What a difference a second viewing can make. When I saw Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender, The Prestige, last fall, I walked away a bit perplexed by its third-act twists and turns (so much so that I had to ask my friend to clarify one or two plot points) and a bit let down by the latest film from a director I have called on quite a few occasions one of the best new voices in American Cinema today. I did not hate The Prestige, but I certainly did not walk away from it as impressed as I was with Nolan’s three previous efforts.
Yet, something about the film nagged at me in the time between last October and my recent second viewing on the Buena Vista Blu-ray release. Was it the cinematography? Was it the double delight of Piper Perabo and Scarlett Johanssen in tight corsets? Or was it trying to sort out the convoluted plot to see if it all made sense? Films that you consider to outright suck don’t stick with you, unless you are using it as a punch line a la The Da Vinci Code or Dreamgirls. Films that do have something or another on the ball, however, do stay with you. So, it was with a fair amount of anticipation that I sat down to give The Prestige another spin, this time with the benefit of hindsight. And hey, what do you know? The film improved quite a bit for me the second time around.
The less you know about the movie, the better (remember to politely tell people that when they try to discuss the film with you until you’ve seen it for yourself). So, here is a spoiler-free summary: The Prestige is the tale of two up-and-coming, London-based illusionists: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Once friends, the two become bitter rivals following a tragedy that occurs during a magic act they are part of. The duo become consumed with a bitter rivalry, doing whatever it takes to come up with the ultimate act of illusion, no matter what the cost to them or the people around them.
The Prestige is a fun, fascinating cinematic sleight-of-hand courtesy of one of the master illusionists of current cinema. It’s not a necessarily a deep film or one filled with characters you empathize with or particularly like (you want to be emotionally invested in a film, watch Babel instead). But by applying the three stages of a magic act (The Pledge, The Turn and the Prestige) to his filmmaking, Nolan slowly and seductively draws the viewer into this tale of obsession and jealousy (themes fueled further by the solid turns of Bale and Jackman) while throwing twists and turns into the narrative along the way.
The conclusion (or Prestige, if you will) of the film is one of those endings a la Sixth Sense, Memento or The Usual Suspects that, unless you are paying very close attention along the way, will either have you scratching your head or have you walk away just being pissed off when the credits begin to roll. As I mentioned above, feelings of perplexity and mild disappointment filled my head after the initial viewing. But then again, so did a desire to go back and view it again as soon as possible. Just as Bale’s voiceover at the beginning of the film instructs someone off camera (or is it Nolan instructing the viewer?), I went back and watched the film’s events, characters and their motivations far more closely the second time around.
In doing so, I discovered ” and appreciated ” a great deal more of Nolan’s narrative slight of hand and technical wizardry at work. His directing is sly and assured, and his examination of what drives, and ultimately undoes, the story’s main characters is fascinating to watch. This is not to say that the movie is not without its faults: the supporting turns by Scarlett Johansson and Piper Perabo are pretty flat (they look great, but both should have played mutes). And even after two viewings, I still feel the sci-fi elements of the story are just a bit too out there to work with the rest of the film. Still, The Prestige remains an involving work from a great filmmaker that offers viewers new rewards with repeated viewings. The more you see of it, the more you see into it.
I recently raved about the Blu-ray presentation of Chicago as one of the best looking and sounding titles to hit the young format thus far. Well, it didn’t take long for that title to become usurped. If you want to win someone over with a demo of just how good a next-generation DVD can be, look no further than The Prestige. Encoded on a 50-GB disc in a sterling 1080p/MPEG-4 transfer in its 2.40:1 theatrical ratio, The Prestige is literally like looking through glass. The print used for the five-month old film is flawless (as one would expect), as are the colors, contrast levels and details, and film grain and compression artifacts are nowhere to be found. In the video presentation department, Buena Vista is really doing a superb job with their Blu-ray releases.
For audio, the Mouse House gives the viewer a couple of sound flavors to choose from: Uncompressed PCM, and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English, French and Spanish. The English Dolby Digital track is impressive (I did not listen to the French and Spanish tracks), but the PCM track is the winner here. For the most part, the audio is subtle, which may not at first make it seem as impressive as the video presentation. But it’s one that is clean, full and very effective right from the start. It begins quietly, builds very slowly and within a matter of minutes immerses us with a carefully handled, beautifully balanced sound field.
The extras that accompanied The Prestige to both regular DVD and Blu-ray are a bit on the scant side (both versions are identical in content). Actually, they are completely on the scant side, which comes as a bit of a disappointment (perhaps Nolan didn’t want to reveal all of his filmmaking magic tricks). At the very least, it looks nice: the supplemental material is presented in 1080p video (and 2.0 Dolby Digital).
The Director’s Notebook: the Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan is the name of the behind-the-scenes look at the movie. Comprised of six separate short features (Conjuring The Past, The Visual Maze, Metaphors of Deception, Advocate For the Audience, Tesla: The Man Who Invented The Twentieth Century and Resonances), which one can play separately or as one (a “play all” option is given), the mini-doc runs about twenty minutes. It’s an interesting, albeit brief; look at the technical aspects of making the film: the sets, the costumes, the production design and cinematography. It also gives us a quick look at the real-life Tesla and the inventions he created that are still in use today.
The Art of The Prestige is a collection of still photos of the film itself as well as from the film’s production, the costumes and sets as well as a nice look at the various period-piece artwork Nolan and company created for the movie. I really wish these were available for purchase somewhere.
A few Previews for other Buena Vista Blu-ray titles round out the supplements (but no theatrical trailer for Prestige? Boo, hiss!), along with an anti-piracy public service announcement. Hey Disney, I’m fine with putting this crap on your regular DVD releases (where I am not subjected to them), but do you have to ruin my HD experience by putting this stuff on your Blu-ray discs? One more complaint: ditch the idiotic ”your movie is about to begin”” still photo, please. I’m safe in guessing that anyone who is watching knows that at some point very soon, the damn movie will start up. We’re not four years old, for Walt’s sake.
The Prestige works very much like a magic act: you’re drawn in, you watch it unfold with great interest and then sit back and wonder what the hell just happened during its conclusion. But unlike an actual act of illusion, going back and seeing how this cinematic sleight-of-hand is constructed and pulled off is actually more fun than seeing it for the first time. Having a beautiful Blu-ray presentation to do it with is just makes it even better. The Blu-ray release of The Prestige comes highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald