to anyone but he needs money to continue his secret experiment and therfore agrees to build the device that was asked for by the main character (huge jackman). Knowing that we can deduce that the “secret experiment” was some kind of machine that could allow to bend by electromagnetic manipulation the field of time, space and reality and then transport the same mater from an alternate dimension to our own creating a identical copy of the subjet exposed to the machine. One of the dubles always dies almost inmediatly when the prosses is made taking care of the posibility of a paradox of time….well that is what i think…

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