The Prestige

Posted in Side Topics at 10:55 am by Sam

Spoilers ahoy! This thread is for discussion of The Prestige, a movie we talk about in an essentially spoiler-free manner in Episode 9. Also see Stephen’s non-spoiler review here. But I’m opening up this area here to allow those who have seen the movie to talk about its secrets. Beware spoilers.


  1. Sam (405) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 11:05 am

    wintermute: To respond to your post in the Episode 9 area, I think I might need you to be more specific about what you’re confused about.

    Basically, as I understand it, Christian Bale wanted to try tying a different kind of knot. Nobody else agreed, but his character being who he was, he tied it anyway — maybe — and sure enough, it was a more dangerous knot to use, as the woman couldn’t wrangle out of it. Or, alternately, he tied it wrong. Or, alternately, he didn’t tie the different knot anyway, and he just tied the old one wrong, although the facial expressions in that scene indicate that he did *something* different from usual.

    Whatever the case, what’s important is Hugh Jackman blames him for her death. Whether he tied the knot wrong by mistake, or tied the new knot nobody else wanted him to tie, it was still his fault. And what really sets Jackman against Bale is that he doesn’t think Bale was adequately concerned or remorseful about it. So he winds up shooting Bale, and that sets Bale against Jackman, and it all escalates from there.

    What I don’t personally buy, as I said in the podcast, is steps 2 and 3. Step 2 is that Jackman was driven to shoot Bale on stage. I believe he could have been, but the movie is missing a simple scene somewhere that really conveyed to us how Jackman is brooding and unable to get over the incident.

    Step 3 is that Bale retaliated with the bird-in-a-cage incident. I believe someone whose fingers were shot off over an accidental death could have been so wroth as to carry out a sick sort of revenge on stage, but the movie doesn’t really show us that. You have to see the incident first, then backtrack in your head and fill in how the character got there.

    Once the feud is set up, though, I think the movie becomes much, much stronger and winds up just being a huge amount of fun.

    In any case, did I inadvertently hit upon the answer you were looking for, or no?

  2. wintermute (157) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Kind of. Clearly, Bale changed his mind about which knot to tie, and the clear implication is that he went from a slip knot to a double Langstom (I think that’s right…), but it’s not something I’d swear to.

    But Jackman and Caine should have been able to look at the knot afterwards, and see which knot it was, and if it was correctly tied. It didn’t look as if she’d slipped any part of it at all, so it shouldn’t take more than a glimpse to settle the question. Clearly, everyone is familiar with both the knots in question.

    After that, step 2 becomes moot, but I agree they could have been set up better.

  3. wintermute (157) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Oh, also, I saw this on Saturday. So, thanks for waiting before you aired this segment.

  4. Parker (16) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    I’ve speculated for years about how teleportation could work if we ever develop the technology… Suppose we can scan a person and read his entire molecular structure into RAM, send it to another computer through the internet, and assemble it, intact, on the other end. Seems fairly feasible to me. We just need higher-capacity storage, more bandwidth, and of course, molecular scanners and assemblers.

    This is essentially what Hugh Jackman’s character did, albeit with Victorian-era technology and lots of cool electricity everywhere. That was awesome. I’m a sucker for good steampunk.

    I was glad to see the movie also touched on the ethical dilemma of this kind of teleportation: it’s not so much transporting someone, but rather creating a duplicate of him, and then killing him (the original one). There’s no reason to think that the duplicate *is* the first guy, but he does appear identical to him. Probably acts just like him too. But it’s not him.

    Do humans have souls? We certainly have consciousness. Should we assume that a person’s soul, or consciousness, would be automatically transferred to his duplicate? Seems unlikely to me. So you kill the first guy, and the second guy goes on to live the first guy’s life as if nothing had ever happened. Except that the first guy is DEAD. To any outside observer, it appears to be teleportation. But to the one actually doing it, it’s a pretty mortifying proposition.

    It made for a great plot twist in The Prestige. I’d love to see a sci-fi story that takes this idea to the extreme, a future where teleportation is commonplace, and the entire civilized population has been replaced with soulless automatons, having all killed themselves for the sake of quicker transportation.

  5. Stephen (221) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    One thing that’s worth noting is that Jackman’s wife clearly wanted Bale to tie the harder knot. As to why they didn’t check the knot, my suspicion would be that they probably untied it before anyone stopped to think about it, or maybe they cut off the rope and discarded it.

