Monday, July 12, 2010

David Bowie is Nikola Tesla: the unsung hero of The Prestige

Posted as part of Bryce Wilson’s Christopher Nolan blogathon at Things That Don’t Suck

The first time I saw ‘The Prestige’ – the first of three viewings on the big screen and umpteen more on DVD – I was struck by the charismatic actor playing Nikola Tesla. There was something familiar about him, but I didn’t give too much thought to the matter. I had other things to think about; ‘The Prestige’ is, after all, a thinking-caps-on kind of movie, one of those incredibly rare films that not only sucker-punches you with a hell of a twist first time round but gets even better on subsequent viewings when you know what’s coming and can marvel at the filmmakers’ skill in conjuring misdirections, concealing lacunae and – more impressive still – leaving enough ambiguity to allow for endless debates as to who was who and who knew what in any given scene.

I wholeheartedly love ‘The Prestige’. It’s easily my favourite movie of the last decade and my favourite Christopher Nolan film – with ‘The Dark Knight’ coming a close second*. It’s also a real bugger to write about (I originally reviewed it a year and half ago as part of the Personal Faves project) since you can’t get into any really interesting discussion without giving away an amazing double- (or possibly even triple-) whammy ending. And if there’s anyone reading these pages who hasn’t seen ‘The Prestige’, I want their first viewing of it to be as jaw-droppingly revelatory as mine.

The basic premise is a friendship that turns to rivalry between two magicians in the Victorian era: the working class Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and slumming-it aristocrat Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) – career bests, performance-wise, from both stars. It’s an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s epistolary novel which veers startlingly into science fiction in a denouement which explicitly homages an H.G. Wells novel.

Although Nolan, co-adapting with his brother Jonathan, wisely stops short of Priest’s OTT finale, a suspension of disbelief is still required for one of the big reveals (although it works brilliantly as a metaphorical device even if you don’t buy it as a plot point) which involves a device created by Tesla. Which is where we came in. And, like I said, I didn’t waste too much time sitting the cinema wondering who was playing Tesla. For me, he was Tesla.

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian inventor, one of the pioneers of electrical engineering. His work in the field of electricity favoured alternating current while his great rival Thomas Edison espoused direct current. History records Edison’s name as synonymous with electricity, but Tesla’s work – while tending on occasion to the more conceptual and eccentric – remains incredibly important. In a similar twist of fate, Tesla undertook some early and groundbreaking research into x-rays; however, it is Wilhelm Röntgen who is credited with discovering the technique (it also netted him the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901).

Tesla’s brilliance can be reckoned by the sheer amount of devices, principles and research he pioneered: rotating magnetic fields, the induction motor, voltage multiplication circuits, the arc light, polyphase systems, charged particle beam devices, the electronic logic gate (based on Babbage’s analytical engine), telegeodynamics, bladeless turbines, wireless electrical transfer, radio-controlled weaponry, theories on robotics and his famous (or infamous) Tesla coil.

He was eccentric. He claimed his genius was coterminous with his celibacy (though I guess that would explain Paris Hilton’s mediocrity!); he had a phobia of dirt; he ended his days in a room at the New Yorker Hotel. He kept pigeons in said hotel room. I’m still not sure how that squared with his abhorrence of dirt.

The Tesla of ‘The Prestige’, however, is the Tesla of middle age; the impeccably dressed, elegant, slightly formal, slightly aloof Tesla. The Tesla already starting to exhibit signs of paranoia, principally due to Edison who by this point has graduated from rival to nemesis. When the film ended, I sat through the end credits. “David Bowie!” I exclaimed, turning to my wife. “That was David Bowie playing Tesla!” Bowie’s given good – sometimes inspired – performances in movies before, most notably Nic Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. His turn in ‘The Prestige’ is something else, though. I honestly didn’t recognise him on that first viewing; he had become the character.

‘The Prestige’ is a dark story of blame, grudges, guilt, secrets and sacrifices. One of the magicians, in the final stretch, emerges as slightly more sympathetic than the other. Throughout the rest of the movie, though, it’s left to the supporting characters to supply the humanity: Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as the women in the feuding conjurors’ lives and, particularly, Michael Caine as the impresario whose association with them goes right back to the beginning of the story.

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla contributes something else entirely. He brings real gravitas to his portrayal of Tesla and, in turn, Tesla lends a crazed credulity to the single most fantastical element of the film. The only actual historical character in the film, he’s also the erratic genius who delivers into Angier’s hands a device that utterly changes what he can accomplish in his stage act. The story goes into such brilliantly bizarre realms at this point that no-one else but Tesla could have served the narrative. Put simply, you couldn’t make up a character like Tesla. When the fiction is this strange you need the kind of truth that is stranger than fiction. Watch ‘The Prestige’. Think about what Tesla’s invention does. Don’t ask yourself why anyone could actually believe that such a thing would work. Ask instead if Nikola Tesla would even believe it wouldn’t.

*For the record, I’ve not seen ‘Inception’ yet.


Simon said...

Tesla should be taught in school instead of Edison. He was so much more awesome.

Aaron said...

"It’s easily my favourite movie of the last decade and my favourite Christopher Nolan film"

Same here, buddy! Well favorite Nolan film anyway, and ONE of my favorites of the last decade. It's pretty high up on the list though. Nice write-up.

Keith said...

I love this film. It had a great cast. I really loved Bowie as Tesla. I've always been intrigued by Tesla. Plus I'm a huge fan of Bowie.

Neil Fulwood said...

