On this episode of Finding Christ In Cinema, we fall through the trapdoor and into the water tank as we look for Christian themes in THE PRESTIGE. What can we learn about the contest between Angier and Borden? Does Nikola Tesla represent God in the film? All that and more in 3…2…1!
This film has a lot going for it. First, let’s talk about Christopher Nolan’s directorship and how The Prestige as a film has all the marks of a Christopher Nolan film. The non-linear telling of the story may require one to watch the film several times. That’s not to say that the story itself is non-linear, but just the telling of it is. Also, the shaky, fast-paced camerawork the tries to keep up the action of the magic tricks, and it keeps the audience of the film in the same effect as the audience in the film itself.
Secondly, we have to talk about the acting performances. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale do well enough alone in their solo scenes, but they really shine when they play together as the feuding magicians Angier and Borden respectively. Michael Caine as Mr. Cutter does a wonderful job supporting Angier as his ingenieur (or “engineer”). And we can’t forget David Bowie as Nikola Tesla and Andy Serkis as his assistant Mr. Alley. High marks all around.
One more thing to remember about this film is that it is a tragedy in the truest sense. No, I don’t say “tragedy” as in something that just makes us cry. Instead, I say “tragedy” as in the downward spiral of two characters who we want to make the morally right decisions but don’t because of their pride and selfish ambition. In that sense is this film a tragedy.
Biting, Devouring, and Consuming
Enter Angier and Borden, who are two stage magicians united by a single purpose: to entertain the masses and make a living while doing so. However, when a horrific stage accident results in the death of Angier’s wife, the two become entangled in a tragic contest of one-upmanship that leads to dire conclusions. Such is the summary of the plot of The Prestige.
I would argue that this story is a perfect artistic manifestation of Galatians 5:14-15, which will serve as my key text:
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
As I said, these two magicians are unified in their purpose. We get the idea that these two performers are at least trying to make their way to the top…both with the one desire to make people wonder. They even have different methods: one wants to be innovative and creative, while the other is comfortable with using the effective, tried and true crowd “favorites.” But they are still both unified in purpose.
But they soon begin turning on each other and ruining each others’ acts. It starts with Borden tying the Langford double knot around Angier’s wife Julia’s hand. This knot that is inescapable when wet, and it results in her on-stage drowning. Angier then takes revenge on Borden by loading a bullet in Borden gun that he uses for the bullet catch trick. Angier fires the round, and it costs Borden his two end fingers on his left hand. Borden gets back at Angier by foiling a bird-in-the-cage trick that ends by killing the bird and maiming the innocent volunteer from the audience.
As the story goes on, we finally come to the last scene between Angier and Borden in which Angier accuses Borden of losing the original purpose of their endeavors. “You never understood why we did this,” says Angier “It was the look on their faces.” That’s the mark of a professional performer: an artist who wants to love his fellow brothers and sisters by making them “wonder” and wants to serve as a sign post that points them back home to God. This is opposed to the amateur performer, who only strives to gratify and “love” and bring glory to himself in his art.
Of course, Nikola Tesla has his advice on what this selfish practice can and will do. Then again, Tesla is talking to Angier – not Borden – is this scene, which suggests Angier, too, struggles with being a selfish performer.
Now, let’s go back to our key text (scroll up if you have to). The purpose that unifies us as Christians “to love one another as ourselves.” And in sharing the providence of God, we can’t be selfish. We have to be loving and serving for others instead. Because once we become selfish in our missions, we begin to “bite” and “devour” one another and eventually consume one another.
Nikola Tesla Symbolizes God
That’s a pretty bold statement, but let’s be honest: it kinda works. The allegory primarily works when Angier approaches Tesla and asks him to build a certain machine that will provide the right amount of spectacle for his “New” Transported Man. Angier asks for it, but Tesla doesn’t trust that Angier has counted the “cost” of such a machine.
Tesla then sees this ambition and recognizes it as such because he himself used to be plagued by it before he was forced into retirement. Angier then twists Tesla’s words back to him and reminds him that he did great things because of his own obsession and ambition. Tesla then reveals that, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to change Angier’s mind, Tesla gives him what he wants…no matter the cost.
This is so much like God in that whenever we as humans ask for something, God gives it to us. But he doesn’t give it to us because it will serve as a substitute for Jesus and will bring us back home to God in the Christ’s stead. Rather, he gives it to us knowing that we will learn best through our failure. You can liken it to either the Tower of Babel or the inheritance of the prodigal son, and you can still see the connection.
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Finding Christ In Cinema is the show where we discover Christian themes in movies past and present. Join us and together we’ll dig deeper into the silver-screen classics of yesteryear as well as the box-office hits of today. Brought to you by the Great Commission Transmission Network. View the complete show notes, including links to articles discussed, by clicking here.
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