The Prestige and The Illusionist

>Why can’t Hollywood studios hide the fact that they copy each other a little better? Quite often, it seems that an executive from studio Y gets wind of what studio X is doing and demands that his studio come up with something bigger and better.

There are many examples of movie studios copying each other over the last decade: Armageddon and Deep Impact, Madagascar and The Wild, Mission to Mars and Red Planet, A Bug’s Life and Antz. The list could go on and on. Usually these movies are released within a month or two of each other, making it even harder not to suspect copying, which usually leaves me to try to figure out which of the two concepts came first.

So, what’s bringing on this particular rant? The Prestige and The Illusionist. Both are period movies about magicians, both came out within 2 months of each other, and both have twisting plots told in the forms of flashbacks. I can’t help but compare them.

I saw The Illusionist when it was released in the theater. When the titles first appeared on the screen, I noticed how they looked a little shaky and thought it seemed strange. I quickly realized that it was all part of the overall style of the movie that I soon grew to love. The movie was made to appear like a silent movie, with washed-out, almost sepia toned color and subtle shutter flickers and iris wipes that hearken back to the primitive technology of movie making in the early 20th century silent movie era.

This old-fashioned style was also reflected in the designs of the costumes, sets, hair and make-up. Even the dialogue seemed to be stylized to fit more into the time, but never in an over-the-top, melodramatic way.

The story is essentially a love triangle between Eisenheim the Illusionist, played by Edward Norton (Fight Club), Sophie, Played by Jessica Biel (Stealth), and Crown Prince Leopold, Played by Rufus Sewel (Tristan and Isolde). The flashbacks are framed by the recollection of Inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti (Sideways), who is enlisted to investigate Eisenheim once the Crown Prince develops suspicions of him at a performance.

There are plot twists in this movie that center around one question: does Eisenheim have supernatural powers or not? Once we learn the truth of this, all of the film’s other questions are also answered. So while there are no earth-shattering surprises, it’s still an intriguing mystery that you don’t truly know the answer of until the very end.

I saw the next film, The Prestige, on DVD recently. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), this movie appears to take place in the same period of time, but unlike The Illusionist, the filmmaking is rather straightforward. It is about two magicians played by Christian Bale (Batman Begins) and Hugh Jackman (X-Men) who at one time were friends, but through an accident have become bitter rivals, each trying to outdo the other.

The Prestige also stars the ubiquitous Scarlet Johansson (The Island, In Good Company, Match Point, The Black Dahlia, Lost in Translation, etc, etc, etc…) in a role that introduces a possible love triangle that turns out to be nothing more than a mildly effective plot device.

Apple iTunesWhile The Prestige was an entertaining movie, I was disappointed that I was able to guess the two big secrets long before they were officially revealed in the movie. In fact, the very last shot of the film was undoubtedly supposed to be a shocking surprise, but it was exactly what I was expecting to see.

Between these two movies, I’d have to say that the best one was The Illusionist. The Prestige really let me down by destroying the illusion of the final trick by introducing technology more akin to Star Trek than performance magic. In watching a movie about magicians, or in watching a real magician like David Copperfield, part of the thrill is seeing something that seems impossible, but knowing it’s ultimately an illusion that leaves you wondering how in the world it was done—which is ultimately what we go see movies for, isn’t it?

Now if the movie studios could only do a better job at creating an illusion that they’re not copying each other, then we might be getting somewhere.

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