Sunday, July 7, 2013

Magic In Movies

A little movie called Now You See Me came out in theaters not to long ago. I was super excited for this movie as soon as I saw the first trailer for it. After watching it, and mostly enjoying it (The movie did what I was hoping for, but the surprise twist was pretty deflating.) I began to think about magic in movies. I imagined there were hundreds out there that I hadn't seen and when I checked out Wikipedia I was astonished at how small the list was. I won't list them all here, but as expected I hadn't seen most of them. Only four in fact. Two that came out this year (Now You See Me and Oz the Great and Powerful.) and two that came out in 2006 (The Prestige and The Illusionist.) The phenomenon that is stage magic and sleight of hand works as a great plot point in all of these films. The directors allow the audience to see only what they want them to and this visual sleight of hand leads to a very intriguing movie experience while we try to figure out how it happened before they reveal it.

So why isn't it more present? I mean sure, with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and the aforementioned Now You See Me and Oz the Great and Powerful we've had three so far this year. Critically speaking the highest scoring of the three on Rotten Tomatoes is Oz with a 59%, but Burt Wonderstone is the one of the three which didn't double their money in box office sales and I suspect that's more of a lack of clear vision in what the movie was supposed to be. But why didn't these films get a better reception? 

Let's take a bit from Christopher Nolan's The Prestige:

The three parts of a magic trick:
The Pledge - We see something normal. (A Rabbit, beautiful assistant)
The Turn - The magician does something extraordinary to it. (Makes it disappear, saws it in half)
The Prestige - To make it truly amazing you have to bring it back. 

So let's see fi this formula works on the movies themselves. 

Now You See Me starts with four essentially street magicians who are confronted by a mysterious figure. In an interesting turn of events they are then seen a year later on a massive stage where they apparently perform a heist. And finally as their finale goes off with almost no hitch we get a reveal that is incredibly cliched. Clearly the parts of a magic trick are not going to line up perfectly with the three acts of a movie, but on a broad scale they are quite related. A typical, super basic story structure is: A normal day, when something strange happens and the main character must overcome some obstacle to return things to normal. Conceptually parallel to the three parts of a magic trick. The main reason we don't see films like these more often is that in order for it to be a masterpiece, it has to have these three pieces put together perfectly so that no part falls flat. The Prestige of the film needs to be stellar in order for it to work. 

Why is there this sort of standard for magic based films? Hard to say. My bet is that it is there for all films, only we tend to forgive them outside of this genre as we are not reminded of the trope. The sleight of hand the director plays in the film often throws hints at you throughout and when the reveal finally happens it changes the whole movie for the viewer. A lot of times the hints purposefully mislead you and other times they intentionally don't though they feel like they do. Since there's not really a "standard twist" (for lack of better turn) every time we see a new one and there's a twist that you aren't expecting, it falls flat. 


For example, in Now You See Me. It's a movie more about the detective investigating the heist more so than the magicians themselves. When it is revealed that he is the one who hired them all and planned this massive, worldwide scheme it changes the entire movie. Not in a good way. All of a sudden we just watched a movie where we thought we knew what the character Rhodes was after as he is investigating the team. But wait, he was behind it all? Then why was he playing along the whole time? I mean surely he could be the one behind the scheme and not have anyone know he exists and still be able to pull it off. At that point you realize that the film is not playing sleight of hand with what you can see, but what the movie is actually about. I really want to see this one again to find the moments where it makes sense in the build up that he is behind it. They might lessen the blow of feeling cheated. 

On the other hand we get the Prestige where the characters and their motivations are clearly defined and completely make sense in the world of the film. The twist may be a little underwhelming, but it doesn't ruin the motivations of anyone. It actually clarifies things quite a bit. The twist is an intelligent one rather than one made seemingly to be the most ridiculous twist possible. Which is the key in my mind.

Sure a twist should be shocking. I find them to be much more effective when they make sense in relation to the plot and have a bit of cleverness to them so they don't feel like a cop out. I think until we start seeing movies with a clever, logical twist instead of a twist for the sake of a twist we will not be having many great movies surrounding magic tricks and the like. It's unfortunate really, because there is opportunity for greatness in the genre as seen in The Prestige, The Illusionist, and allegedly Hugo. Come back later in the summer as we are doing an episode of the Cinemasters Podcast about movie pairs, which is inspired by The Prestige and The Illusionist coming out the same summer.

Have you seen Now You See Me? What did you think? Do you think we'll see more movies with magic as a focal point soon?

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