Old post that’s a compilation of even older posts from legacy IMDB forums:
Below are my thoughts on several points of discussion that have arisen over the years about the movie “The Prestige”. Prepare yourself for some long-winded and repetitive (perhaps someday I’ll clean this up) exposition extracted and compiled from some old posts of mine that have since dropped off. Digest, then have it thee.
“THE MACHINE DOESN’T WORK”
Well in a certain respect this is correct. What was supposed to have been a transportation device turns out to also create duplicates. In that fashion the “machine did not work” as intended. However, what I’m actually addressing is the erroneous notion presented on some boards that the device was not truly functional within the context and universe presented in the film (i.e. that it was merely another trick).
Consider the scene Angier tests the device on himself. Either he experiences a momentary psychotic mental break that’s being presented as such to the viewers, he’s telling a lie to Bordon (which is highly unlikely given he was at his moment of death, in addition to the fact that there is no evidence that what the audience is being shown is even what’s actually being said to Bordon), or he really does duplicate and then subsequently and quite promptly shoot himself (well, his other self, anyway).
The nail in the coffin, however, is the earlier scene with the pile of hats. Are we really to conclude that Angier went so far with his ruse that he even duped Tesla by carting over and dumping a pile of hats out on his property to make it look like the machine was duplicating instead of just transporting? And more ludicrously, he somehow knew to plan ahead and do this before he even knew the machine duplicated instead of just teleported? This scene is not connected to Bordon reading from Angier’s diary, at least not directly, and there’s not a legitimate reason to think it’s not an actual event we’re observing.
There is also at least one unambiguous fact that clinches it. We know that Angier did 100 shows in the hopes that Bordon's curiosity would get the better of him and lure him into his trap. We also know that Angier had no idea when that might happen. That means he killed someone who looked identical to him 100 times. Had to. There's no way around this. This is an objective fact regardless of what might be read in a false diary. The only way this could be true is if the body in the tank each night was a copy of Angier, was "prestige material" created by the machine. Or are we to make up stories and suggest that Angier found 99 other doubles like Root that would pass medical examination and identification to the point of leading to Bordon’s execution?
I don’t think so.
Based on these factors alone (although several other less conclusive scenes can be cited) as viewed solely from within the context of the film itself, there is no doubt that the machine actually did function as depicted, forged through the scientific ingenuity of the fictionalized version of Tesla, exactly as shown. There are plentiful instances of legitimate misdirection in the film, but this is not one of them. On this count, there is no interpretation to be had.
Couple this with the fact that “The Prestige” was closely and “faithfully” (the words of the producer and co-writer, despite the fact that other than the core premise the book is actually quite different) based on the novel by Christopher Priest it was adapted from, within which the functionality and use of the accidental replication device is expounded upon extensively and conclusively, and there is no doubt the machine actually created duplicates. In fact, the entire story element of obsession and pride depends on it.
The oft-stated reason of “the machine didn’t work because I don’t like the movie if it did because it’s so unrealistic” is not only an example of atrociously improper grammar, and a run-on sentence with the word “because” used twice (yes that is an actual quote from a poster), it also stretches the boundaries of audience interpretation to the point of foolishness. The facts cannot be denied no matter how hard you want to believe the contrary to be true.
I’ll even go as far as to say, at risk and even hope of soliciting someone’s chagrin, that claiming the machine didn’t work because “I believe it to be so for unfounded reasons” is akin to claiming that the Roswell incident was not in fact a secret weather balloon experiment blown off course, that the Bigfoot footage was not a drunk redneck in a costume, that the computer your sitting at right now browsing IMDB on is not an impressively constructed device of manmade conception, and that I did not in fact just type this very paragraph followed by this string of words you are irrefutably reading up to the end of this sentence… right… here.
On the other hand, maybe there really is a Santa Claus.
THE COINCIDENCE “FLAW”
I’d like to address the notion that it’s an implausible coincidence that Angier ends up having Tesla create a functional transportation device after Borden sends him on what he intends to be nothing more than a wild goose chase (even though the timing of said "wild goose chase" wasn't of Borden's choosing, the act itself was of his devising). It's not an unreasonable coincidence because Angier specifically asks Tesla (who publically discussed the possibility of transferring matter via electrical stream) to build a transportation device and gives him the massive amount of funds to finally put the scientist’s pre-existing (this is important) theories into practice.
