The Prestige Alternate Theory – The Machine Didn’t Work!

Hi, this is Barry and welcome to my site. This article, written by one of the readers on the site, Dark Intentions, explains the movie The Prestige with an alternate approach than the one I’ve taken in my explanation of The Prestige. This originally came in as a comment, and it was so in-depth that I felt it needed to be an article of its own. There are plenty of spoilers in this article, so please read further only if you have watched the film. So here’s the alternate theory for the film The Prestige – The Machine Doesn’t Work!

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The Prestige: An Alternate Theory

Let’s for a moment say that the machine did work – the obvious conclusion when one watches this movie for the first time – then the basic plot plays out, as follows: Borden tricks Angier to go to Colorado to find Tesla and learn the secret to Borden’s illusion. The reason is so that Angier can waste time and money on a wild goose chase to find something that does not exist. But, amazingly, Tesla does manage to create this remarkable machine. Angier uses this machine to bait Borden into a trap to get Borden unjustly accused of Angier’s murder (even though it was a clone that got killed). Once Borden is executed, it turns out that he had a twin all along – and the twin kills Angier. But this narrative creates at least 12 plot holes.

The Prestige: Plot Holes

1. Why is Tesla lying to Angiers?

When Angier arrives in Colorado he says to Tesla, “you built a machine once for a man” meaning a machine that can teleport or clone a man -and he wants that same machine, Tesla immediately picks up on this and responds that I can build it for you – just be wary of the consequences. But that answer makes no sense. We know that Borden never had a cloning machine – he always had a twin. So that means that Tesla never built a teleportation or cloning machine for him. But Tesla carries on the conversation as if he has indeed built a cloning machine for Borden – when we know he didn’t. Tesla is, in fact, lying to Angiers. Why?

2. Why are the hats slightly different?

After having spent a fortune of Angier’s money trying to develop a machine, Tesla seems unable to do so and Angier accuses Tesla of being a con man and withdraws – but right at that moment, as Angier leaves Tesla’s laboratory, he sees a pile of seemingly identical hats and some cats. You, as a viewer, are also supposed to buy that the hats have all been cloned by Tesla. But if that is the case – why are they different? They are all the same type of top hat, yes, but if you look very carefully, you can see that there are tiny differences between them. Nolan actually gives us a massive clue here. In the opening scene of the movie, the camera pans across all the hats while Borden’s voice-over says: “Are you watching closely?” And at the end, the same camera panning scene with the hats returns, but now with Cutter’s voice-over that says: “You are not really looking.” But if you did look closely, you’d see that something was off.

3. So the entire plot hinges upon one of the greatest coincidences in movie history?

So – wow, it now turns out that Tesla actually was able to create a cloning machine after all! In other words – something absolutely unexpected happened when Angier went to Colorado. Borden did not know Tesla could build the machine but, it turns out, he could! Borden sent Angier off to waste time and money – and yet against all probabilities Tesla managed to build this exact machine!

I mean, what are the chances? Somehow Borden happens to send Angier to the exact guy who just happens to figure out within a fairly short period of time how to build the greatest invention in history – a cloning machine. Borden must have been the unluckiest person on the planet to send his rival to the one person who could come up with a technology that does the exact trick you do not want him to do. They (Borden/Fallon) could literally have sent Angier to anywhere on Earth with their fake diary and fake codeword, but somehow they picked the one scientist they should have avoided.

4. Is electricity-based cloning a thing?

Angier The Transported Man Tesla

The technology behind this machine is remarkable – the cloning is based on electricity. Not biology, not chemistry – which is what all cloning is based on then and today – just some flashes and sparks and boom – a clone. In a movie that goes through truly detailed scenes and drawings of the mechanics of each trick it is remarkable how quickly we simply buy this explanation. For every other trick there is a detailed explanation of how the trick works – but not for this one. And the one we get – electricity-based cloning – is way, way outside of established science.

5. Why does Tesla have money problems?

Tesla has invented a cloning machine for christ sakes! Why on Earth would he not clone a bunch of gold to keep himself solvent? Maybe he did not want to become the richest person on the planet, fine, – but at least being solvent? It would have kept creditors and possibly Edison off his back.

6. Why is Tesla not interested in claiming the greatest invention of all time?

In fact, Tesla has managed to do something stunning – a towering scientific achievement – but he wants nothing to do with it. He leaves the machine, unsupervised, for a random British magician at an inn. Why? What was his motivation? The movie asks us to believe in an electric cloning machine and that the inventor of this machine (in a very public battle with Edison) just has no interest in it – or that he does not go on to create another. You could create entire armies with this machine, but there is no exploration of those ideas whatsoever.

