The Prestige is a movie directed by Christopher Nolan. It came out in 2006 and has a reasonably good underground following amongst cinephiles.
This is not a review of the film. Much has already been said. YouTube essayists and film critics have all broken the film down to little bits and studied its artistic theme on a deeper level.
This piece seeks to extrapolate an interesting point made in the movie.
Let’s recap the movie a little.
The core plot of the movie is driven by Danton’s (Hugh Jackman) obsession with uncovering the secret behind his chief rival, Borden’s (Christian Bale) most popular magic trick. This obsession drives Danton down a dark path and ultimately the entire plot with it.
Danton is repeatedly told by his ingenieur, Cutter (Michael Caine), that Borden is using a simple double to perform his trick. Danton refuses to believe that such a brilliant trick could be so simple.
This refusal to believe in a simple solution ultimately drivers Danton to Tesla himself (a character in the story based on the renowned futurist and inventor). He drives away those closest to him, even the people who try to love him.
The fishbowl trick
Danton’s obsession with discovering a big secret is not surprising. People who’ve seen the film must remember this little snippet below.
Danton believes that the old Chinese magician hides the fishbowl in his robe during the trick. However, he’s not able to wrap his head around how such an old man can carry a heavy fishbowl between his legs.
Borden understands the trick immediately. He immediately knows that the old man always carries the fish bowl between his legs, even off stage. The real trick is his disguise of acting frail and weak.
The big secret of the fishbowl act is not some elusive trick. The trick is in fact so simple that it’s impossible. The old man is ready to sacrifice his entire way of life just for a magic trick. As the audience, we are not ready to believe that a man could simply sacrifice his entire way of living for professional competence.
As Borden points in the next, ‘That’s what it takes’.
The search for secrets, growth hacks, and other types of snake oil
The overall movie is about the dangers of obsession as an emotion. However, this little sidebar on the need for big secrets is fairly interesting. This is partly because the search for secrets and growth hacks is very relatable.
Let’s take the simplest examples of all – losing weight. We know what it takes. Cut down on the snacking and start running. The rest of the details work themselves out. However, the journey begins with these simple steps.
And yet, the weight loss industry is filled with frauds selling diet pills and heating belts. Overweight people buy into these myths because they promise to be the big secret to weight loss.
In reality, there is no secret. There is no trick to magically make you slim in fourteen days.
The secret is that you don’t to buy anything or do something great. You only have to make big sacrifices.
This advise is naturally for people not suffering from any medical conditions causing disproportionate weight gain. If you have no medical issue driving weight gain, the solution to fitter life is very simple. It is also very difficult.
The same is true for other pursuits in life. Starting a blog or a podcast is on a similar plane. There is no secret that will suddenly help you build a large following. You have to sacrifice a lot and create quality content at a regular pace.
There is no secret. There is no snake oil. In the final scene of the movie, Danton accepts the reality of the world.
The world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was… it was the look on their faces…Danton, in the final scene of The Prestige
Danton understands and admits the utter simplicity of our world. However, he makes a good point alluding to the power of false secrets. Deep inside, we understand reality. We know how to achieve our great desires. The only thing really stopping us is our inability to make genuine sacrifices towards our goals
Films are meant to inspire and educate. The Prestige manages to convey the value of simplicity and our inherent difficulty in accepting a simple truth. While a large part of the story delves into speculative fiction and other Nolan-esque tropes, this particular lesson hits home and remains a very underrated part of the story.