Simon - I did some cursory research into Tesla a few months ago as part of a project I'm working on and it's astounding the amount of areas he was active in and how many contemporary developments owe to the groundwork he did.

Aaron - it's a shame in a way that 'The Prestige' got sandwiched between the Batman films; it didn't do their kind of box office and it got a bit overlooked as a result. I've seen it quite a few times now and I never get bored with the story, the structure, the characters and how damn cleverly the whole thing works.

Keith - Bowie as Tesla is such an offbeat casting decision, but works so well. Also, he has probably the best entrance of any character in the film - I absolutely had to use it as one of the screengrabs for this article.

Aaron said...

Same here. And you're right, it gets overshadowed by Nolan's BATMAN films, which is understandable, but certainly not fair. This is easily one of the most re-watchable movies that I have ever seen.

Samuel Wilson said...

Bowie (and Andy Serkis as his sidekick) give The Prestige a superabundance of character alongside the fierce lead turns of Jackman and Bale. This is a period film that feels relatively authentic, and Bowie, of all people, really cinches that impression.

Imagine if The Prestige got the build-up Inception is getting. Since it's not as if Batman Begins flopped, I don't know why it didn't.

Bryce Wilson said...

This really was a fantastic piece Neil. Loved the Pigeon line.

I love how a few years ago MIT or someone similar was all excited that they transmitted electricity wirelessly over five feet.

Ignoring the fact that Tesla could do this for miles, IN THE FUCKING ROCKIES.

Still given that Tesla's last project before his demise was a Death Ray, perhaps his demise wasn't quite so tragic.

The fucker would have worked.

Neil Fulwood said...

Sam - good call on Andy Serkis's role. I feel kind of guilty about not mentioning him in the article. But, yeah, he really does gel with Bowie and his character, though minor, is incredibly memorable.

Bryce - "Ignoring the fact that Tesla could do this for miles, IN THE FUCKING ROCKIES." Amen, brother! Couldn't have put it better myself.

Jake said...

Great piece, Neil. I saw The Prestige back before I really got into movies and knew at all how to read them, so I kind of took it as just a twisty M. Night-esque movie. But Bowie always stood out and I watched it again recently and really took to it. I think I'll try my hand at reviewing it myself soon, now that Inception has reignited my love of Nolan, warts 'n all.

Neil Fulwood said...

Looking forward to reading your thoughts on 'The Prestige'. Now that I've seen 'Inception' I can safely say that 'The Prestige' is still my favourite Christopher Nolan film.

Jake said...

I think I might agree with you Neil. At any rate, it proves that I was completely wrong to say that Inception contains the first heartfelt emotion of a Nolan film: once you realize the secret of Fallon, both Bale and Hall's performances take on a real tragedy that I can't believe I didn't pay attention to in my first repeat vieiwng, though I suppose it came too soon after the first watch and I still wasn't looking for anything.

Jesus Christ, though, I don't know how I'm write about this. My review is possibly almost done but I'll spend all day, perhaps too, refining it into something readable.

Neil Fulwood said...

I had a hell of a job reviewing 'The Prestige' when I first wrote about it on the blog about a year and a half ago. I wanted to keep it completely spoiler free so that anyone who hadn't seen it would be as blown away as I was by that audacious and brilliantly judged ending. As a result, I found I was gingerly circling the film, occasionally shooting a sideways glance at it, rather than engaging with it fully.

Still, 'The Prestige' is a film that gives up its secrets and ambiguities slowly but resonantly, so maybe a circumspect and equally ambiguous approach to writing about it is more appropriate.

Jake said...

It's funny, I wrote my longest review for a single film for The Prestige, and I still managed to leave some stuff out. I'm saving relating how the three aspects of a trick parallel Nolan's own style as well as some stuff about how Nolan actually betters the book and, contrary to his own penchant for overloading the themes (as he did in both his Batman movies) portrays the ideas inside the book, and some that Nolan simply brought with him, with surprising clarity given how dense the movie is.

Neil Fulwood said...

I'll be leaving a fuller comment on your blog, Jake, but I gotta say - hell of an article on 'The Prestige'. You more than did it justice.

Riley Kellogg said...

Nice treatment of a movie that was, I think, more serious than most of its audience knows. And I agree that Bowie gave a fascinating, magnetic performance. If you haven't seen the page about Tesla on the blog The Oatmeal, take a look. The author is also promoting efforts to buy and preserve Tesla's laboratory, and to develop a Tesla museum. This is a project that really deserves support.

Andrew Kelly said...

Tesla made the impossible possible and the world is better for his contributions. Only now is he becoming a household name. Bowie plays Tesla how many envisage how he would have been and not how the world has painted him. Tesla was fully aware of how unusual/extraordinary he was and is brutally honest in his writing of himself. His phobia of dirt was late in life, as a child he was not afraid to jump into a river to unblock the end of the hose taking up the water for the towns new fire hose while everyone else was examining the other end for the cause of its failure. Although only a child he was held up on shoulders and carried about as the hero of the day for solving what many of us would now consider something close to common sense. Maybe one day much of Tesla's theories will also grow to become "common sense" rather than stuff of ridicule. Tesla only ever wanted to give good to the world and he envisaged much of his arms tech (death ray, force field etc.) as being able to negate war in something akin to the nuclear stalemate of the 1980's. He tended to focus on the good rather than the bad and, sadly, the USA ended up grabbing much of his papers soon after he's died so we have no true idea as to how much Tesla actually did contribute to our modern life...