5. The Prestige (2006)
Themes: The Prestige furthers Batman Begins’ theme of committing oneself to an ideal in the service of creating a legend. In this case that ideal is stage magic and the legend is providing audiences with a once and a lifetime chance to see something they’ve never seen before. The film is as much about the obsessive rivalry between Angier and Borden as it is Nolan’s own thoughts about filmmaking (he is after all, a director who offers very little in terms of commentary and behind the scenes features for his films in order to preserve the magic). Because of the film’s commentary
on filmmaking, the movie is as much about spectacle as it is science. Perhaps taking a cue from Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet,” The Prestige explores that fine line and is perhaps Nolan’s not so subtle suggestion that audiences not try too hard to understand the tricks of movie magic lest we come to find it’s far simpler than we ever imagined. This is the problem Angier faces in the film; desperate to find out the secret to Borden’s “Transported Man” act, he comes up with a far more complicated copy that damns him in the process (the meta argument for practical effects versus extensive CGI).
“The sacrifice…that’s the price of a trick,” Borden claims. And it is sacrifice for their art that defines the two rivals. Perhaps more than any of Nolan’s films, it is difficult to define who the protagonist and antagonist are. Both men do terrible things for their obsession, and to return to the theme of Following, both men keep these things within “boxes.” Borden’s box is himself, the container in which he must place his identity. As two men pretending to be one, he must sacrifice his desires and individual traits for the success of the trick. Angier’s box is more literal, being the water tanks where he keeps the drowned copies of himself. Both men’s containment of their identities are furthered by the men’s constant reinvention of themselves and name-changing. The Presitge is a game of masks, the clashing of two ideologies that lead to inevitable chaos. This game would be taken even further in Nolan’s subsequent films.
Impact: The Prestige is Nolan’s first dive into science-fiction of the non-comic book kind, and while it is based off of a pre-existing novel, it still feels very much tied to Nolan’s mind and interests. The structure involves nesting through the use of diary entries which makes the misdirection all the more successful because the structure is used as a distraction. The Prestige allowed Nolan to emerge as a true showman.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
Themes: Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins takes the idea of post 9/11 America further in the exploration of chaos and duality. The film picks up on Gordon’s fears of escalation by introducing The Joker, a much more frightening look at terrorism than Ra’s al Ghul because Joker has no motive or history. He’s the enemy that can’t be understood, the box that can’t be unlocked (he’s a homegrown terrorist, a twisted product of his surroundings). This too becomes Batman’s personal struggle as his legend increases. By sacrificing his personal life, he risks becoming locked in his identity as Batman, something that can only be understood as a reactionary product of his surroundings. In Batman Begins, Bruce told Rachel “it’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” In The Dark Knight, what Bruce does is put to the test as he struggles to uphold his code not to kill in the wake of the destruction The Joker leaves behind. His fight then is against loosing himself to the “freak” the Batman represents and becoming a singular entity like The Joker. This mirrors America’s own struggle with losing itself to the war in Middle-East, becoming an instigator instead of a deterrent. This duality also holds true for Harvey Dent, but unlike Bruce he loses himself in the process.
“You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time,” Harvey tells Batman. The Dark Knight raises the question of whether people can actually be moral examples when their surroundings are anything but. And while Joker’s ideas on morality are partially proved wrong by his social experiment with the ferries, he still manages to corrupt Harvey Dent. The film offers the idea that the people who make up society can in fact be decent and rise above, but that politicians and the people we need to be the face of our values cannot be when they are truly put to the test. Yet, still they must be held up because society would collapse otherwise. Taking thematic cues from Memento and Insomnia, The Dark Knight offers a rationalization for ignoring and withholding evidence in order to shape the world and the happiness of society. But as Nolan would later explore, there is a cost to this.
Impact: The Dark Knight’s influence is still stamped across many films that followed in its wake. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, and the film’s sound editing won the film two Oscars and the controversy over the lack of a Best Picture nomination led to the Academy increasing the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. Nolan successfully merged his independent sensibilities, expansive ideas with the comic book adaptation zeitgeist to create the most memorable pop-culture phenomenon of the decade. And one final fun fact: this is Nolan’s only linear film.