So far Christopher Nolan has made exactly one great film. And by great, I don't mean great for Christopher Nolan. I mean great for film.
That film -- an original story that he co-wrote (with his brother, Jonathan) and directed -- was Memento, about a man with short-term memory loss trying to solve a complex murder mystery. To give us the sensation of the character's inability to make connections between pieces of information, Nolan presented the movie's scenes in reverse order. It was more than just an effective device. It was -- and in a moment, I'll ask you to pardon the pun -- magic.
Now magic, of course, is not real. It's a trick, an illusion. Just like the movies: For two hours, we sit there, believing that light through celluloid is Rhett Butler not giving a damn, or Luke Skywalker meeting his faaaa-ther. Anyone who doesn't love -- doesn't need -- the movies is a soulless fool or a pathetic bookworm.
This brings us to The Prestige, Nolan's new film, and his first since the drearily unnecessary Batman Begins. Co-written again by the Nolan brothers, and set in fin-de-siècle England and Colorado, it revolves around two rival magicians: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who comes from a respectable American family; and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), an Englishman from the lower classes.
The story begins with Angier's dramatic death. Soon, Borden is on trial for murder, for everyone knew of their hatred for each other. Flash back to their youth, where they're competitive pals and co-apprentices to Cutter (Michael Caine), an old master London magician. Angier's wife, Sarah, is Cutter's lovely assistant who allows herself to be lowered into a tank of water from which she'll escape. Each night, Cutter chooses two members of the audience -- by chance, Angier and Borden -- to tie her up before he lowers her down. But one night, either by accident or, with Sarah's approval, to challenge her, Borden ties a tougher knot. She drowns before they can break open the glass.
From there, two threads of rivalry unfold: How can each man publicly embarrass or physically or emotionally wound the other, and who can stage the greatest magic show with the most inexplicable trick? They're about equal at the wounding part, but when Borden unveils a trick where he genuinely seems to transport through space, Angier sets out to discover his secret and steal it. The quest leads him to Colorado Springs and a fictional version of the real-life Nikola Tesla (a surprisingly effective David Bowie), the great inventor (of the radio, says the Supreme Court) who is himself locked in a rivalry with fellow electricianeer Thomas Edison.
It's hard to say much more about The Prestige without giving away its "secrets." Yes, those quotation marks are meant to be smug. Forty minutes before he ends his movie, Nolan reveals something that effectively ends his movie. And yet, there's more surprises and more "secrets," all of them either evident or easy enough to figure out. Given the creative thievery among the characters in the film, it's appropriate that Nolan steals his early big reveal from other movies and from Star Trek: The Next Generation (season six, episode 24, to be exact), and his later twists from, well, too many other sources to name, really.
None of this would matter if something else came with it. I've enjoyed Memento many times, knowing how it ends (or begins). Fight Club still never ceases to absorb me. Someone once said, correctly enough, that the chase is more important than apprehending the object you're after. This can be true of movies, although I don't mean to diminish the importance of coherence, imagination, substance and a good ending. So if The Prestige had offered more along the way -- some ideas perhaps, beyond the obvious and contrived, or some sensation, or some virtuoso scenes not involving a big light show and a cat -- then maybe I could forgive it.
But it doesn't. There's just too much slick Hollywood production value here to support its intimate themes, especially when those themes aren't much to begin with (the danger of obsession, the power of love, the dawn of the age of technology). By the time Nolan pulled all of his rabbits out of all of his hats, I could only think that I'd just lost more than two hours of my life that I'll never get back.