Sure, the device ends up not quite working as intended and results in what in essence amounts to a massive fax machine or 3D printer replicator for both organic and inorganic objects, but Tesla, being a driven genius with insatiable curiosity (which is hinted at directly in the film), would have attempted to build whatever Angier asked him to (despite knowing it’s possible dire consequences), and with the limitless amount of money Angier threw at it Tesla was finally able to build it (almost, since it didn’t quite work as intended).
Tesla’s pubic discourse espousing concepts on matter transportation seeded Borden’s idea of adding the electrical lightshow to his Transported Man act, adding legitimacy to it (but it was all just a part of the illusion). The fake device Borden built was based on a lecture he attended about Tesla’s work (Tesla himself ended up not showing, at least at the one depicted in the film), and it was such lectures where Tesla proposed the possibility of building a transportation device. In fact, in reality the theory that matter can be transported via energy, especially since energy and matter are two sides of the same coin, can genuinely be attributed to Tesla (i.e. it was an actual idea he proposed), and was undoubtedly the inspiration for Christopher Priest, the writer of the novel the movie is based on (there are a lot of wild theories surrounding Tesla's inventions, the most famous one being that he was responsible for the massive explosion in Tunguska when a "death ray" experiment missed its mark, when in fact it was a meteor or comet). Logically, Angier asked Tesla for a transportation device because that's what Borden had misled him (and the general public) into thinking that’s what he was using (which he of course wasn't).
So it’s quite clear that Tesla did in fact originate the concept of a transporter, but he didn’t have the funding he needed to make it a reality. His lectures and appearances were an effort to find that funding for his project (this is usually the ultimate goal of a tour of such ideas, to stir up interest and money). Tesla’s presentations and appeals for investors might have been met with skepticism (it’s well known that many of his ideas were scoffed at during his life, one reason he wasn’t officially credited with the invention of harnessing electricity via alternating current, which he actually did before Edison, who was focused on DC at the time but was a more ruthless and shrewd business man). We could speculate that this resulted in his giving up on the notion and why he didn’t show up at the appearance Borden attended (although such speculation is immaterial to the story).
Nevertheless, Tesla’s ideas planted the seed in Borden’s head, inspiring him to add it to his act, to use the name “Tesla” as the cipher for his codec, and to also imply to Angier that Tesla was the secret to the Transported Man trick even though the core trick itself predated Tesla’s ideas, a deception that was bolstered in that moment of his twin brother’s imminent death after being captured and buried. Angier, blinded by obsession, fell for the ruse and went to Tesla, where he proceeded to throw so much money around that Tesla was finally able to attempt to build the transportation machine he had been touting as possible in his lectures, which brings us full circle. Following this logic (which is in fact the only logical course possible), it’s Tesla himself that kicked off the entire chain of events that lead to his own creation of the replication device, doing so by promoting the idea at his lectures. This renders the notion of it being a coincidence incorrect, since it is in fact merely cause and effect.
Let's sum it all up again for good measure.
No unreasonable coincidence occurred because the idea of a transportation device did in fact originate with Tesla (who at the time didn’t have enough money to build a functional device). This idea inspired Borden, who passed it onto Angier (albeit while failing to consider the possibility that Angier’s alter ego, or actual persona, as it turns out, was so stinkin’ rich that he’d be able to fund a working device), who in turn carried the idea back to Tesla along with the modern day equivalent of millions of dollars, which was what it took for Tesla to finally attempt a genuine effort at constructing his conjectured device, a failed attempt that lead to him accidentally creating an overtly showy fax machine for objects in three dimensional space.
It is in fact a legitimately logical outcome. No unreasonable coincidence occurred, only tragic irony. Which by the way is the poetic stuff of every great story.