    Parker: It’s a digression, but an interesting one, so I’ll give you my take. I don’t believe in anything supernatural, and thus I believe conciousness is entirely physical, as in it is nothing more than the physical contents of your head. If you duplicate somebody, for an instant the two duplicates are exactly the same person (they begin diverging as they both have separate experiences). I would have no problem duplicating myself so long as the original was destroyed instantly and painlessly, and I don’t think I would end up a soulless automaton.

  6. Sam (405) said,

    November 28, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    Of course, unlike Stephen I do believe in both God and also a human spirit. But that sort of leaves me out of the discussion, because I question the very premise, that someone even *could* be duplicated. I don’t honestly know what I believe would happen if you were to duplicate a human body, atom for atom. I don’t know if the copy would simply not function at all, or if it would function as a different person, or if it would function without intelligence, or what. I only believe that the spirit would stay with the original and not be transported or copied into the copy.

    Clearly there would be some completely weird consequences. If the copy was at all animate, it would be a real mind-bender. Memories, of course, are at least substantially and possibly completely stored by physical means, and so you’d have two people who share memories. And memories are not just things we remember when we reminisce, but a large part of the very things that define who we are, what we want, and what we’re afraid of. It would be trippy, all the same.

    But my belief in the spirit *really* makes The Prestige a trippy movie for me. Of course, it’s a fantasy movie, and doesn’t necessarily have to have a premise that matches my own world view. But to be consistent with my world view, the “original” Jackman dies every single time — each copy would therefore be a new person implanted with the same genetics and memories and physical condition as the old, and so he’s unaware he’s not the original and indeed appears to be the original to others. How God sorts that mess out in the end is something that’s, I would be thankful to say, best left to God.

  7. gremlinn (1) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 4:26 am

    Stephen: I also don’t believe in souls or the supernatural, but I’m more inclined to think that what would happen in the case of teleportation would be as Parker describes. Consciousness is of course a very slippery idea to take on, but I think that people of most common worldviews would agree that it’s either completely contained in and defined by the physical state of the brain, or it’s partially that and partially *tied* to it through something like a soul.

    That leads to the question of why the continuous experience of consciousness would “flow” or “jump” to a clone of yourself created through teleportation (or any process by which a clone is created, whether or not the original is left to exist). Presumably whatever machinery creates the clone has to be able to store in an intermediate state the complete informational content of the original, or at least to such a degree of accuracy that the clone would be close enough to be considered “the same”. Though it would be completely unfeasible, you could accomplish this by, say, writing down on paper the same informational content, then destroy the person, then wait a few thousand years and construct the clone. If consciousness, a continuous sensory experience, is to be maintained, it seems to me that it has to somehow live on through informational content alone, which I cannot accept.

    Now if the original person’s consciousness comes to an end, and the physical structure itself is completely destroyed, then it seems to me (assuming my naturalistic worldview is accurate) that that person is effectively killed. Sure, it can probably be made perfectly painless, perhaps even instantaneous, but going into the process, the original will be unable to distinguish the results from being instantly vaporized.

    This means there’s a somewhat bizarre situation, in that a friend of the original person might be completely indifferent to the original going through teleportation and being killed (other than knowing his friend would be suffering from anticipating death). After all, the clone will be indistinguishable and will *act* as if he’s the same person, with the same memories, but just moved to a different location. But would the original willingly go along with it? I don’t think so, if they thought about it carefully. It’s an act of sacrificing your life, for the only possible gain of having a duplicate moved somewhere else. Almost surely not worth it.

    Now, if you look it at from a worldview in which an intelligent, omnipotent (or at least reasonably-potent) God exists and imbues souls to humans, it then becomes plausible that consciousness could be to the soul as a passenger is to a vehicle, and God could transport the soul (and consciousness with it) upon an act of teleportation which destroys the original, thus permitting a smooth continuity of sensory experience — the original walks into the teleportation machine, presses the button, and then finds himself in the target location.

    Thinking about this, I realize that you couldn’t in fact set up a scientific experiement to determine whether souls/consciousness were transportable. If you tested it on others, the clone would claim to have had a continuous chain of sensory experience crossing the gap of teleportation, but neither you nor they would be able to distinguish this from the *memory* of those immediately prior experiences flowing smoothly into the present.

