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NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by A Shen.
"The Prestige" begins with shots of several dozen top hats mysteriously strewn about in the woods. (Remember them for later).
Next Michael Caine's character, Cutter, explains the three parts of a magic trick while performing a disappearing bird trick for a little girl. First, there's "The Pledge," where the magician shows you something ordinary, like a bird. Then, there's "The Turn," where he does something extraordinary, like make the bird disappear. But this isn't enough. There always has to be a third act, "The Prestige," where you have a twist, and bring the bird back, before the audience will clap.
Immediately following this, we see Rupert "The Great Danton" Angier (Hugh Jackman) attempting a transporting trick that involves walking under a giant electrical machine with a Tesla-coil (go look it up) and then disappearing under a trapdoor. Except that he falls straight into a giant tank of water that has been placed under the stage, and is automatically locked inside. A man in the audience, who we shortly learn is fellow magician Alfred "The Professor" Borden (Christian Bale), forces his way beneath the stage in time to see Angier drown.
After this intro, the film quickly sets itself up with a complicated narrative where we follow three different timelines at once. In the present day (19th century England), Borden is on trial for murdering Angier, who we learn was his greatest rival. Cutter is revealed to be Angier's engineer, the man who builds the machinery for his tricks, and the little girl is Borden's daughter Jess.
We see Cutter confide to the judge in a private meeting that the machine Angier was using wasn't built by him, but by "a wizard," and it legitimately did what it appeared to do.
The trial does not go well for Borden, and he faces his imminent execution. Borden is approached by the solicitor for a collector, Lord Caldlow, who is interested in buying his secrets, particularly the secret of Borden's famous "Transported Man." The same collector has also bought all of Angier's magic equipment. When Borden refuses, the solicitor threatens that Jess is in danger of being declared an orphan and being sent to the workhouses unless his patron intervenes.
As an incentive, he leaves Borden with Angier's diary. As he reads it in prison, we go to...
The second part of the narrative is Angier's POV in Colorado Springs, where he is traveling to convince the notorious scientist Nicola Tesla (David Bowie!) and hs assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) to build him the machine that he believes that Tesla built for Borden that allows him to do the "Transported Man" trick. During the trip, Angier is in the process of decoding a diary he stole from Borden, encrypted with a particular five-letter-word passcode (important later). Borden's diary takes us to...
The third thread of the narrative goes back to the beginning, when Angier and Borden were both up-and-comers working for an elderly magician named Milton. Milton also employed Cutter and Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo). Their best trick is an underwater escape, where Angier and Borden are planted in the audience, and called up to the stage to help tie Julia's wrists and ankles before she's lowered into a water tank. A curtain descends on the tank, and Julia slips the knot around her wrists and escapes using a trick lock on the tank. Just in case, Cutter is backstage with a stopwatch and an axe.
Angier and Borden are on friendly terms, though Angier is concerned that Borden's using a knot that's too hard for Julia to slip. We learn Angier is using a fake name so he won't embarrass his family with his theatrical pursuits, while Borden comes from a rougher background. He is much more ambitious than Angier, isn't afraid to "get his hands dirty," and wishes Milton would try more dangerous tricks, like catching a bullet. Borden also claims to have created a trick that will be his masterpiece.
Cutter sends them both to watch a Chinese magician perform and see if they can figure out how he does a trick where he makes a heavy goldfish bowl appear from under a cloth. Borden deduces that the old magician is really putting up a front. He's hiding the strength required to accomplish the trick, by always appearing frail in public. Borden admires the way the Chinese magician goes to such an extreme that he "lives" his performance.
As his prize, Borden gets a few minutes onstage assisting Milton during a performance, where he performs a trick where a bird and cage disappear simultaneously, and then the bird reappears. A boy in the audience gets upset, realizing the bird in the cage isn't the same as the one who reappears. His aunt, a woman named Sarah (Rebecca) tries to console him. Borden and Sarah meet because of the incident, and become romantically involved.
We learn, after the show, that the bird in the cage has to die in order to achieve the illusion.
Disaster strikes during the next performance of the underwater escape. We see Borden tie, and then retie the knot around Julia's hands during the performance. She can't manage to slip the knot underwater, and Cutter isn't able to break the glass of the tank in time to save her. Julia dies onstage, leaving Angier devastated and Milton ruined. During the funeral, Angier confronts Borden, asking which knot he tied. His answer is that he "doesn't know," which Angier can not accept. This is the beginning of their rivalry
Borden and Angier both strike out on their own, but there are still obvious tensions. Borden marries Sarah and starts doing his own act, the climax of which is a bullet-catching trick. The secret, as Borden explains to his pregnant wife, is that the bullet is palmed, so that it's already in the magician's hand when the gun is fired. All that comes out of the shot is gunpowder. But magicians have died during the trick because of audience members who stick buttons or their own bullets into the guns. We are also introduced to a bearded man named Fallon, who becomes Borden's engineer.