Ultimately, any argument concerning the perceived coincidence flaw based on the implausibility of the device is rendered impotent. Yes in reality this device is admittedly quite implausible (at least in the form with which it was depicted in the film) given what we knew about physics at the time so it becomes a moot point. It doesn’t matter how hard it would be in reality to fund the building of such a machine. In the universe presented in the film, it was quite possible. Tesla had the know-how, and Angier had the money. This is indisputable.
With this (the plausibility of the device) removed from the equation, the debate returns to an assessment of the coincidental nature surrounding the occurrence of Tesla creating the device i.e. the coincidence is in fact about “that TESLA did it” and cannot be about “that Tesla was ABLE to do it” since within the context of the film he was clearly able to. Why was he able to? He had the know-how, and Angier had the money.
Now let’s consider the fact that Tesla did in reality speculate on the possibility of transporting matter via electrical current (one of several of his ideas that was scoffed at by the scientific community at that time). The argument turns away from whether or not the historical Tesla in fact had ideas about transporting matter (because he did), and back toward whether or not his fictional counterpart in the film just happened to be able to create the device in the relatively short timeframe surrounding the chain of events presented. Assuming Tesla in fact did have the ability to create the machine, just not the funding (which again is the “reality” of the universe in the film), it’s quite logical to also assume that when such funding became available he could have invented it. And since it was Angier who showed up with this money, Angier who was persuaded by Borden to seek out Tesla, it becomes a clearly logical case of cause and effect, and absolutely not a coincidence or plot contrivance.
Is it a coincidence that Borden just happened to be using the “Transported Man” act (the version prior to the lightshow) during the same time period Tesla came up with the idea that matter could be transported via electricity? Technically, yes. But at the time Tesla did in fact in real history speculate on the notion of transferring matter using a methodology of electrical current while at that same time in history a number of magicians were in reality using an act akin to the “Transported Man” trick, an act with thousands of years of history behind it. Even if it can be considered a coincidence, it is far from unreasonable since it imitates reality.
Interestingly, reality is filled with coincidences that if presented within the framework of a story might seem a plot contrivance from a certain perspective. For example:
The first locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804, while some sources suggest that Ferdinand Verbiest may have built the first steam powered car around 1672. Given the relatively short timeframe these two inventions show up, is it an unreasonable coincidence? Or was Trevithick perhaps inspired when hearing of Verbiest’s steam powered car, turning it into a scenario of cause and effect instead of coincidence? We’ll probably never know for sure, but the fact is that it did happen.
An automobile powered by an Otto gasoline engine was built in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885 and granted a patent in the following year. Although several other engineers (including Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Siegfried Marcus) were working on it at about the same time, Benz is generally credited with the invention of the modern automobile. Is it a coincidence that so many inventors were working out the same problem at the same time, and that Benz just happened to be the one to succeed? Or were they all inspired by a common source?
Cause and effect? Or coincidence? Both perhaps?
The 19th century author Jules Verne predicted submarines, flying machines, skyscrapers and even the moon landing while at the same time inspiring some of the world's most important scientists to move on and actually create inventions based on his ideas. The 1950 film Destination Moon, with a story by Robert Heinlein, predicted with unnerving accuracy man going to the moon in a rocket-powered mode of transportation, and even established principles remarkably similar to those our modern day space shuttle are designed around. The 1940’s writer Arthur C. Clarke forecast that man would reach the moon by the year 2000. When compared to what actually happened, his estimate was quite conservative, with reality beating him by 31 years. Were some of these events inspired by the others? Possibly. But if not, wouldn’t these be incredible coincidences? Indeed they would, but they happened. If told within the context of a movie, they would certainly appear as coincidences. However, they would be far from unreasonable, given that they actually happened.
Applying the notion of such occurrences to “The Prestige”, and even in part to actual history, let’s again consider the strong possibility that the bird trick the “Transported Man’ seems to have stemmed from was originated hundreds and probably thousands of years ago (most likely of Chinese descent). Eventually, within the context of the film, the Borden twins mutate this concept into their “Transported Man” act, although let’s also consider the fact that the trick labeled the “Transported Man” in the film is actually itself hundreds of years old in reality, not something created by Christopher Priest just for his book (from which the movie is based), but rather an existing idea he (along with his Borden characters) chose to incorporate. Now let’s again consider the fact that Tesla did in reality speculate on the possibility of transporting matter via electrical current.
