Philosophy at the Cinema – The Prestige

Warning: here be spoilers…

The Prestige is a film about magic, science, illusion, replication, obsession, rivalry, love, sacrifice and identity, among other things. In other words: it has as many themes as you would expect to find in a Christopher Nolan film. It deals with its many and various themes deftly and, often, rather subtly (giant lightning machines aside). The atmosphere and aesthetic of the Victorian era is very well-crafted, and the performances are all very good, though I would like to single out Rebecca Hall and a rather understated David Bowie as particularly worthy of praise.


The film follows the intense and violent rivalry between two stage-magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Following a fatal accident on stage, the two former colleagues begin a lengthy campaign to simultaneously ruin one another and become the greatest illusionist of the age, in the course of which systematically destroying much of what they held dear.

But, this isn’t so much a film about magic tricks as it is itself a magic trick. This is the third occasion I’ve seen the film, and watching it while knowing the trick Nolan has up his sleeve made the whole thing seem rather obvious. I hasten to add that this is not to the detriment of the film, and it is certainly improved with multiple viewings. Rather, that is the nature of a magic trick: once you know the secret, you see the trick for what it is, a trick, and the film realises this. It is full of misdirection and showmanship, hiding much in plain sight.

The theme of this series of Philosophers at the Cinema is ‘the double,’ and this film is filled with mirror images and doppelgangers. The two main characters reflect one another more-and-more in their obsessiveness and destructiveness. As the two characters, Jackman’s in particular, loose themselves in their rivalry, we must start to wonder what justification there is in their conflict other than the conflict itself. Indeed, the initial motivation on Jackman’s part, the loss of his wife, quickly disappears from view, only rearing its head occasionally. The obsession is itself the obsession, and when we realise the lengths that Bale’s character goes to best Jackman, we are left wondering: why? Does either character really want this rivalry to end? Their identities have become so caught up in one another that their mimicry is their identity.

The question of the identity of the double is raised once Jackman’s character approaches maverick scientist Nikola Tesla (Bowie) to produce a teleportation machine for use in his stage act. The subject enters the machine and is transported…but an exact replica is left within the machine. Or, maybe, the replica is the transported party, and the original is left behind. We are never really given an answer as to which one is ‘real’, which calls into question: does it matter which is the original? Both think that they are the original, both being identically physically constituted and carrying identical memories. We might want to say that the ‘original’ one is the ‘real’ one, as the replica is composed of different matter which just happens to carry the original’s form. But- our own bodies are in a constant process of change and replication. In about seven years, not a single individual cell now alive in my body will still be extant: will I still be ‘me’ at that point? Much like Moon, the previous film shown in this season, answers are not forthcoming.

Some final thoughts: when does a magic trick become magic? There is a lot of discussion of Tesla’s machine, described as ‘real magic’ by Michael Caine’s character. It can certainly do something seemingly magical, but there is nothing supernatural to it: it is pure science. But, is that where the magic lies, in the effect? Is science the new magic? Or does it lie with willingness of the audience to be tricked, to be made to believe that something is magical? Perhaps magic lies merely where it is perceived to be.


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August 2021
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