Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: The Prestige and ambiguity

In recent weeks, I happened across two separate articles about The Prestige - both of which seemed to have been written under the assumption that a critical plot point happened a particular way.  My beef - that's not how I've seen the movie at all.  When I took to Twitter to clarify that my interpretation was right, I found plenty of people who agreed with me, but a surprising amount of people who clung to an alternate interpretation.  There was also one guy who felt I'd blown his mind by making him examine the film a different way.

The point of contention: The magician played by Hugh Jackman has paid Nicola Tesla to create a device that will transport him from one place to another, making it the signature act of his stage show.  The first few times Jackman's character tests the machine, he's frustrated that his test subjects - top hats - go nowhere.  At least that's how it appears until after several attempts he goes outside and some 30 yards away, there are a pile of hats.  Thus, it's not a transporter, it's a duplicator which sends the duplicate some distance away.

This is reinforced later when Jackman tests the machine on himself, only to have a duplicate appear, which he promptly shoots dead.  After that, Jackman figures out how to use this in his show.  As the machine is activated, a trap door is also triggered beneath it, which leads to a water tank wherein the person standing on the platform drowns.  Thus, when Jackman steps into the machine the trick ends with one Jackman materializing at the other end of the theatre, while the other one falls to his death - every night.

Here's my assertion - the duplicate is the one who materializes at the back of the theater.  Thus, the Jackman who finishes the trick is NOT the same Jackman who steps into the machine.  The Jackman who steps into the machine dies every night.  However, since the clone carries all the memories of the original, he never experiences that death and thus, would regard himself as the "real" Hugh Jackman.  But he's a clone several times over.  The original Jackman is long dead, having given his life in service to the greatest magic trick he'd ever accomplish.

Other people seem convinced that the duplicate is the one who ends up in the water tank every night.  That Jackman is merely murdering his duplicates again and again.  For this to be accurate, the machine would have to transport the original Jackman, while leaving behind a duplicate in his exact position and also accomplish that so seamlessly that the original article appears not to vanish - not even for a second.

That's hard for me to believe. (It also means that the "real" Jackman dies unceremoniously when his first clone shoots him as described above.) It feels more convoluted when the simpler solution is that the original stays where he is and the duplicate is projected elsewhere.  I'll concede that the film doesn't make explicit how the machine works.  We know what Jackman believes to be the truth, but that's not the same thing as being certain he's right.  I also think it's no accident that the film leaves open my interpretation of events.

What strengthens my conviction in my interpretation is that it simply makes for a more resonant story.  Jackman killing his clones again and again is little more than a shocking plot twist, but it doesn't resonate.  But a man who's essentially committing suicide night-after-night in service to his art? That's potent and dramatic, especially if he doesn't even recognize the full weight of that.  After all, the Jackman who takes the bow has the memories of stepping into the machine and ending up at the rear of the theatre.  From his point of view he's immortal.

But in practice, his life only lasts as long as the time in between shows.  Tell me that's not a better ending.

Even better - John Gary pointed out to me that something I failed to appreciate.  Early in the film, Jackman's wife dies when a trick goes wrong.  More to the point, she drowns during a failed water escape.

She drowns.  How does Jackman commit suicide every night?  What method does he choose to snuff out the inconvenient "extra" Jackman?

He drowns him.  Every night, Jackman steps on stage and takes his own life in the same way his wife tragically lost hers. It's like a penance he cannot ever fully pay.

All of this galvanizes my resolve that my interpretation is most likely the "correct" one.  The ambiguity is there so that we can discover it for ourselves rather than have it pounded into our heads directly.

That said, there are people who cling to their alternate interpretations rather firmly.  So for today's talkback, I thought I'd solicit the audience about instances where they came away from a film with one firm interpretation, only to encounter someone who had a completely different understanding of the story.


  1. Well spotted, John Gary! I'd never made that connection before either...

    This is probably more about being dumb than alternative interpretations, but: the first time I saw The Dark Knight Rises, I came out convinced the entire hole-in-the-ground-prison sequence was an elaborate fantasy Bruce Wayne was dreaming as he lay horribly injured. (To my mind, it made more sense, and said a lot about his perception of Bane, that he'd dream up a backstory like that for his enemy...)

  2. I didn't think there was any other interpretation, and cannot see how there is. Clearly, Jackman dies every night in the same way his wife did, only to be resurrected. Other Nolan films, yes, are open to interpretation. The spinning top, I doubt even HE knows the full truth, and as for Dark Knight Rises, I thought Wayne really was at that place (it has more resonance that way than an old man hallucinating, even if it doesn't make much sense in terms of realism), but ultimately it's up to the audience what they want to believe (or if Bale accepts the rumoured $50million to team up with Cavill).

    The Prestige has a clear explanation. Jackman dies and a clone is created to replace him.

    Oh, and the twin "twist" is also resonant in this regard, but not as much as the wife drowning.

  3. I think the 'Matrix' sequels throw up all manner of ambiguous things - I don't believe it's ever fully explained how Neo is able to stop the Sentinels in the real world at the close of Matrix Reloaded, for example, and at the time I became convinced the 'real world' was merely another level of the Matrix (I was the only person to come up with that amongst my friends too).

    What usually leads to 'alternate' interpretations are films with slightly ambiguous endings, where the fates of one or more characters/situations aren't completely answered in the running time, so I usually find myself coming away with positive interpretations as that's how I prefer my stories to end, as opposed to thinking things were actually 'bad' after all.