The result is the following: in reality the “coincidence” of Tesla’s ideas about transporting matter via electrical current did indeed happen at the same time known tricks using the same premise as the “Transported man” also existed (and were being used by multiple magicians). If this happened in reality, how is it an unreasonable coincidence that it also happened in the movie? And if the return argument is going to be, “well in the movie he actually created the device; it wasn’t just an idea he had”, then again he was able to create his device because he had the know-how, and Angier had the money. And again, Angier went to Tesla with his money because Borden tricked him into doing so, based on the concept of a teleportation device Borden acquired from one of Tesla's lectures, and possibly other presentations by Tesla as well.
Cause and effect. And even if arguably coincidence, not an unreasonable one.
After undoubtedly perusing the many theories that now exist on online boards for "The Prestige", some viable, many outrageous and baseless, a poster on the cusp of forming the only logical conclusion pertaining to all the hoopla wisely asked the question of, "Is it really that simple? There seems to be a 'simple' explanation but are we to take it that there is a lot more to it?” Below was my response, which I find relevant to this discussion:
“It really is that simple.
The ultimate twist of “The Prestige”, despite the intentional complexities and undulating themes and metaphors thrown at the audience, is that there is no mystery to the plot at all, only logic. Angier learns in the end that after all his antagonizing over how Borden did his trick, obsessing over it and killing himself repeatedly with such lavish intent, while the answer all along to how Borden accomplished his trick was the simplest one. No expensive science experiment gone awry, no endless parade of dead “prestige” bodies ruthlessly slain night after night… just twins. But Angier’s pride couldn’t accept that it was that simple, leading him down his path to self-sacrifice and self destruction.
It's also the answer to whether the device actually worked or not. The simplest answer is "yes".
The message of the film is a powerful commentary on the endless capacity humanity has to make everything more complicated than it really is, drowning in self-actuated convolution, grasping desperately to an ever-tightening mindset that becomes focused so narrowly that the truth becomes completely unattainable, instead of letting go for a moment and opening one’s mind to settle in on the simplest answer that’s always there playing at the edges of the subconscious. The insane and inane deluge of posts on this very board is evidence of this basic human flaw. We’ve let our own higher intelligence, and alongside it pride, get the better of us, contaminating purity of intent and action with web upon intertwined web of superfluously and ever-weaving contemplations without a balance of relaxed meditation, ignoring simple logic and letting our imaginations concoct theories of needless calculation tantamount to superstition.
Think about those times when you’ve wanted to remember the name of an actor in a movie, or of someone you knew during childhood, or of any small detail that taunts you from the corners of the inner mind. The harder you focus and concentrate, the more difficult remembering becomes, the further away you seem to push the answer. But alas, as soon as you stop trying, after you’ve forgotten your intense efforts and given up, your mind relaxes and the answer bursts to the surface. This fundamental principle seems to underlie every law of the physical and mental universe.
In the end, Ockham was right.”
TERMINOLOGY: “CLONE” VS. “DUPLICATE” VS. “BRANCHED ITERATION”
This is getting nitpicky, but as for the use of the term "clone", although the slang use of the word applies in a certain fashion, it's technically incorrect so I feel compelled to address it. Neither character at any time had a clone by the core definition of the term, which implies the process of extracting genetic material and growing new life from it. Although based on the identical base code of the life form the material is extracted from, a clone will have differences from its progenitor: moles, freckles, birth marks, any anomaly that may form during gestation. And it will without doubt have a different set of clothes on, unlike the character of Angier whose duplicates each had identical clothing, down to every single fiber (in fact, an identical subatomic particle configuration, even though the individual constituent particles themselves would be different).
So, Tesla’s machine did not make clones. This is evidenced by the fact that it “duplicated” all matter, organic, inorganic or otherwise. There is no genetic manipulation occurring. If we were to want to use the term the book the film is based on uses (and maybe we should be since no other term seems to apply accurately), “prestige material” would be the correct designation. Essentially, the “duplicate” that’s created is an inadvertent byproduct of the intended transportation process. I think even more accurately we should call both objects a “branched iteration”. One isn’t really technically a duplicate of the other. Based on how the movie describes it, it’s more like Angier is being split into two unique yet identical iterations, i.e. he’s been branched off so that each entity now exists in different localities with different future potential experiences.