7. Why do we not see Angier emerge out of thin air when he clones himself?

Hold on, you might say – we do! There is that scene in the end when Angier shares with Borden his sacrifice – having to kill himself after each cloning. And in that scene, he emerges out of thin air. But that is a retelling – it is not presented as an objective fact in the storyline. Instead, when we see Angier do the trick from an objective point of view, we never actually see him emerge out of thin air. We never actually see the Prestige. Indeed, we don’t see the machine actually clone black hats or black cats either. The fact is – we never see anyone or anything cloned in the entire movie! We never see Angier, a hat or a cat appear out of thin air. It would obviously have been easy for Nolan to show this – but he doesn’t. Why? That is a massive hint that something is not correct.

8. Why does Angier have a healthy leg when he is dropped into the water tank?

Angier Frames Borden Water Tank

In the early part of the movie, when Angier is dropped into the water tank, he fights like hell to get out, and he uses both legs to try to break the glass. But his one leg and knee is destroyed – he can’t bend it anymore. Presumably, the clone also clones the injury. So if he has a knee injury – how can he fight like that?

9. Why does Angier think Borden has a twin (and not a clone)?

Why did Angier think that Borden had a twin when he showed up in the warehouse at the end? Why did he not guess a clone? I mean, Borden sent him to Tesla so that he could get a machine that created clones and then he got that exact same machine. It would be natural for Angier to assume that Borden had also cloned himself. That would explain his trick. But he doesn’t assume Borden has a clone. Instead, he instantly assumes that Borden has a twin. Why?

10. Why does Angier want the machine destroyed?

After his show-run (and his apparent death), Angier (as lord Caldlow now – his original name) wants the machine destroyed. Again – why? If he has the world’s first and only cloning machine, does he want it destroyed? You could argue that it served its purpose – but again, there is no discussion around this. It is as if no one acknowledges even for a second that the greatest scientific invention of all time has been created and is now just casually to be destroyed.

11. Why is Angier’s body not decomposed in the water tank?

Perhaps the biggest tell is that in the final scene you see Angier’s body in the tank and it seems perfectly intact. But it would only take a few hours for the body to start decomposing, rot and start emitting gases and soon float to the top, partially consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms. The trial and prison time alone must have lasted months. How could Angier’s body be in such pristine condition? Indeed, the movie pans to the other tanks, and one can see shades of dark images of bodies in them as well – all seemingly, perfectly preserved, not gaseous. It is an impossibility.

12. Why does Nolan tell us “we want to be fooled”

borden fallon makeup the prestige

The last two minutes of the movie are fascinating. At this point, the audience has now finally realized the big reveal – Borden had a twin! Cutter repeats his monologue from the opening that every trick has 3 parts. He concludes that “making someone disappear is not enough – you have to bring him back”. As he says those words, Fallon walks into the room and greets his daughter. It is the perfect ending. Nolan could have just faded to black right there as Cutter says you have to bring him back, and the audience would have been amazed. Wow – here it is, The Prestige in the movie itself. The entire movie is a trick!

But Nolan does not end it there. There are 10 more seconds left in the movie. Cutter continues his monologue: “Now you are looking. You want to know the secret. But you won’t find it because, of course, you are not really looking.”. And we now go on to a clip of the top hats and then settle on Angier in the water tank with the words “you want to be fooled”. It is clear that the message here has nothing to do with Borden and Fallon – instead, it has something to do with the cloning machine itself. Why are these extra seconds asking us to examine the hats and the body in the box?

Problems with The Prestige if the machine worked…

…one would have to come up with some pretty wild explanations for all of these questions. For instance: the hats are different because Nolan was not careful enough or Nolan did not show Angier, hats or cats emerge out of thin air because it would be cheesy or it is electricity-based cloning because Tesla is just that smart, or the plot does center around the greatest coincidence in movie history or that no one, neither Tesla nor Angier, nor Fallon has any interest in taking advantage of the world’s first cloning machine beyond using it for revenge or the bodies have not decomposed because…well, Nolan probably just missed that fact etc etc… unless, of course…

The machine does NOT work in the movie The Prestige!

There is a far simpler explanation. One that is obvious once you open yourself up to it. The machine did not work. If the machine does not work, all of the questions above have an immediate and simple answer. So before we return to them, let’s just explore what probably happened in the movie – instead of what you are meant to believe happened:

