According to Christopher Nolan's 'The Prestige,' every magic trick has three acts. The first is "The Pledge" -- a promise to amaze. The second is "The Turn" -- a mind-bending illusion that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. And third is "The Prestige" -- a shocking climax that casts everything that came before into a new light.
What usually leaves audiences most fascinated, of course, is just how those behind the alchemy create such spell-binding tricks. But in 'The Prestige,' it is the profession of magic itself that takes center stage -- a covert cabal so fueled by intense competition to out-amaze rivals that the lengths to which magicians will go to plunder secrets can result in even more unexpected, shocking climaxes.
It is 19th century London, and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two young magicians on the rise. Lifelong friends, a trick-turned-tragedy will drive a wedge into their partnership, and will deteriorate into a life-long battle for supremacy. Obsession will turn into jealousy and then into deceit, with eventually dangerous and deadly consequences. Also coming between Robert and Alfred will be their mentor Cutter (Michael Caine), and the long-suffering magician's assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), who may be a love interest for both men, or perhaps just a pawn. The rivalry comes to a head when Alfred discovers the ultimate trick, "The Transported Man." An element of science-fiction, courtesy of an amazing invention by the famed Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), will bring us to the film's very surprising, revelatory third act. In 'The Prestige,' truly nothing is ever what it seems.
On the level of pure entertainment, 'The Prestige' works -- often marvelously. After the blockbuster success of 'Batman Begins,' Nolan is back to the more intimate territory of 'Memento' and 'Insomnia.' This world of magic and misdirection suits his abilities perfectly, and he continues to show such a fine appreciation for character, pacing and atmosphere that 'The Prestige' rarely steps wrong. We are never too far ahead nor too far behind the story, and even if we never really feel much empathy for either Angier or Borden, their delight (and eventual obsession) with outdoing each other is never less than compelling.
Jackman and Bale perfectly cast and both shine brightly. Jackman has the more showy role, and it is probably no coincidence he chose 'The Prestige' after his bravura run on Broadway in 'The Boy from Oz' -- he certainly knows how to grandstand with great charisma. Bale has the darker, more introspective role, but as he so ably proved in 'Batman Begins,' perhaps no other mainstream actor in Hollywood today is more suited to wearing the color black. Caine also delivers another predictably charming, rascally performance as Cutter. And Johansson, though a bit too much narrative window dressing, is sexy, vulnerable and more than capable of pulling off the duplicitous aspects of her character.
Ultimately, however, 'The Prestige' lives and dies by its much-touted twist ending. I remember leaving the theater at an early screening early last fall, and about half the audience was delighted by the revelations, while the other half seemed to be scratching their heads. I love being manipulated by Nolan, yet never felt exploited. I just kept going back in my head, searching for the clues I may have missed. As with his previous film 'Memento,' watching the film a second time was a real joy, because it allowed me to appreciate even more Nolan's level of craft. Like 'The Sixth Sense,' the climax of 'The Prestige' is not a cheat, or a tacky gimmick. He never cheats, and is able to mystify and surprise us purely by cinematic sleight-of-hand. Moviemaking magic, indeed.
'The Prestige' hits Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer -- and it looks fantastic. I've been very impressed with Buena Vista's recent Blu-ray releases, and they seem to just keep getting better and better. Not only is a five-star release from the studio, but in my opinion it's the best-looking Blu-ray disc they've yet released.
The source is predictably pristine, as you would expect for a new release. Though cleaned up and nicely tweaked in post-production, it still retains a rich, supple look that is not overly digital or artificial. Color purity is first-rate. Most of the exteriors have an intentional desaturated look, with primaries constrained and blues muted to steel gray. But when the more vivid scenes kick in, hues really come alive. Colors are wonderfully robust and absolutely clean. I saw no chroma noise or smearing. Compression artifacts are also not an issue, nor is edge enhancement.
Blacks and contrast are fantastic -- the image is always completely smooth and consistent across the entire grayscale. And even though the film's visual style sometimes leans towards a darker, almost Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, shadow delineation is excellent. Fine details never get lost into the murk, giving the transfer a wonderful sense of depth and true three-dimensionality. For example, there is a breathtaking overhead shot early on of a train cutting through the countryside, where the level of detail blew me away.
This is what high-def is all about. 'The Prestige' is an absolute home run from Disney and, yes, I would rank it up there with the best transfers I've seen on high-def yet. This is in the same league as 'Batman Begins' -- maybe Christian Bale is high-def's lucky charm?
Disney continues to deliver with a terrific uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, encoded at 48 kHz/24-bit. Admittedly, the track does not knock you out immediately -- the film's sound design is not over-the-top, and maybe even restrained. But it has a subtlety that grows in power as the film progresses, with a fine attention to detail that ultimately pays dividends.
Surround use is very carefully modulated. Rarely are there any discrete effects that overwhelm the rest of the mix. Whether it is atmospheric effects (outdoor noises, clapping crowds, etc.) or more action-oriented moments, all five channels are integrated together with no segment of the soundfield particularly prominent. So while 'The Prestige' never quite wows you, it does have a great, "slow build" quality that delivers excellent ambiance. The score in particular is very well bled throughout, creating a really nice sense of immersion. Technically, the track is also first-rate. Dialogue always remains completely intelligible, and dynamics are excellent across the board, from the warm high-range to the deep, tight low bass.
Debuting day-and-date with the standard-def DVD release, 'The Prestige' on Blu-ray enjoys the same supplemental package. Alas, it is is somewhat slim, with only hints of a much greater, far more robust special editon that could have been. Can you say double dip?
The main attraction is "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Director Christopher Nolan." This multi-part featurette runs about 20 minutes and is divided into six segments: "The Director's Notebook" (4 minutes), "Conjuring the Past" (5 minutes), "The Visual Maze" (4 minutes), "Metaphors of Deception" (3 minutes), "Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century" (3 minutes) and "Resonance" (1 minute). What is most immediately noticeable is how elegantly well-shot the program is. The on-set interviews with just about every major participant -- Nolan, the producer and screenwriter, and all the main cast, including Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine -- and extensive behind-the-scenes footage are first-rate. All of which makes the brevity of the featurette somehat disappointing. Nolan is intensively intelligent, and the insight here into all phases of the production -- the story, the location, the production design, the characters -- is truly fascinating. To top it off, all the material is presented in full 1080p video. So how about a full-on, hour-plus documentary next time, Disney?
The only other extra is "The Art of 'The Prestige," a four-part still gallery montage. Each segment is automated, with a series of stills displayed within a fancy window (nice graphics, by the way). Unfortunately, it is a bit tricky to get the images moving, as you can't use your remote's fast-forward or chapter skip functions at all. You simply have to wait for each still to "cycle" through its ten-second lifespan, then hit the "Play" button to advance to the next one. It really doesn't make any sense at all, and there are no on-screen instructions to explain it. I had to play around with my remote just to figure it out, which kind of dulls the fun. Anyway, the four sub-galleries include: "Film" (4:20, 42 stills), "Behind the Scenes" (4:30, 43 stills), "Costumes and Set" (1:40, 14 stills) and "Poster Art" (3:30, 33 stills).
'The Prestige' is great film with a twist ending that will make you want to watch the movie all over again. This Blu-ray release is also fantastic. The video is superlative and, for my money, the best Disney has yet produced. The soundtrack is no slouch, either, and only a better batch of extras would have made this a perfect release. But nevermind -- 'The Prestige' comes very highly recommended.