Oh, how the mighty have fallen—celebrated filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento, Insomnia) has failed to live up to his own hype with The Prestige, a moody thriller set in Victorian England about a mythic rivalry between competing magicians. Following on the heels of Nolan's dour and unwieldy take on Batman (Batman Begins), The Prestige reunites the director with the somnolent Christian Bale. Bale exudes melancholy and veiled malevolence as Alfred Borden, a Faustian figure struggling against real and imagined demons as he battles with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) for the ardor of London audiences (not to mention the lusty attentions of Scarlett Johansson). This all sounds rather exciting, but the action falls flat early in the film when Nolan tips his hand by revealing his forthcoming "surprise ending" to all but the most inattentive of viewers. Nolan and his younger brother Jonathan co-wrote the script, and it is ironic—considering that the pair collaborated brilliantly on Memento—that the duo would commit such an egregious error here.

Jackman carries his weight as Bale's rival, but Bale can't manage (and never has managed, as far as I know) to deliver a compelling performance for all his labored artificiality. Bale's constant brooding is as empty as Nolan's murky aesthetic, and the pair's present state would seem to be inextricably linked. Whereas Memento benefited immensely from riveting performances by Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss, Batman Begins and The Prestige are weighed down by Bale's smoldering one-dimensionality. And whereas Insomnia was bolstered by a supporting cast featuring Hilary Swank and Martin Donovan, The Prestige suffers from Johansson's vapidity. Even the great gifts of Michael Caine and a cameo by David Bowie can't render scenes featuring Bale anything more than passably entertaining.

Nolan cemented a reputation as a hot indie filmmaker with his first flourish of films, and engendered empathy instead of enmity regarding any flaws in his first timid steps into the studio system with Insomnia. Despite its commercial success, however, Batman Begins was an unendurable bore, and with a follow-up feature starring Bale already in the works, Nolan has apparently entered the ranks of forgettable hacks who dominate big-budget filmmaking.

The Prestige is dripping with ambience, which makes the film's failure to pan out all the more upsetting. If the conclusion weren't so simultaneously predictable and inexplicable (all I'll say is that laws of physics are either broken or ignored), one might stumble from the theater in a state of ambivalence, but as it stands, the natural response is either a grimace or a chuckle. For Nolan to develop as a filmmaker—and thereby regain our respect—he will have to give us more than moodiness and artful cinematography. He will have to give us characters that express more about the human condition than madness, and stories that communicate something more relevant to the average viewer than the price of megalomania. Until then, I guess we'll have to make do with the earlier efforts of a once-promising filmmaker.

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