As US-based HD DVD fans of 'The Prestige' are probably already aware, this film was released on Blu-ray in the United States in February of 2007 by Blu-ray exclusive studio Buena Vista Home Entertainment. And while usually this would mean that you're out of luck if you hope to watch this title on HD DVD, in this case (if you're willing to spend a few extra bucks), there is a UK import available.
It's worth noting that not all next-gen releases are identical across formats and/or international territories. In fact, as we've discussed in other reviews, similar titles (such as the Japanese HD DVD edition of 'The Brothers Grimm') have carried entirely different video transfers, audio tracks and supplements.
So how do these two releases of 'The Prestige' compare? Read on...
According to Christopher Nolan's 'The Prestige,' every magic trick has three acts. The first is "The Pledge" -- a promise to amaze. The second is "The Turn" -- a mind-bending illusion that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. And third is "The Prestige" -- a shocking climax that casts everything that came before into a new light.
What usually leaves audiences most fascinated, of course, is just how those behind the alchemy create such spell-binding tricks. But in 'The Prestige,' it is the profession of magic itself that takes center stage -- a covert cabal so fueled by intense competition to out-amaze rivals that the lengths to which magicians will go to plunder secrets can result in even more unexpected, shocking climaxes.
It is 19th century London, and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two young magicians on the rise. Lifelong friends, a trick-turned-tragedy will drive a wedge into their partnership, and will deteriorate into a life-long battle for supremacy. Obsession will turn into jealousy and then into deceit, with eventually dangerous and deadly consequences. Also coming between Robert and Alfred will be their mentor Cutter (Michael Caine), and the long-suffering magician's assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), who may be a love interest for both men, or perhaps just a pawn. The rivalry comes to a head when Alfred discovers the ultimate trick, "The Transported Man." An element of science-fiction, courtesy of an amazing invention by the famed Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), will bring us to the film's very surprising, revelatory third act. In 'The Prestige,' truly nothing is ever what it seems.
On the level of pure entertainment, 'The Prestige' works -- often marvelously. After the blockbuster success of 'Batman Begins,' Nolan is back to the more intimate territory of 'Memento' and 'Insomnia.' This world of magic and misdirection suits his abilities perfectly, and he continues to show such a fine appreciation for character, pacing and atmosphere that 'The Prestige' rarely steps wrong. We are never too far ahead nor too far behind the story, and even if we never really feel much empathy for either Angier or Borden, their delight (and eventual obsession) with outdoing each other is never less than compelling.
Jackman and Bale perfectly cast and both shine brightly. Jackman has the more showy role, and it is probably no coincidence he chose 'The Prestige' after his bravura run on Broadway in 'The Boy from Oz' -- he certainly knows how to grandstand with great charisma. Bale has the darker, more introspective role, but as he so ably proved in 'Batman Begins,' perhaps no other mainstream actor in Hollywood today is more suited to wearing the color black. Caine also delivers another predictably charming, rascally performance as Cutter. And Johansson, though a bit too much narrative window dressing, is sexy, vulnerable and more than capable of pulling off the duplicitous aspects of her character.
Ultimately, however, 'The Prestige' lives and dies by its much-touted twist ending. I remember leaving the theater at an early screening early last fall, and about half the audience was delighted by the revelations, while the other half seemed to be scratching their heads. I love being manipulated by Nolan, yet never felt exploited. I just kept going back in my head, searching for the clues I may have missed. As with his previous film 'Memento,' watching the film a second time was a real joy, because it allowed me to appreciate even more Nolan's level of craft. Like 'The Sixth Sense,' the climax of 'The Prestige' is not a cheat, or a tacky gimmick. He never cheats, and is able to mystify and surprise us purely by cinematic sleight-of-hand. Moviemaking magic, indeed.
As I mentioned earlier, 'The Prestige' hit Blu-ray in the United States courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. That release featured a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer, which I thought looked fantastic -- in fact, I gave it a very rare five-star video rating.
This UK edition was released Warner Home Video, and I can only surmise the two studios shared the same high-def master, because I could barely detect one iota of difference in the overall quality of this HD DVD 1080p/VC-1 encode versus the Blu-ray. If I was absolutely squinting with my face up to the screen I might say that the VC-1 transfer has an slighly smoother veneer than the AVC MPEG-4, but really the two transfers are so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable.
Of course that's a good thing, since 'The Prestige' looked great on Blu-ray and once again it looks great here. As you would expect for a new release, the source is predictably pristine. Though clearly cleaned up and tweaked in post-production, it still retains a rich, supple look that is not overly digital or artificial. Color purity is also first-rate. Most of the exteriors have an intentionally desaturated look, with primaries constrained and blues muted to steel gray. But when the more vivid scenes kick in, hues really come alive. Colors are wonderfully robust and absolutely clean. I saw no chroma noise or smearing, and compression artifacts are also not an issue, nor is edge enhancement.