In any event, we can state assuredly that it was not through a process of genetic propagation that the device performed its magic, and therefore not once during the film "The Prestige" did a clone of any type appear, with one possible caveat: in a certain respect the Borden twins could be considered organic clones of each other. They did come from the same genetic material and developed separately once they split soon after conception. However, the term “clone” is only applied when material is intentionally extracted in an unnatural or asexual manner from a pre-existing living entity, and not to the process that results in naturally born twins, triplets, quintuplets, etc. (see definition 2 below), or in other words not as a result of sex.
True definitions of “Clone”: clone ( kl½n) n. 1. A group of genetically identical cells descended from a single common ancestor, such as a bacterial colony whose members arose from a single original cell as a result of binary fission. 2. An organism descended asexually from a single ancestor, such as a plant produced by layering or a polyp produced by budding. 3. A replica of a DNA sequence, such as a gene, produced by genetic engineering.
Slang definition (or creative use) of “Clone”: 4. One that copies or closely resembles another, as in appearance or function: “…filled with business-school clones in gray and blue suits.”
There’s nothing wrong with using the creative/slang use of the term “clone”. However, it’s still important to recognize the distinction. So yeah, yeah, I agree, I’m just too anal :)
DEVICE FUNCTIONALITY THEORIES: AN EXERCISE IN GEEKDOM
One theory that could be touted is that Tesla’s device, despite its original intent to transport matter, ended up instead creating duplicates by enacting some form of energy (and therefore matter) reprint, like a very high-tech, high-powered, overtly showy fax machine (the term “copy machine” could be referenced, but the fact that it sends one branching iteration to another location shifts its nearest modern relative to that of a fax machine). In essence, if this is the correct theory to explain how the device functions, it would accomplish this by performing a particle-by-particle reconstruction (think the transporters on Star Trek, which follow the same principle), by entangling each constituent particle with a remote particle in an identically configured conglomerate (something that’s been accomplished recently in reality not only with individual particles, but small yet macroscopic diamonds).
Unfortunately, in the story Tesla couldn’t get his device to properly break down one iteration as intended, or perhaps didn’t realize he needed to, resulting in branched iterations. The film depicts Tesla having problems with it not quite behaving as expected. His intention was to teleport it, and before he realized what was really going on, it was splitting the object and placing one at an unknown coordinate. Although he did later get a handle on controlling the coordinates, he was never able to resolve the “duplication” problem itself. In all fairness, a teleportation device of this nature (and like in Star Trek) quite literally creates a copy and destroys the original. Perhaps Tesla couldn’t bring himself to implement the necessary destruction portion of the process.
Another posit on why this problem occurred is based on the Hugh Everett “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds” concept is an interpretive byproduct of the oddness of quantum uncertainty (which was posited by Heisenberg via his Uncertainty Principle), which in essence means that a subatomic particle in a quantum state cannot have all properties about it known simultaneously (e.g. as soon as one value is measured, another becomes obscure and open to all possible values). The “Many Worlds” concept takes this established tenet of quantum physics and applies it to the macro (i.e. non-subatomic) world (i.e. objects we can see with the naked eye), stating that each time there is more than one possible outcome to a change of any type (e.g. the choice to turn left or right, a coin landing on heads or tails, a glass shattering into many pieces that each have a multitude of places they could bounce to, etc.), all options actually do happen, just in divergent “universes” that split off into their own timelines, and that these universes are never aware the others exist (nor can they ever interact). I personally reject the Level III multiverse concept and view it as a purely fantasy/sci-fi theory, but perhaps within the context of fiction it’s a reasonable consideration.