Borden performs the bullet catching trick for a rowdy audience, handing the gun to a man who turns out to be Angier in disguise. Angier deliberately puts his own bullet into the gun, and confronts Borden again about the knot he tied. When Borden's answer is still "I don't know," Angier shoots him, blowing two fingers off his left hand and seriously jeopardizing his career. Sarah encourages him to quit magic. She isn't happy that Borden keeps secrets from her as part of his trade. Their marriage is an uneven one, and she claims that when he says that he loves her, she can tell on some days he doesn't mean it.
Angier is then approached by Cutter, who no one will hire because of his association with Milton. They start up their own act, with Angier as "The Great Danton," hiring a blonde bombshell named Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to be the lovely assistant. Cutter comes up with a new version of the "disappearing-bird-in-the-cage" trick where members of the audience keep their hands on the box as it disappears. The trick is in a lot of mechanical gadgetry that Angier wears under his suit to fold away and retract the cage. Best of all, the bird is unharmed.
But the first night that Angier debuts the trick, one of the volunteers from the audience turns out to be Borden in disguise. He intentionally jams the machinery, causing the bird to be killed onstage and scandalizing Angier's reputation.
Thrown out of their theater, Cutter sends Angier to a science lecture to get some new ideas. Nicola Tesla is there with several huge, fantastic Tesla-coils, generating immense electric charges that seem to fill the room. Because of the perceived danger, the demonstration is cancelled by the authorities. But Angier spots Borden in the crowd and follows him, learning about Sarah and the new baby, Jess. Bitter at Borden's happiness that should have been his, Angier's obsession over the rivalry grows.
Intercut with this storyline are Angier's continued attempts to meet with Tesla and commission his own transporter machine. Tesla, we learn, has supplied Colorado Springs with an electrical system in exchange for the use of the generators at night to conduct his own experiments. He's even rigged up his own electric fence. When Tesla finally agrees to build the machine, he tells Angier that it will take a massive amount of time and money.
Back in Borden's diary, we learn that both magician start performing again, and Borden as "The Professor" has a new trick called "The Transported Man," that has been getting him attention. Angier and Olivia, who is falling in love with her magician, watch it repeatedly and are unable to tell how he does it. The trick is simple: Borden gets into a cabinet on one side of the stage and gets out of another cabinet on the other side. Cutter insists that he must be using a double, but Olivia notes that she can see the bandaged stumps on his left hand when Borden both disappears and reappears.
Angier and Cutter copy the trick and add more showmanship and flair to it, that Borden's version lacks. During the performance, Angier throws his hat across the stage and walks through one door on one side of the stage, secretly disappearing under a trapdoor, and a double comes out of another trapdoor under the door on the other side of the stage to catch the hat. They hire an out-of-work actor named Roux to be Angier's double. He's a drunk and a lout, but he can perform.
The act dubbed "The New Transported Man," works to amazing success, but there's one big problem. Angier has to sell the buildup of the trick, so he always winds up under the stage during the prestige, and misses out on the audience reaction. After all, "Nobody cares about the man in the box." Roux is getting all the glory, even if Cutter makes sure that he keeps a low profile so the secret doesn't get out. Even worse, Angier still doesn't know how Borden does his trick.
He decides to send Olivia to work for Borden and spy on him, to get the secret. Olivia, who is in love with Angier, doesn't like the idea, but does as he asks and becomes Borden's assistant. To gain his trust, she tells Borden how Angier's trick is done and offers to help him improve on his own act.
A big problem develops, however, with Roux. He figures out that he controls Angier because he's necessary for his biggest trick, and starts demanding money. It turns out that Borden has been influencing him, and Cutter thinks Olivia may have betrayed them. Borden’s version has improved, and now includes one of Tesla electricity-generating machines. Cutter gets Angier to agree to phase out the trick.
Roux's performances get more intentionally sloppy, and one night he simply isn't there at all. When Angier goes through the trapdoor, the cushion to break his fall has been removed, and he breaks his leg. He watches Borden pop up out of Roux's trapdoor and proceed to humiliate him, suspending a tied-up Roux from the ceiling with an advertisement for Borden’s own act.
Angier confronts Olivia, who insists that Borden’s trick is accomplished using a double, because she’s seen makeup and wigs lying around. He doesn’t believe her. She produces Borden's encrypted diary as proof that she didn't betray him. However, the five-letter-word to decrypt the diary is still necessary. Angier and Cutter kidnap Fallon, Borden's engineer, and nail him in a box to hold for ransom. When Borden comes to get him back, Angier demands to know the secret of Borden's "Transported Man" in exchange.
Borden writes down one word, "Tesla," which will decode the diary, and suggests that he's using a machine Tesla built to transport. Angier leaves him to unearth Fallon from the where he buried the man alive.
Angier leaves for America to track down Tesla while Cutter stays behind. He was shot during the abduction of Fallon, and doesn't want to pursue the secret of the trick any further.
Borden's private life starts falling apart. He's having an affair with Olivia by this point, and his wife has started drinking because of their deteriorating marriage. At one point, he instructs Fallon to deal with his family while going to see Olivia. He appears to genuinely care for both women.
