Christopher Nolan's criminally overlooked "The Prestige" is a near-great movie, an intricate mindbender that improves with each viewing. So here's my recommendation: Feel free to rent the movie now, but don't waste $20 bucks on this slap-dash DVD set. Hold out for the inevitable and well-deserved special edition.
The film's opening words -- "Are you watching closely," read over an initially confusing image of discarded hats -- sets up Nolan's tricky story of two rival magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) whose dedication to their craft turns deadly. Although some less-impressed viewers complained that the moral ambiguity of the main characters made it difficult to get emotionally involved in the movie, it also helped both leads give performances that rank among their career bests. "The Prestige" also features strong supporting turns by Michael Caine and David Bowie, whose Nikola Tesla makes a shocking contribution to the magical cause.
Nolan and brother Christopher have adapted Christopher Priest's novel into a tale of obsession that matches perfectly with the director's other credits, from "Memento" to "Batman Begins." Although the screenplay differs dramatically from the plot of the book, it maintains Priest's labyrinthine structure, in which the narrative is recounted through a series of cheats and removes -- court testimony, unreliable journals, etc -- and builds to a twist ending that doesn't need to surprise you to be effective. As Bale's Alfred Borden observes, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything."
"The Prestige" is a well-mounted production, from art director Nathan Crowley's evocation of the Victorian period to Wally Pfister's cinematography, which delivers stand-alone imagery -- the opening hats, the field of light bulbs, Tesla's lightning-enhanced entrance -- and also proves complicit in the narrative's puzzle. Those visual qualities are accentuated in the DVD's 80-plus photo "The Art of 'The Prestige' Gallery." But does anybody actually ever consider still images to be a DVD featurette?
While Nolan is known for providing good DVD value, his films have reliably been released in bare-bones form first. Beyond the gallery, the only featurette is the 19-minute "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Slight of Hand of Christopher Nolan," a fairly standard making-of piece.
The mini-doc goes into a lot of detail on the not-so-illuminating fact that Nolan views magic as something of a metaphor for the filmmaking process. No, really? As one might expect, the featurette stays general, hinting at the ways the Nolans transferred Priests literary magical metaphors into visual metaphors and touching on the director's reticence to view "The Prestige" as a period piece. Any detail, though, on the director's sleight of hand will probably have to wait for a commentary track or more in-depth featurettes.
Somewhat lost in the shadow of the far inferior "The Illusionist" and nearly ignored in the awards season (despite being as good or better than all five of the best picture nominees), "The Prestige" will doubtlessly get new life on DVD. That new life will eventually force a better DVD into the market.