It’s worth remembering where Nolan was at during this point in his career. “Batman Begins” just became his biggest success, taking in $371 million worldwide. A hit, to be certain, but even “Tenet” ($363 million) made more worldwide at the height of a global pandemic. The relativity of the moment is very important. This was not yet the reliably bankable blockbuster auteur we’ve come to know and love. He was a guy who made a few mid-budget hits and one damn good superhero movie. But before circling back to Batman, he opted to make another smaller-scale original.
“The Prestige” is based on the novel by Christopher Priest and centers on two friends beginning to learn their art as magicians. Rupert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) become bitter enemies after a tragedy befalls them. They devote their lives to a rivalry that plays out in London over years, with things getting progressively twisted along the way. It was almost like Nolan with a side of M. Night Shyamalan.
Even with a lot of star power, including Scarlett Johansson in a supporting role and even David Bowie appearing as Nikola Tesla, this wasn’t a movie with an obvious hook like a new take on Batman. Though Nolan is now a guy with expensive tastes, it’s worth also pointing out that he was extremely reasonable in this case, with the film carrying a relatively modest $40 million budget. That very much worked in its favor, as it wasn’t the only twisted movie about magic trying to get the attention of moviegoers that year.