Strange film that runs for most of its length like a complicated, intriguing mystery, but turns into a science fiction movie later. It’s rather like reading an Agatha Christie to discover that the killer was a Martian.
The utterly unconvincing conclusion mars an otherwise intriguing and beautifully acted film. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are rival conjurers, in Edwardian London. Jackman builds up much of his act by stealing tricks from his rival, and there is much bad blood between the magicians after Jackman’s lover, working as Bale’s assistant, drowned in a water tank escape stunt that went wrong.
The film begins with Jackman’s body being found in the same water-tank, which is strange in that he was not using it in his act at this point when he was working on his ‘Vanishing Man’ stunt, in which he disappears from one side of the stage and reappears almost instantly on the other. He has apparently gone through a trapdoor as usual, expecting to land on a mattress, but the water tank has caught him instead, and he has drowned there. As the water tank found Bale with the dead man within, he has been blamed for the murder and now faces the hangman. Much of the film is given in flashback as he reflects on events, and as Michael Caine, his wonderfully portrayed assistant, gives evidence, but cannot divulge the magician’s secrets to the courts.
With Jackman ruining his act and giving away his secrets, Bale develops on act so ingenious that even bale can't break him - he uses a double who is really his own secret twin brother to appear to move at extreme speed to different sides of the theatre. Jackman pulls out all the stops to discover the secret, and suspecting the use of a double, he does try to use one himself, but the unreliable drunken double is quickly discovered.
Jackman now sets out to find an alternative way to replicate the Vanishing Man act. He finds the answer at terrible, tragic cost.
The key to Bale's version of the Vanishing Man act act lies in his apparatus, and his association with controversial, real life electricity inventor Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie (doing what appears to be an impersonation of Gregory Peck In The Boys From Brazil). Tesla, assisted by Andy Sirkis (Gollum, King Kong) proves to be reclusive when visited in the States, but he eventually agrees to make a unique machine for Jackman. It proves to be a kind of matter transporter, but experiments with Jackman’s Bowler hat just seem to charge the hat with electricity without sending it anywhere. Similar experiments on a live cat prove equally inconclusive, and Jackman wonders what his money has been invested in, but as he leaves Tesla’s secluded rented house, he finds his hat and the cat have been mass produced and transported to another location nearby. He now has about fifty hats, and there are several cats of the same appearance.
It is now that science fiction takes over from science, sense and conjuring ingenuity. Jackman hires the machine, and uses it to make his own new self appear in his vanishing man act, while the original has to vanish through a trap door to cover up for the fact that he hasn’t really moved at all. With nothing but blind stage hands to keep his act a secret, his only problem now is how to dispose of his doubles and clones – he has been doing this by drowning them all in the water tanks. He has the tanks and bodies hidden away. He is only discovered when Bale sneaks into the under-stage area, and witnesses the body of such a double drowning in the water tank. He is actually trying to save him when he is arrested as the culprit behind the murders. Jackman is actually killing himself every act.
As a magical artifacts collector buys the apparatus of Jackman’s act, and Bale is apparently hanged, Bale appears at Jackman’s hideaway and shoots him. Bale has in fact used his body double with far greater loyalty than he gave the appearance of doing. Jackman, dying, confesses that he was killing himself off, but reveals that it was always the the genuine version of himself, or at least the surviving clone killed off by the new clone, so that he no longer knows who he is.
There are some lovely touches and fantastic performances from all involved. The boy crying when a bird is apparently crushed to death in a magic trick only to reappear a little later seems unmoved when told it is sleight of hand. He insists that the live bird must be a brother. In fact he is right, as the magician is soon seen scraping the crushed carcass of the dead bird out of the crushing devise. It is actually a clue to how both magicians are replaced by their dopplegangers - Bale's twin takes over when Bale is really hanged claiming that he will escape, (the twin has even had a finger amputated to match the finger lost by his brother), and Jackman is really just his latest carbon copy.
A clever idea in which the central premise being fantastical should have been apparent much earlier as the film loses sight of just what genre it represents. The SF elements are apparently more predominant in the novel.