Blacks and contrast are fantastic -- the image is always completely smooth and consistent across the entire grayscale. And even though the film's visual style sometimes leans towards a darker, almost Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, shadow delineation is excellent. Fine details never get lost into the murk, giving the transfer a wonderful sense of depth and true three-dimensionality. For example, there is a breathtaking overhead shot early on of a train cutting through the countryside, where the level of detail blew me away. This is what high-def is all about.
Alas, all things are not equal between this HD DVD import and its US-released Blu-ray counterpart. While Buena Vista delivered a terrific uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/24-bit/6.9mpbs) for 'The Prestige' on Blu-ray, it gets demoted here to a measly 640kbps Dolby Digital-Plus track, and it just can't compete. While the Blu-ray was not truly reference quality (the film's sound design is probably a bit too reserved for that), it certainly trounces its UK HD DVD counterpart.
Surround use is very carefully modulated throughout 'The Prestige.' Whether it is atmospheric effects (outdoor noises, clapping crowds, etc.) or more action-oriented moments, all five channels are integrated together with no segment of the soundfield particularly prominent. So while 'The Prestige' never quite wows you, it does have a great, "slow build" quality that delivers excellent ambiance.
Unfortunately, with just a few simple compares between the Dolby Digital track on this HD DVD and the PCM on the Blu-ray, the differences between the two tracks are obvious. Failing to reproduce fine detail and clarity in the rears with much finesse, the back soundfield on the Dolby track is flat and listless. The score in particular doesn't have the same nice blend to the back as it did on the PCM. All is not lost, however -- dynamics still hold up fairly well, with generally tight low bass and clean highs. Dialogue, too, is perfectly intelligible, and volume matching was not an issue.
To be sure, on its own merits, this is certainly a passable track. It just can't match the Blu-ray's superior PCM sound.
Like the video transfer, this UK HD DVD release of 'The Prestige' and the domestic Blu-ray share identical extras. Unfortunately, as I wrote in my earlier review of the Blu-ray edition, this is a rather slim package that almost seems like a preview for a real special edition coming down the pike later.
The main attraction is "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Director Christopher Nolan." This multi-part featurette runs about 20 minutes and is divided into six segments: "The Director's Notebook" (4 minutes), "Conjuring the Past" (5 minutes), "The Visual Maze" (4 minutes), "Metaphors of Deception" (3 minutes), "Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century" (3 minutes) and "Resonance" (1 minute). What is most immediately noticeable is how elegantly well-shot the program is. The on-set interviews with just about every major participant -- Nolan, the producer and screenwriter, and all the main cast, including Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine -- and extensive behind-the-scenes footage are first-rate. All of which makes the brevity of the featurette somewhat disappointing. Nolan is intensively intelligent, and the insight here into all phases of the production -- the story, the location, the production design, the characters -- is truly fascinating. To top it off, all the material is presented in full 1080p video. So how about a full-on, hour-plus documentary next time, Disney?
The only other extra is "The Art of 'The Prestige,'" a four-part still gallery montage. Each segment is automated, with a series of stills displayed within a fancy window (nice graphics, by the way). Unfortunately, it is a bit tricky to get the images moving, as you can't use your remote's fast-forward or chapter skip functions at all. You simply have to wait for each still to "cycle" through its ten-second lifespan, then hit the "Play" button to advance to the next one. It really doesn't make any sense at all, and there are no on-screen instructions to explain it. I had to play around with my remote just to figure it out, which kind of dulls the fun. Anyway, the four sub-galleries include: "Film" (4:20, 42 stills), "Behind the Scenes" (4:30, 43 stills), "Costumes and Set" (1:40, 14 stills) and "Poster Art" (3:30, 33 stills).
Rounding things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which like all of the above extras is encoded in 1080p video. Note, however, that I wasn't all that impressed with the picture quality of the trailer in particular -- it's fine, but no great shakes, so it may well be a 480p upconvert.
'The Prestige' is a great thriller with a twist ending that will make you want to watch the movie all over again. It also boasts fine performances from Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and Christopher Nolan's direction is in top form as usual.
This import HD DVD version is a fairly close match with Disney's domestic Blu-ray. The transfers are identical and both fantastic, and the extras are also the same. Unfortunately, where this version stumbles is in the audio department -- the Dolby Digital-Plus track here just can't compete with the PCM audio on the domestic Blu-ray. Still, if you're an HD DVD supporter jonzing for a high-def fix of 'The Prestige,' this disc should certainly do the job.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.