It's ironic that The Prestige would open in theatres hot on the heels of the sleeper hit The Illusionist. While it's not uncommon for two big-budget features about the same subject matter - in this case, Victorian-era magicians - to come out at the same time, what makes this coincidence especially interesting is that The Prestige is explicitly about the ugly rivalry between two London-based conjurers, one of whom (Hugh Jackman) has the showmanship but not the talent, the other (Christian Bale) having the talent but not the showmanship. In fact, the same could be said of The Prestige's unwitting rivalry with The Illusionist: with a bigger budget, higher-wattage stars, a notable director, and a much more ambitious scope, The Prestige should have blown The Illusionist out of the water. But it's the subtle magic and elegant story that make the unassuming Illusionist the better film.
For all of its drama and its tortured characters, The Prestige's twist ending - which I have to believe was genuinely designed to surprise the audience - is something you could see coming at least an hour beforehand. While this doesn't make The Prestige a bad movie, it does make it a bit of a letdown. Of course I won't give the twist(s) away, but I had a strong reaction of "That's it?" once all was said and done. It's especially disappointing, given Nolan's track record: Memento and Batman Begins are extremely well-made films with very strong storylines. They're so good, in fact, that I almost want to give Nolan (and his brother Jonathan, who cowrote the script) the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he wanted us to predict the obvious conclusion. Maybe that was the point? For whereas The Illusionist keeps its protagonist's tricks a secret, The Prestige constantly and intentionally shows us the sleight-of-hand behind its characters' acts.
But even if that is the case - which I doubt - and even if The Prestige's dark themes of obsession, envy, and loss offer more to think about afterwards, the fable-like Illusionist is still more satisfying. After all, when you're making a movie that's all about magic acts, you'd better have one humdinger of a grand finale. The Prestige's feels like amateur night.