Applying this concept to “The Prestige”, rather than the machine actively creating a duplicate (e.g. by intentionally reconstructing the object from remote subatomic material), Tesla’s device transports the object through something akin to a wormhole or Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Doing this would require and produce a massive burst of energy, possibly something so potent that it would briefly warp spacetime, creating a very brief time dilatation at its event horizon (like an object stuck at the edge of a black hole from the perspective of everything outside it). It’s this temporal hiccup that disrupts the normal quantum split that should occur. As a result, the replicated object doesn’t split off into its own universe successfully, so both objects end up in the same timeline. Warping spacetime is utterly implausible in reality (unless harnessing the power of a massive sun we could never muster the required amount of energy), but it is a common science fiction concept.
I contend that the device was designed to invoke a process of matter reconstruction, something akin to modern day quantum teleportation experiments that take advantage of the “weirdness” of entanglement and non-locality, or superposition (as a quick aside, I recommend researching Seth Lloyd’s experiment with quantum teleportation that had a specific focus on testing the so-called “Grandfather Paradox”). I base this on Tesla’s real-life proposal that matter can be transported via energy (almost certainly where Christopher Smith, the author of the novel the movie was based on, got the idea). It’s possible that Tesla didn’t fully understand the quantum physics he was meddling with and didn’t realize he needed to destroy one of the two entangled objects (or couldn’t bring himself to do it).
Once Angier stumbled upon the hats and they discovered what was really going on, perhaps Tesla didn’t have the heart to design the device to destroy a living source organism, either hoping he could someday figure out a way around it, or abandoning the entire project once concluding that he would not be able to devise a way around it. And yet he chose to sell the device to Angier despite knowing the implications of him using it. Tesla must have really needed the money.
Perhaps both concepts could be combined into a single theory (e.g. the act of quantum teleporting a macro object produces an unavoidable spacetime warp and therefore time dilation).
Manipulating matter/energy at macro scales and transporting it, although still in reality completely unrealistic, is much more feasible in theory than manipulating that object’s placement in time, although recent experiments using post-selection (one of which conclusively and quite amazingly proved that fundamental, albeit as of yet not understood, laws of nature prevent temporal paradoxes, i.e. the proverbial Grandfather Paradox, from occurring with 100% success), do in effect transport a particle back in time by manipulating it’s properties after-the-fact, in other words using quantum teleportation with a particle entangled in the past.
Whatever the case, based on these real-world scientific concepts as well as dialogue directly in the film, both (or all) Angiers are quite literally the original Angier (albeit in information only – the constituent subatomic particles are different, but the configuration is identical). In other words if we were to want to nitpick, there is no copy or duplicate, really. And definitely no clone. They are both (or all) not only the very same being in spirit and cognizance, but even physical material, every subatomic particle configuration identical, just existing in two different places (i.e. their spatial state) at the same time (i.e. temporal state), which affords each of them a possible variant future (if they weren’t instantly being killed). For lack of a better term it’s easier to continue to refer to the perceived “second” object as a duplicate (or “prestige material”, as the book calls it).
From a scientific perspective such a thing is, of course, impossible given the absurd amount of energy that would be required, not to mention the immensely complex process of reconstructing every particle in a living organism at a remote location, and there would almost certainly have to be both a sending and receiving device. Then there’s the fact that the machine depicted in the film, based on its real-world counterparts that can be purchased at your nearest electronics center (although FAX machines are a dying breed), does nothing more than throw streaks of static current around. In other words a machine that could in fact convert matter into energy then back again, possibly in the process warping spacetime, although possibly having ties to electromagnetic forces, would definitely not exist as a single large Tesla coil generating large amounts of somehow completely harmless electrical strikes. But such fantasy is certainly fun and makes for good storytelling when presented with the realistic flair it was here.
For an extensive (and even more verbose) write-up that includes details concerning the science behind such theories (including the Seth Lloyd experiment referred to above), take a look at my post on the “Triangle” board (URL link below) and skip down to the Science section and follow-up Science Fiction section. I should note that quantum teleportation through not only space but time (using a combination of quantum entanglement and post-selection while taking advantage of quantum uncertainty) is indeed a reality, not just theory, and if you’re interested in the subject I recommend researching it (or at least check out my post on “Triangle”).
It might just blow your mind, or perchance just numb it a bit.