This is based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Priest. Most unusually, though many changes were made, Priest okayed them and was pleased with the result. It’s about magic … I hate that word, it’s about illusion, which I love. It is very well done. It concerns two rival magicians in 1897 (and before, in flashbacks) who hate each other, and their attempts to out-do and sabotage each other, some of which are very cruel. And I can’t say a lot more without inserting a
Christian Bale as Alfred Borden invents an illusion whereby he seemed to teleport across a stage faster than he could run the distance. Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier is baffled, but determined to duplicate the stunt. Michael Caine as his tech wizard says it can’t be done without a double. They find a suitable man and disguise him, Angier falls through the bottom of a box and has to listen to his double get all the applause while he sits on a pile of mattresses down below. This infuriates him, and he goes to Colorado to meet with Nicola Tesla (David Bowie), who is experimenting with high-voltage power transmission. (Many plot complications omitted here, and earlier; this is a very twisty piece, but all laid out logically and fairly.)
What Tesla ends up inventing is not a matter transmitter, but a duplicator. (Larry Niven explored this idea when thinking about his teleportation booths and how they might work. Say you analyze the object to be teleported, transmit that information, and the object is assembled at the other end. Why destroy the original?) The first time Angier uses the device, he has a gun handy, and when his clone appears, he shoots him. After that, in the trick he is able to fall through a trap door in the stage, and then his duplicate appears in the balcony instantly.
Ah, but what to do with the chap who fell through the trap? Well, there’s a water tank with a lid that snaps shut as soon as the magician falls through, and he drowns. He says he will perform this trick only 100 times …
What a situation. I explored it a bit in my story “The Phantom of Kansas,” where cloned human bodies could be filled with the memories of someone who has died. Something like “you” will carry on, but you are dead. The man who willingly falls into the water knows he is going to drown, but knows another “him” will appear, a man who has never drowned, since we all can only die once … I’d call this commitment to one’s art.
Incidentally, the trick behind Borden’s original illusion is stunningly simple, though almost as painful as Angier’s in execution. I’ll leave it to you to discover how it was done.