Anticipation for Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan's new earth-toned jigsaw puzzle, Inception, crested this week as a number of very positive reviews went up online. This early reception indicates that the July 16 release may very well be the cerebral heist movie many were hoping for: a summer movie uncompromising in its teasing complexities and untainted by muddy, retro-fitted 3-D.
Nolan hasn't directed a bad feature yet—though his two most popular films, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), are overlong and a bit leaden—but his most ingenious construction to date remains (at least for another week) The Prestige, which he adapted with his brother Jonathan from the Christopher Priest novel. The gloriously pulpy tale of rival magicians in Victorian London hopscotches back and forth in time much like Nolan's first two psychological suspensers, Following (1998) and Memento (2000), but it's more manifestly self-reflexive: The Prestige is bookended by a voiceover deconstruction of a magic trick's three parts (the pledge, the turn, and the prestige) and "Are you watching closely?" is a frequent refrain; pioneering kinetographer Thomas Edison does not appear but remains a spectral presence on the fringes of the action. Cinema-as-sleight-of-hand is very much a theme here.
The focus of The Prestige is the increasingly brutal game of one-upmanship between Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert "The Great Danton" Angier (Hugh Jackman), both struggling showmen specializing in elaborate illusions. The movie homes in on a trick called the Transported Man, in which Borden walks through a door on one side of the stage and emerges almost instantaneously from a door on the other. The tortured Angier—whose wife died onstage during a failed trick, probably due to Borden's recklessness—becomes obsessed with finding out the mechanics of the deception.
This leads him all the way to Colorado Springs, where he waits in a palatial hotel to be summoned to Nikola Tesla's (played by David Bowie!) mountaintop workshop, where the inventor tinkers with wireless light bulbs and more spectacular, unstable conductions. This crossing over from sleight of hand into more concrete technology-of-display marvels proves hugely tantalizing; it feels like that weird wrong turn into the fantastic you always wished your history of science textbook would take.
Jackman seems to be coming up against the limits of his range during his scenes of anguish, but the emotional undercurrent of the film is galvanic as well. I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that The Prestige is a bona fide fide Voltaic pile of a movie—something that also gets at Nolan's taste for daunting architectonics and simple but powerful machines (Batman's sleek gadgets, the oversized-metronome-like "box" central to The Prestige, or the suitcase gadgetry visible in the Inception preview).
There has always been a distinct dreamlike quality to Nolan's grayscale cityscapes. His Gotham City is at once alluring (with its clean lines) and thoroughly unsettling (with its imposing stature and eerie desolation), and though The Prestige takes place in a fustier era, it reinforces the sense that the director's urban settings are so many Crystal Palaces, wherein astounding inventions with alarming implications are demonstrated in front of an anxious public. (It's not hard to guess where the brothers Nolan stand on nuclear disarmament.) Perhaps we will see the apotheosis of these nightmare metropolises in Inception; the trailer, after all, offers intriguing glimpses of an origami-folded Paris and skyscrapers crumbling into the ocean.