For all its twists, turns and mind manipulation--much like the very tenets of magic--The Prestige is the one thing such a movie should never be: neither awful nor great--just decent.
''...Every great magic trick has a third act, the most difficult act: the prestige.'' That quote, taken from Cutter's (Michael Caine) oft-referenced opening voiceover, doesn't quite sum up the movie, but it certainly alludes to its magic and trickery to come. What ultimately brings us to The Prestige's prestige, so to speak, is a rivalry-turned-obsession between two magicians. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) were once friends as apprentice magicians in the late 1800s, but that all ended when a risky move on Alfred's part led to the death of Robert's then wife (Piper Perabo). They have since gone their separate ways, but they're never far from each other's minds. Following Alfred's mind-bending ''Transported Man'' act, Robert's desire of one-upping his archrival turns into an obsession. Robert sends his assistant/lover (Scarlett Johansson) over to Alfred's camp to expose his secret, while he himself travels to meet inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whom he commissions to build the same machine that, he believes, is being used by Borden in his act. Tesla's machine, however, is no mere magician's prop!
It's too bad The Prestige doesn't seem as concerned with the lead actors as it does with their big names, because Jackman and Bale are both extremely talented. Of course, they each give flawless performances, but perhaps our minds would've exploded if the acting were to be as asserted as the twisted story line(s). Of the two, Bale fares better with a more layered performance, but there is often intriguing chemistry between both. Caine, reappearing alongside his Batman Begins costar Bale (and director Christopher Nolan), is obviously game for a movie about magic in 19th century London, and--surprise, surprise--acts accordingly. In a supporting role, Johansson, perpetuating her own magic trick of only appearing to be cinematically ubiquitous, finally nails that foreign accent she's been honing for a while now. Bowie, however, puts all to shame with a mysteriously tame and eccentric performance as real-life inventor Tesla. Plus, it takes a while to realize that this is, in fact, Ziggy Stardust and not Sam Neill--whom he resembles here. Andy Serkis (Gollum in LotR, King Kong in King Kong) as Tesla's assistant is equally hard to point out because he's, well, in the flesh.
Show me a director better suited for a movie about magic than Christopher Nolan and I'll show you...a magician? Nolan, whose trademark throughout his short but esteemed career (which includes Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins) has been his directorial sleight of hand, seems to take great pleasure in The Prestige's constant illusions. Maybe too much, however, and it caused him to skimp in some other areas. He and his brother--and frequent collaborator--Jonathan wrote the script (adapted from Christopher Priest's novel) and filled it with sly deception, idyllic settings and apropos, if not always engrossing, dialogue, but they neglected the movie's backbone a little too much. Thus lost in the translation are the characters and subtleties that often make movies entities worth caring about--at least for their duration. So much seems to hide behind the safety net of story and continuity twists that almost implicit is a notion of, "Everyone will be too dazed after the ending to even remember the minutiae we left out." Technically, the movie's a stunner, with the cinematography and sound both amazingly vivid and lush.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.