The birth of men like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla signaled a downturn for prestidigitation. Practical science steadily improving everyday life was more meaningful and impressive than the sleight-of-hand performed by men who kept common garden fauna in their top hats. Electricity still looks a little like magic, and screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and his brother Christopher (who also directed the film) keen to the knowledge that it pretty much was magic at the time of its invention have imagined a scenario where magicians might have looked at such scientific discoveries as opportunities to enhance their art.
"The Prestige" makes big jumps in time and space, but the beginning of the story takes place in London, where two magicians Alfred and Robert (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) compete at the top of their craft for the attention of the public. Both lost something on the way up at the hands of the other, creating an enmity only satisfied by constant one-upmanship achieved by spying and sabotage. When Alfred invents the ultimate trick, "The Transported Man," it inspires an even fiercer rivalry.
"The Prestige" is based on the book of the same name by the well-known British novelist Christopher Priest. Known primarily as a science-fiction writer, Priest has created a plot-heavy scenario that sometimes overwhelms the Nolans' attempts to explore the nature of illusion. "The Prestige," supremely interested in gadgets and head games, fares well as a work of pure entertainment; it is more successful in sustaining interest than last year's similarly themed "The Illusionist," for one. It can get too bogged down in suspense, but it also manages to pull off that trick unique to the movies, which is to bring a whole world into being and make you believe in it. (PG-13) **** S