I recently watched two films The Prestige (2006) and Now You See Me (2013). The former was recommended to me as one of Hugh Jackman’s better films to observe his acting capabilities and he does give a good performance. In fact, both films have excellent actors (the great Michael Caine appears in both) and one is never bored while watching. But what I want to focus on these two films is how otherwise pretty good films get ruined for me by the desire of the filmmakers to spring surprise endings on the viewer, even if those endings ruin the credibility of what came before. (There will be major spoilers for The Prestige after the jump. In fact, I pretty much give away the whole story.)
Both of these films are about magic, which immediately put me in a favorable frame of mind even before I started watching. I really like magic but what I like most about it is the fact that it is not magic at all and that what seems like a violation of the laws of science turn out to be cleverly designed and constructed illusions. And this is one way in which The Prestige let me down.
The central plot is about the bitter and brutal rivalry between two magicians (played by Jackman and Christian Bale) at the dawn of the twentieth century to see who is the greater magician. In particular they seek to have the better version of a teleporter trick where the magician disappears in one location and then appears almost instantaneously at another location, certainly quicker than would be taken by going through hidden passages.
What bothered me is that Jackman’s more spectacular version of the trick involves using a device that actually creates a duplicate of an object but at a different location. This is flat-out impossible because it violates all manner of the laws of science and yet the filmmakers treat it as if it were merely a clever new invention. Although the film takes place in England, Jackman goes to Colorado Springs to get a scientist to build it. Furthermore, in order to give this idea added verisimilitude, the film has as the scientist Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie), a real and famous scientist who actually did live in Colorado Springs around 1900.
In addition, both the Jackman and the Bale magicians had elaborate secret double lives. Jackman was also a rich nobleman. Bale had an identical twin in disguise as his assistant and they switched identities periodically to achieve his teleporter trick, resulting in them sharing the fame as a magician as well as sharing a wife and lover and child. We are supposed to believe that both Jackman and Bale successfully hid this fact from everyone close to them as they were each going through a magician apprenticeship, building up their careers from obscurity to fame over many years, and getting married along the way. Their double lives are revealed only at the very end.
Rather than being wowed by the surprise revelations, I was left feeling annoyed at the end because it treats the filmgoer as an idiot.
In Now You See Me there was no magical hocus-pocus like the teleporter machine and the spectacular tricks that are revealed are seen to be done by cleverness and nothing more is claimed, although even here some of it was highly implausible. But the whole plot is utterly preposterous as we are expected to believe that a mysterious person planned the whole scheme down to its last detail decades in advance. What is worse is that it involves yet again a secret double identity that is sprung on the viewer at the very end. While not magical, this one was utterly unbelievable and again left me feeling annoyed rather than impressed.
I blame M. Night Shyamalan for this trend. Ever since the massive success of The Sixth Sense (1999), some filmmakers have been overly desirous of producing a gasp-inducing surprise ending. But the surprise in The Sixth Sense was done well and seemed natural, once you swallow the central plot idea introduced right at the start that there actually are people who can see the spirits of dead people still appearing in the form of their former bodies.
The surprise endings in the two films discussed here seemed to be designed to create great surprise, which they undoubtedly did, at the cost of making the audience (at least me) feel like I was swindled. Shymalan’s later films suffered from the same problem, in which creating a big surprise ending, however contrived, seeming to be the main goal instead of it being an organic part of the plot.
Even films that are not suspenseful seem to be tempted by the surprise ending disease. Robot and Frank (2012) was a wonderful film that I reviewed earlier. This was a pure human-interest story, not fast moving and with no glitz. But even here, about three-quarters of the way through, they sprang a surprise that was somewhat implausible and, what was worse, totally unnecessary. It did not completely spoil the film but it did cheapen it slightly for me.
There should be no need for such things. This kind of deus ex machina shows a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of the filmmakers. The classic Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho (1960) shows how surprise can be done in a way that is plausible and wraps up the story in a satisfactory and non-supernatural manner.