Note: This essay relies on spoilers. If you have not seen “The Prestige,” which has a mystery that unfolds throughout it, do not read this essay.
for Elizabeth Wolcott
The “two” magicians that drive the plot of this movie are mirrored by scientists Tesla and Edison. It is that association between Hugh Jackman’s aristocrat, who has all the showmanship, with Edison, and Christian Bale’s “natural” magician, with Tesla, that leads me to think the characters are purely symbolic.
The key is understanding how they are literally fragments that need to be added up in order to get a complete picture of man. The rivalry in some ways is so ludicrous it is inconceivable anything like it could ever start; the lack of concern for women in both their lives – what does love mean until the very end, really – makes one wonder if we’re looking at tendencies more than characters on-screen.
The argument that these characters are fragments of wholes goes like this: If you try to blame Hugh Jackman’s aristocrat for being murderous and obsessed, you then have to see Christian Bale’s unlikeability at the beginning of the film. He might have been responsible for the death of Jackman’s wife; he certainly is killing birds to do magic tricks, and he prizes secrets more than his wife. His “natural magicianship” is the driving force behind the rivalry. Jackman’s grief turns to envy not merely in the face of having lost a wife, but potentially losing everything: is it possible to be content being a second-rate magician when someone potentially responsible for the death of one’s wife is out there, being the best?
And if I try to defend the aristocrat, likewise, I find that his blatant copying and other crude attempts at revenge motivate Christian Bale’s character(s).
So let’s say this: Instead of taking one side or the other, let’s assume both these characters, together, represent something whole. After all, even in fraternity Christian Bale’s character is split so badly he is responsible for the death of his wife. And Jackman’s obsession allows him to almost completely forgo love. He knows the risk in sending his later assistant out, and takes it, and lets her go be Bale’s mistress when confronted with the failure.
Jackman says at the end that Bale didn’t understand that this was about “wonder,” that life is bleak if not for these magical moments where you forget what is real. Everyone knows it’s a trick; the point is the cynicism, though, not being present front-and-center.
That’s half-the-truth about the relevance of magic.
The other half is at the beginning of the movie, when Bale is whining about tricks not being ambitious enough. If people are to keep paying attention, then more has to be sought and done.
The conflict is between new vs. old. It is no coincidence Jackman is an aristocrat. The old is preserved by what people don’t know, and that people reverence the old in large part because they stay – sometimes willfully – ignorant. We see Jackman destroying himself quite literally at the end, but remember what that’s a product of: the new came into this world cloned.
The old, while relying on duplicity, cannot carry it to the extent where it would continuously mesmerize, because awe isn’t really the purpose of the old. The old may use awe, but its concern is with preservation, and a wholeness that is absent man if he strives for the new. Notice that Jackman doesn’t like getting his hands dirty, and he only starts the massive killing after the encounter with Tesla, who is the scientific counterpart of Bale’s character.
The duplicity of the new is what forced the old to take such amazing risks and not care. After all, the key to the new is single-mindedness at the price of splitting the self. To be whole, we have traditions, that allow us to engage a number of issues without thinking about them fully all the time. Even if we’re not religious, it is impossible to be wholly skeptical – I can’t even prove I have a hand to myself, etc. If you were to try to be wholly skeptical, you’d have to split yourself and pretend like there was no difference. One part of you would ask away and challenge, and another part would deal in the real world, sustaining both parts.
The price of willful self-deception for the sake of independence, of course, is an impossibility to love. We can say that Jackman doesn’t love, either, but that’s not quite true: the reason why we flock to the old is for the sake of love. The new is unloveable in its shiftiness and continual challenging and paranoia. The old exists so we can be at rest for just a second, not merely in motion always. Jackman’s aristocrat stops loving because of the new/old conflict, not because he’s an asshole and always was one.
So far, this sounds like a defense of one character. It isn’t meant to be, it is more meant to get at the bigger theme about science and magic. Magic is what is best about science, in a way. It is what science does that really makes us joyful – it’s not that we understand that drives modern life, but that we get so much cool stuff from people tinkering around. The showmanship matters just as much as the actual product.
And yet, that conflict – the conflict between honor and knowledge – not only divides the self, but divides society. And it literally takes an end to magic – the significance of the end of the movie is the impossibility of both main characters to perform their tricks, tricks that were ostensibly about transportation, but relied on self-aggrandizement, the marking of the world with more of one than is needed – to see why society and wonder and daring all exist: the future doesn’t lie in our toys, but in those we may actually love.
Further comment: This movie is too dark for me to recommend, and while the themes are incredible and thoughtful, the lack of a moral center and the emergence of a happy ending by accident speak to me of “nihilism.” This is a very, very scary movie for me; there are no heroes, only victims, and who knows what sort of father Bale will be at the end, really.