  1. Borden believes he can take Angier for a ride in a masterful waste of money and time. So he makes sure that Angier gets his coded diary through Olivia. The hook is set.
  2. Now Angier wants the code key, and he goes through extreme measures to get it. He captures Fallon and buries him alive in exchange for the code key – which is TESLA.
  3. This is a code key meant to get Angier going to Colorado to visit Tesla for help and to find the solution for Borden’s Transported Man trick.
  4. Borden has already alerted Tesla that a mark is coming – one that Tesla can milk for money.
  5. Angier heads off to Colorado and gets to meet Tesla, who quickly points out that this will be very expensive.
  6. After repeated “failed” attempts to create a machine by Tesla, Angier gets pissed, tells the inventor that he has swindled him, and leaves.
  7. But lo and behold, there are tons of cats and hats in Tesla’s backyard. And Angier discovered them! This is nothing but a ruse. Tesla has placed all these cats and hats there in a classic confidence scheme.
  8. Tesla tells Angier that he will make some final modifications but has to escape in the dark of night to escape due to Edison’s men (although we do not actually know this for sure). Tesla leaves behind an advanced light-spark machine for Angier.
  9. Angier realizes that he has been conned but also realizes that if he was conned, then maybe so can Borden. All the elements of his life now come together: he will lure Borden in one final time, and he will finally commit to live the lie to accomplish it.
  10. Angier returns to London and sets out to look for a double. He might use his old one, Root, but I doubt it. He finds an even better one. We know this guy is super rich, so money would not be a problem.
  11. And he then creates a far better version of his old Transported Man and trains the double to perform it.
  12. In this new version, the double is the one on stage, and it is the double who is dropped into the water tank. The water tank does not lock normally. Angier gets to hear the applause.
  13. Angier is now ready to set the hook and announces a 100 show run which would force Borden to come out.
  14. Borden bites (but not Fallon). He sees the trick and gets sucked into the illusion (just like the audience). But this time, Angier is prepared to go the distance. Every night he keeps the extended illusion up (just like the Chinese magician from earlier in the movie). There are water tanks, locked and covered, filled with wax dolls of Angier. He has staffed the show with blind men, he moves the huge water tank each night to a warehouse. Borden can not make sense of it – could the machine be real? He must know. Every night Angier waits for Borden to go backstage.
  15. Finally, Borden falls into the trap, he goes backstage. This is exactly the moment Angier has been waiting for. In this one show, he makes sure the water tank does lock, and Angier does not emerge, allowing his double to drown.
  16. Borden gets caught – everyone assumes he killed Angier.
  17. Angier returns to his family name and fortune. I am assuming that Lord Caldlow was always Angier’s real family name – as the movie hints early on that he has run away from whatever his family was.
  18. Borden is executed, and Fallon heads to the warehouse.
  19. In the final scene, Fallon emerges. Angier suddenly realizes how Borden did his trick all these years through a twin. But he is not going to let Borden’s win be complete – instead, he, with his dying breath, tries to fool Borden one last time: My trick was real! I am better than you!
  20. But Fallon is not having it: “I don’t care,” he says. He was never interested in Angier’s trick. Fallon was already past all of this fighting (unlike Borden).
  21. And finally – the movie closes with Nolan’s point: “we want to be fooled”

The Prestige: Plot Holes Resolved

With this sequence of events, the answers to the questions above become straightforward:

1. Why is Tesla lying to Angiers?

Because Tesla is conning him and setting a trap – sucking as much money out of Angier as possible.

2. Why are the hats different?

Because they are different – Tesla did not clone them – he bought them.

3. So the entire plot hinges upon one of the greatest coincidences in movie history?

No it does not. Borden was not the unluckiest person on the planet. He planned to send Angier to Tesla and Tesla planned to con him. The opposite of insane coincidence.

4. Is electricity-based cloning a thing?

No, of course not.

5. Why does Tesla have money problems?

Because he can not clone gold.

6. Why is Tesla not interested in claiming the greatest invention of all time?

Because he didn’t invent anything. The machine does not work.

7. Why do we not see Angier emerge out of thin air when he clones himself?

Because he doesn’t. As an additional point – Nolan leaves a clue that Angier’s retelling is false: in the retold vision Angiers appears out of thin air far closer to his double than at any other time he is supposedly cloning himself. According to the movie the hats and cats emerge far outside of Tesla’s laboratory and in the theater Angier “emerges” far away from the machine. Not in the retold vision – they are almost on top of each other which is a hint that the story is off.

8. Why does Angier have a healthy leg when he is dropped into the water tank?

Because it is Angier’s double.

9. Why does Angier think Borden has a twin (and not a clone)?

Because Angier knows the machine does not work so there are no clones. So what remains? A twin.

10. Why does Angier want the machine destroyed?

Because it is useless – it’s just a light show. And it reminds him of the crimes he has committed to win.

11. Why is Angier’s body not decomposed in the water tank?

Because these are extremely well-made wax dolls. Think Madame Tussaud’s (google Hiugh Jackman wax-doll for a major aha moment)

And the answer to the 12th question…

The Prestige Alternate Theory: Why does Nolan tell us “we want to be fooled”

Angier or borden who is the good guy The Prestige

Because we want to – and he just proved it. The final 10 seconds is an instruction for the audience to search further while also suggesting that we don’t really want to. We want to be fooled. Remarkably Nolan presents us with a machine that just makes a lot of noise and light. And he dares us to believe that this machine can somehow clone humans and things. And, then he dares us to vigorously defend this explanation – even though it makes no sense whatsoever. 

The alternate theory to the ending of The Prestige – in a stunning misdirection, Nolan makes us think that the real trick of the movie was the Borden/Fallon twin reveal. We are satisfied with this and refuse to question anything else. And because of that, we swallow the largest trick in the movie – that we were just made to believe in a ridiculous piece of sci-fi technology that could never, ever remotely work.