The Prestige (2006)

I thought studios were getting a little quicker on the uptake, or at least erring on the side of caution, in the area of attentive home-video releases. Over the last few years, countless movies that failed to find an audience during their theatrical release have been treated to extras-packed two-disc sets. Sometimes this is done in anticipation of a cult following. Sometimes it’s done in anticipation of a mainstream following that never came; many films have extra content assembled well before release, while they’re still potential hits. In a few cases, a film hardly anyone liked will be released repeatedly in different formats, as if hoping that some version will eventually stumble upon a good reputation (Oliver Stone’s Alexander comes to mind).

All of this makes the DVD release of The Prestige all the more puzzling. The dueling-magician film was a moderate box office success during its initial 2006 theatrical run and garnered decent reviews. Its most passionate supporters tagged it as underrated, placing it on 10-best lists at years end and lamenting its lack of overall awards attention (it did receive two Oscar nominations, for its art direction and cinematography). In addition to this stealth appreciation, The Prestige boasts a twist-heavy plot that encourages a repeat viewing or two; in other words, it has all the signs of a potential cult fanbase. Yet this new DVD is about as close to bare-bones as you can get these days for a well-regarded (and marketable) film.

Some of the absences can be excused by the film’s own merits. Director Christopher Nolan adapts the story of friends-turned-rival-magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) with such impeccable craft that a commentary explaining himself and the film could turn redundant. Likewise, the film’s construction is so elegant that any deleted scenes might’ve been pruned away in the screenwriting stage.

Indeed, the script, by director Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is a highlight of the film. Though the time-scrambled storytelling — alternating characters leading us on flashbacks within flashbacks — has become a common element of psychological or puzzle movies, here a complicated narrative withholds just the right amount of information and indulges in deft, magician-appropriate misdirection. As Angier and Borden labor to one-up each other, the former with showmanship and the latter with intense dedication to his craft, it’s possible to guess the various plot twists, because Nolan plays relatively fair with his tricks. Even if your guesses are correct, though, the film remains fascinating by engaging questions of how and why, rather than just what.

The DVD is less adept at exploring the how and why of the film itself, even if you can learn plenty from just watching the movie. Several featurettes are collected under the umbrella title “The Director’s Notebook”, exploring various technical and thematic aspects of the production. This includes informative but brief shorts on the Oscar-nominated production design (“Conjuring the Past”) and camera work (“The Visual Maze”). Nolan repeatedly stresses that he aimed to create a turn-of-the-century London with modern resonance, keeping the sets bustling and the camera close to eye-level as often as possible. It is in these revelations that the absence of a commentary track, or at least some individual scene or shot breakdowns, is felt.

Even less satisfying is “Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century”, discussing the importance of the real-life scientist played in the film by David Bowie. Tesla is the perfect historical figure for the film to play with, given his scientific discoveries and theories that sometimes took turns into wild imagination (towards the end of his life, he claimed to be able to produce a real-life death-ray), as well as his bitter rivalry with Thomas Edison, used with typical symmetry by Nolan to mirror the Borden/Angier feud. Unfortunately, these aspects of Tesla’s life are more vivid as background elements of the fictional film than in the fact-based featurette.

In short, The Prestige brings to life an entire world that the DVD features tend to reiterate, rather than illuminate. Fans of this wonderful film are left to puzzle not just over its thematic and narrative layers, but its respectable but perfunctory treatment here. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the film will get another shot via what has become an old chestnut of studio trickery: the DVD double-dip.

RATING 8 / 10