    'Inception' is an obvious example here - I thought Cobb made it home to his real family - but another is 'Pan's Labyrinth', where the ending is on two levels. In one, the heroine dies, in the other she becomes the princess of a fantasy realm far removed from the horrors of the real world. Pretty much everybody adores that movie, but I couldn't get past the heroine dying and as such couldn't buy into the interpretation that she was 'free' now and able to live on in the other realm.

    And I came away from 'Sucker Punch' thinking it was the worst film I (or indeed anyone) had ever seen in my entire life. A few people afterwards talked about it as if it was a fun, feminist-friendly fantasy action movie. So apparently I was on the heavy stuff that night before going to see it...

  4. Really enjoyed this post, I loved this film and co-incidentally, watched this film again a couple of nights ago and I noticed so much more that flagged up the ending/explanations. I think any ambiguity is lessened somewhat by a couple of things, the initial bird trick shown to the little girl in the opening by Michael Caine, where the bird is made to disappear and then reappear but you see that in fact the first bird is really dead and secondly the rabbit trick by the bit part magician - when the little boy cries because he thinks the rabbit is dead and then says "but where is his brother" when it reappears. Implication from early on that matches with the characters, one trick kills the original and replaces it with another exact replica and one trick is using a twin. It is also telling that early on they both admired the Chinese magician's dedication to his art in keeping up his act off stage and giving his whole life to it, but then both felt differently about the value of doing that.

  5. Actually, both answers are correct.

    This is a venerable topic in philosophy of mind. Unless you're going to to all medieval and claim that there's some immaterial soul that can't be copied, then as long as you have causal continuity between neural systems, both versions are equally as "real". Like when a river flows around an island, there's no meaningful way of saying which branch is the "real" river.

  6. It bothers me a bit that you kept referring to Hugh Jackman doing this or that or the other thing. It was the character played by Jackman, Robert Angier, who performed these actions.

    A minor point, perhaps, but one worth attending to.

  7. Also -- let's not forget the big ON THE NOSE scene that drives home the point that Angier is killing himself by drowning. Which is at the end when Caine's character tells him he lied about drowning. Early in the movie he says it's a peaceful way to die, in order to ease Angier's suffering about his wife.

    But in the end, when he realizes what Angier's been doing. He tells him how horrible a way it is to die. Thus making him realize he's continued to kill himself not in a peaceful way - but in a way that caused suffering and pain over and over again.

  8. It's been awhile since I've seen the movie.

    Instead of two "Hugh Jackmans", I thought he had a twin brother... and that nobody actually drowns or dies.

    It was just a body double trick.

  9. Great art makes you think, and is willing to lend itself to alternate perspectives. Kudos to Christopher Nolan for having the balls to make a movie like "The Prestige." Can't wait to see what he does with "Interstellar," his next project, which from what I read on IMBD sounds VERY INTERESTING, very high concept.

  10. Infuriating: Once it's explained that Angiers kills himself and not his clone night after night, you have to let the alternate explanation go! This is like those lateral thinking puzzles: There is a MOST elegant answer. If you didn't get it, you don't get points for coming up with a "viable" alternative, because its not the most elegant.

    The example: Man goes into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water. Bartender pulls out a shotgun and points it at the man's face. The man thanks the bartender, and happily leaves without the water. Why?

    This has one answer. You can say the man was actually trying to rob the place, and the bartender knew it, but your "alternate theory" is wrong.

    The Prestige is soooooo awesome, that people owe it to themselves to "get it".

  11. It's been a while since I watched it fully, and this was a great read, even if I was already on your side of the fence.

    However, from memory is his motivation as much about revenge on Bale as it was about grief?

  12. I always thought of it as a Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Yes, I agree, the magician on the stage is the one who dies every night and the one up in the stands is the clone, but when he has that line about "I took the stage every night wondering, would I be the man in the box or the man in the stands" (whatever, I can't remember the exact phrasing).

    I liked toying with the idea that perhaps there is a tie of consciousness between the clone and the original, in some form or other. This is unsupported by the script with the exception of that line.

    Anyway, for the moment that cloning device goes off, Jackman's character is both men. It's interesting to think about.

  13. Hmm. I thought I was going to hear a far out theory from you. But, your theory is what I assumed was the case. People think something differently? It's the only way it makes sense. However, I do have a theory of my own. At the very end of the movie after Jackman dies and the camera pans out. We see a dead Jackman in the water. I've always taken that as a sign that there is still one more Jackman, alive somewhere.

  14. Your interpretation is correct. You happy now?
    Teenage logic puzzle dressed up in faux romanticism and decent visuals. Am I describing this film or Inception?
    The film is saved by the Tesla sequence, which is actually quite special.

  15. It's quite weird to me that either of those points of view changes how the movie is viewed, and is pretty much where I think people get Nolan's movies wrong by over-complicating things that are ultimately irrelevant.

    The simple point is it's what Jackman's character believes and we are told explicitly that he does not know. In fact speculating on it has driven him a bit mad. So he is committing suicide or murder every time he pushes the button and the fact he accepted that as the cost of revenge is where the power of the story is.

  16. Three words regarding another film: Han shot first.

  17. Thanks, hadn't thought of that.

    SPOILER ALERT, if you haven't seen the film, DON'T READ THIS:

    The bigger prestige and magic trick for me, was the infinitesimally small change in voice quality Christian Bale adopted for his two "characters". It's so unnoticeable. I only noticed about halfway through the film and immediately understood. But everyone I've asked never noticed. I'm an actor and I completely adore and respect that kind of attention to detail. Bale immediately rocketed to my top 10 list. Kudos.