    And just what is the experience of sensory continuity, anyway? At any exact moment, you only have the experience of the present and the memories of the past which are *constructed* into a compatible form. It’s possible that at extremely brief intervals (just long enough for a “cycle” of electric activity in the brain, perhaps) the conscious “you” of the mind dies — in a very real sense — and a new you is created with a new layer of memory, the “present” of the previous you. This could very well be indistinguishable from identifying your self as a single conscious entity that persists through time.

    Anyway, this is all interesting to me, especially as it weighs heavily as an ethical and philosophical issue in my long fictional work-in-progress. Not really surprising by now — it seems that almost every day I come across something that ties in closely.

  8. Stephen (221) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 10:05 am

    gremlinn: The weird thing about being killed is, if it’s instant, you’re not around to realize you’ve been killed. So if the original you is killed instantly, sure that copy of you is dead, but since there’s an exact copy of you somewhere else, you’re effectively still alive. You can say from the perspective of the original, the original dies, but the original no longer has a perspective.

    So, yeah, it’s the same as being instantly vaporized, but since you don’t realize it there’s no big loss, because there’s an exact duplicate of you to carry on for you. What’s terrifying about the scenario in The Prestige is the way the original is forced to die a terrible death.

    I’m not sure why you think consciousness can’t exist through information only — after all, our consciousness is not actually continuous; it just seems that way to us. When you sleep but before you dream, when you’re put under for surgery, when you drink too much and black out, these are all common instances where our consciousness is essentially cut off from any sensory input and seems to be almost entirely shut down. I don’t see any reason to believe that consciousness is anything more than data (memories) and some rules about processing incoming data (our personality). In this sense you could express consciousness in a computer program and I’m pretty confident that this will someday happen, and that you will be perfectly able to suspend conscious beings in exactly the way you describe.

  9. wintermute (157) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 10:28 am

    If I understand the arguments correctly, I’m with Stephen on this one; in fact I’d go so far as to say that it doesn’t make sense to say that one is the “original” and one is the “duplicate”, except in so far as one of them isn’t standing in the same place. If the “original” is destroyed as the “duplicate” is created across the room, or if the “original” is teleported across the room as the “duplicate” is created in place, then… well, is there any difference at all? Would anyone (including the Jackmen) be able to distinguish between these scenarios?

  10. Sam (405) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 10:50 am

    If I thought a human being were entirely a physical being, I’d be inclined to agree with Stephen and wintermute as well, but I’d still be uncertain about risking my life on it. And I can’t accept the notion that consciousness is not more than information and an algorithm, that it doesn’t also require a physical structure at minimum.

    But in any case, I’d never ever ever ever trust a teleportation machine to assemble a copy correctly. The tiniest little error could be debilitating or fatal, and many errors could potentially take years to materialize. Hugh Jackman’s character was a complete lunatic to trust the machine’s accuracy, even at a time when medical science was considerably less advanced than it is today.

    That’s me, feebly trying to tie back in with the movie. I think we’re straying from discussion of The Prestige with the more philosophical aspects of this conversation, though admittedly it’s a fine line. But as most of us know here from experience on RinkWorks, this is an explosive topic, and if I may, I’d like to ask that this discussion stay tied to how this all specifically relates to the movie. For the more theoretical aspects of this discussion, please feel welcome to revive the RinkWorks thread. Thanks.

  11. Parker (16) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 1:39 pm

    Absolutely. This *is* All Movie Talk, after all. :-)

    And you reminded me that I’ve already had this discussion on the RinkWorks forum, and said almost the same thing, over four years ago. I’m a broken record.

    Anyway, The Prestige was a terrific movie. I wasn’t quite clear on why Jackman’s character (under an alias) was trying to get custody of Bale’s character’s daughter. I think that’s right, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the film and I might be mixing it up with something else.

  12. Sam (405) said,

    November 29, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    Parker: I interpreted it as simply a way to screw over Bale’s character in a particularly devastating way. By the end, both characters are insanely driven to hurt each other as much as possible, and taking his daughter is an efficient way to do that.

    There’s almost certainly an element of jealousy as well. Jackman loved his wife and (do I speculate, or was this explicitly stated? I can’t remember) probably wanted children and a happy family life. He sees Bale as having taken that away from him, and, worse, *getting* a normal family life, complete with a child, and (Jackman believes) not even loving them and appreciating the life he has with them.

    That’s gotta provoke some serious jealousy. And however insane Jackman’s character becomes, how can it not elicit sympathy? I really feel for the guy, and in light of the fact that Jackman doesn’t do very much of anything honorable in the whole movie, that’s a pretty remarkable thing.

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