Changing the Magic Trick: The Prestige and its Roots in Steampunk By David Wingert
The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) is a clear example of the steampunk genre in films. The story takes place during the Victorian era and deals with matters of the machine, both its usage and what it could mean for the individual artist or the “magician” who uses it. As the careers of Robert Angier and Alfred Borden progress, these matters of the steam-powered machine remain at the forefront. This is a time where originality is weakening and steam powered machines are growing.
Steampunk is not only science fiction but historical fiction as well. No matter how unreal they may be, the mechanisms in steampunk are grounded in and inspired by the time of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. It’s the Victorian era, the industrial revolution, and a thrust forward in mankind’s inventions. The Prestige plants itself in the middle of this time period; in fact it’s not until later in the film that the steampunk genre reveals itself in Tesla’s machine.
Tesla was a real inventor at the time and the machine in The Prestige was a real invention of his called the magnifying transmitter, though it was made for the wireless transmitting of electrical energy rather than cloning things. Thomas Edison is a key historical figure who was also mentioned in the film. Historical figures like these as well as actual locations such as Colorado Springs where Tesla worked gives The Prestige not only believability in historical fact but also authenticity in the steampunk genre. It is probably no coincidence that the two key historical figures mentioned in the film were both very influential inventors of the time. According to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. in his book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, steampunk “returns to the historical past to discover its own determining conditions, its founding heroes and heroines…not only of its literary life, but of the technological imagination itself.” (Csicsery-Ronay, 108). Each inventor played a role in creating the machines that eventually would inspire the dramatized inventions in steampunk.
The Victorian era is also significant because it marks the birth of cinema, another product of the industrial revolution. This can be seen as a particularly significant allusion in Tesla’s duplicator in The Prestige. Like this machine, cinema was something entirely new to the people of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Its main purpose of existence was still unclear: Robert Angier saw Tesla’s duplicator as a way to best his opponent Alfred Borden in the trick of the teleporting man. By doing so, Angier revolutionized his profession and changed the traditional magic trick forever. Much like Angier, George Méliès could be seen as a visionary of his time using the original film camera in ways that no one had done before. In fact Méliès was considered a magician just like Angier was and sought to fuse cinema with the profession. According to Simon During in his book Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic, “For Méliès, Film became an illusion when the camera ceased to be positioned as an ideal spectator in his magic theatre…Nor could he (Méliès) concede that the illusion of film…should cease to be judged as deceit.” (During, 170). The mindset held by each of these magicians can be summed up nicely by what Angier says after his first performance of the teleporting man: “A man’s reach exceeds his imagination.” Each was a man from an older time, seeing machines arise in a developing new world and envisioning how those inventions could evolve their craft in the 20th century.
Aside from these visionary ideals held by the masters of the craft, the negative side effects of the industrial revolution also have a part in the steampunk genre as well as The Prestige. Though Angier sees a revolution in his machine, we ultimately see this invention lead to his demise. One aspect of the machinery in steampunk that’s not necessarily applicable for the technology in other science fiction genres is the capability for anyone to be able to use it. Before the discovery of Tesla’s machine in The Prestige, the trick of teleportation was only something that Alfred Borden could do. It was a mysterious craft that only a select few were capable of performing. However, once Angier performed the same trick through the machine it made the point that anyone was now capable of performing this once unique feat. It became a question of “Who has the right tools?” rather than “Who has the right skills?” Nowadays, the arrival of digital video brings about the same questioning in films. The art of filmmaking has become something anyone with a video camera can do whether they possess the skills or not.
The downside to Tesla’s machine is that it doesn’t teleport, but duplicates. This results in Angier having to kill his clone after each performance in order to maintain the mystery of the trick. A certain level of dehumanization arises as Angier goes through the possibility (and sometimes reality) of death after each performance and then collects the body of his other half like it’s nothing. Both Angier and Borden have to suffer in their own ways for the sake of their tricks but it’s ultimately Angier’s ambition that brings about the machine. The machine’s applicability allows Angier’s “reach” to exceed just a little too far and would eventually result in his death.
When approaching different kinds of inventions and contraptions, the steampunk’s appeal to steam-powered machines is its physical nature and its clear, visually romanticized design. Tesla’s machine is beautiful to behold, The Prestige holds nothing back in displaying the creative beauty of it. Most of what is seen in science fiction films that take place in the future is inventions that have a mysterious nature to them that we can’t understand. Even in modern times we’re surrounded by these “black boxes”, devices that are plainly designed and mysterious in the ways that they function. Steampunk fetishizes the creative appearances of a machine as well as the way it’s created rather than its usage. It prefers an invention that can be comprehended, touched, and seen. Besides Tesla’s duplicator, The Prestige shows steampunk contraptions in many of the other magic tricks such as the suit Angier uses to make a bird disappear and reappear. It’s a contraption of levers, corks, springs, and screws that Angier has explained to him in a way that anyone could understand as well as see. Coincidentally the machine goes wrong and wounds an audience member, one of the negative repercussions that are possible with a more physical device.
With steampunk’s emphasis on a machine’s physical nature, it’s no surprise that The Prestige involves two artists who are very physical and hands-on in their work. Their performances often involve a volunteer from the audience to tie a rope, assist in a trick, or simply feel a particular item to reaffirm that there are no gimmicks to it. Even when competing with each other, a lot of the time foiling the other’s performance meant to literally harm them. Angier shoots Borden in the hand and Borden takes away Angier’s soft landing so he breaks his leg from the fall through a trap door. It’s likely that Christopher Nolan did this to emphasize the authentic tricks and genuine dedication each artist had to keeping their tricks fresh and undamaged. Where Tesla’s machine can teleport anyone who uses it, it takes a true dedicated artist to cut his own fingers off in order to preserve the illusion of teleporting. This very physical and very personal approach to original performances is something that steampunk is all about. Like steampunk machines, beneath the complex tricks of the magicians lie simple truths.
When watching Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, it could be easy to forget that its foundation is in the steampunk genre. It bases itself in historical fact using very prominent and influential figures from the Victorian Era as well as places and events such as Colorado Springs and the invention of the magnifying transmitter. However, when examining Tesla’s machine we consider its usage in The Prestige. Taken back to the turn of the century, this highly theatrical and highly visual machine offers a possibility of what it could’ve done rather than what history claims it did. So this fantasized usage for the machine blurs the reality of The Prestige with science fiction’s subgenre of steampunk. More important is this machine’s influence on the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Robert Angier. Each is a magician who is seeing his art form changing—for better or for worse—with the advancements of technology and the industrial revolution. Like artists such as George Méliès in relation to the emergence of film, the magicians must either adapt to the changes or stay rooted where they stand. Questions of change are prevalent in not just steampunk but all of science fiction. The Prestige raises this issue through our past and in the development of machines controlled by corks, screws, and steam in the genre of steampunk.