Sarah eventually hangs herself in Borden's workroom, after trying to confront her husband about one of his secrets.
Back in the second narrative thread in Colorado, Tesla and Alley have been unsuccessfully testing out the machine for Angier. They've zapped his top hat time after time with an impressive electrical apparatus, but the hat won't move an inch.
Eventually, Angier comes to the end of Borden's diary and realizes that Olivia actually did betray him. She was in love with Angier, but since he used her as a spy without concern for her feelings, she knew she didn't have a future with him. Giving him the diary was actually to prove her loyalty to Borden, who wrote it knowing it was for Angier. The last entry in the diary tells him that "Tesla" was the keyword to decrypt the writing, but it's not the secret to the trick at all. Tesla never built a transport machine for Borden and Angier has been sent on a wild goosechase.
Furthermore, he Angier learns that Tesla has run out mof funding and is being hounded by his rival, Thomas Edison. Angier is furious that Tesla led him on, believing his claims about building the machine are a sham. He goes back to Tesla's lab, where the scientist insists that he is capable of building a transporter, even if he never built one for Borden. He tests the machine again, this time using Alley's black cat. The cat doesn't move at all, so Angier leaves in disgust.
But as he's heading back through the woods, we come back to the first shot of the movie: a heap of top hats on the forest floor. And this time, there are several black cats among them. The machine has actually been working, but instead of moving an object from one place to the other, it creates a duplicate at the destination instead.
Tesla and Alley continue to refine the machine, now that they know how it works. They have to leave suddenly in the night, when Edison's men destroy his lab. But Tesla leaves a large, trapezoidal box behind for Angier, containing the components of the machine with instructions. He also cautions Angier that using the machine is inviting his doom.
Angier takes the box back to England and reunites with Cutter. He's ready to perform again, but this time he's extremely secretive about his methods, hiring blind workmen and not allowing Cutter backstage during the trick. As he demonstrates to an influential promoter, he is zapped by the machine's Tesla-coil produced electricity, disappears from plain sight, and then reappears up in the balcony, appearing to traverse the distance of the huge theater in seconds.
The show is a hit and Borden is mystified. All he can tell is that Angier's trick involves a trapdoor, but he has no idea what's going on underneath the stage. Every night, the blind workmen carry out a large box from the theater and take it away.
The night of Angier's death, we see Borden sneak under the stage as we saw in the prologue, and watch Angier fall through the trapdoor into the tank and drown. It's clear that Borden didn't have anything to do with it, and he actually tries to save his rival by breaking through the glass of the tank with a pipe. Cutter bursts in and gets the wrong idea. Borden is arrested. Angier is confirmed dead.
In his prison cell back in the present day, Borden comes to the end of Angier's diary, which gloats that Borden is being blamed for his death. Borden believes the diary must be a fake, until he's called out of his cell to say goodbye to Jess and meet the collector who wants to buy his secrets.
The collector, Lord Caldlow, is clearly Angier in disguise (or returned to his old identity, perhaps). Borden is dismayed that he would go so far, andinvolve his child in their rivalry. Angier refuses to help clear his name, and won't even take the secret of Borden's "Transported Man" when bribed, telling him "mine is better." Borden swears he'll get out and have his revenge, promising Jess he'll come for her.
Cutter discovers Angier alive, when he delivers the machine to Lord Caldlow, hoping to convince him to destroy it. While astonished at first, he quickly realizes that Angier is remorseless about framing Borden. Cutter's alludes to the fact that he's figured out the secret to Angier's version of the "The Transported Man" and thinks he's gone too far.
Borden has one last visitor: Fallon. He tells him what he's learned, and that Fallon should go "live for both of us."
Cutter brings the machine to Angier, and as he leaves, we see Fallon arrive to confront him. This is intercut with scenes of Borden being hanged. Borden dies, just as Fallon shoots Angier. The camera pans up to reveal that the gunman has two missing fingers and Borden's face.
Angier finally realizes that the secret of Borden's "Transported Man" was simple. Borden had a twin brother, and they were switching back and forth between the roles of Borden and Fallon. One of them loved Sarah, and one of them loved Olivia. They both lived half of one life, never telling anyone in order to maintain the illusion. The brother went so far as to cut the fingers off his own left hand so they would remain identical.
Angier, who only ever cared about the glory of wowing an audience, went to more terrible extremes. In his version of "Transported Man," he created a double of himself every time he used Tesla's machine, and he rigged the trapdoor to drown the one onstage. He never knew if he would be the Prestige or the “man in the box.” The room where the machine is being kept is filled with water tanks, all of which hold a drowned double of Angier for every time he performed the trick.
Angier dies from the gunshot wound, and a fire ensures the machine and all the evidence will be destroyed.
Borden/Fallon reunites with Jess, as Cutter reiterates the three parts of a magic trick. Before the audience can clap, you have to make the disappeared man come back.
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