The Prestige and Back to the Future: Magic versus Time Travel

04 May 2014 on Movies. 10 minutes

People love to imagine the impossible things. Sometimes they would imagine things like backing to the past or going to the future; sometimes they would imagine things like having some special machines, which can duplicate anything they want. Those impossible things happen in The Prestige written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, and Back to the Future written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Both the screenplays are interesting. They make impossible things into possible. However, in terms of the qualities of plots, one of them does a better job. The Prestige’s plots are better than Back to the Future’s. Back to the Future has good plots: it has a good inciting incident; it has good setups and payoffs; its plots move forward through conflicts. However, The Prestige still wins the competition of the plots, because it is masterpiece: it has a strong inciting incident; it has conflicts on multiple levels; it is full of tasteful setups and payoffs; its crisis is strong.

Back to the Future has a strong inciting incident. The inciting incident in the Back to the Future is the time travel of Marty, which sends him back to 1955 (Zemeckis 28). The time travel totally breaks the balance of Marty’s life, because being in the wrong age, Marty has no possibility to return to his normal life unless he comes through all the “gaps” and back to 1985 (McKee 147). The time travel gives Marty a “conscious desire” (McKee 189), which is “[getting] back to the home” (Zemeckis 40). As a result, the inciting incident launches Marty “on a Quest for” getting back to the 1985 (McKee 197), and pushes Marty into the journey of “conflicts” and “gaps” (McKee 197).

Besides the strong inciting incident, Back to the Future also has many setups and payoffs. To get back to the future, Marty needs a lightning to generate the 1.21 jigowatts instead of the nuclear reaction (Zemeckis 44). Then, Marty reminds the “‘Save the Clock Tower’ flyer”. The flyer talks about a lightning that makes the “CLOCK STOPPED AT 10:02” (Zemeckis 45). The flyer not only solves Marty’s problem, but also reminds the audiences of the “CLOCK WOMAN” who introduces Marty the lightning and the clock earlier in the screenplay (Zemeckis 8). Without the lightning, Marty and Dr. Brown have no way to generate the 1.21 jigowatts of electricity. The gap between Marty’s desire of getting back to the future and restricts of the reality “jolts the audience with surprise” (McKee 235). “In an effect to satisfy its curiosity, the audience rushes back through what story it’s seen so far, seeking for answer”, and then, they find the setups planted by the writer (McKee 235). Setups and payoffs are everywhere in the screenplay. The car accident of Marty reminds the audiences of the first meeting of Marty’s parents (Zemeckis 15, 34). Biff’s arbitrariness and George’s weakness in 1955 remind audiences of their arbitrariness and weakness in 1985 (Zemeckis 1-12, 32-33). The payoff sends audience back to the beginning of the screenplay to find the setups planted by the writer, and makes “what it is seen so far distantly clicks into a new configuration” (McKee 235). Back to the Future has many setups and payoffs, which benefits a lot on its plots. However, the setups and payoffs are good, but not great, because they are simple. The setup brings one meaning, and then the payoff brings a second meaning. Most of the setups and payoffs only have two “levels of meanings”, but there is no more third or fourth meaning (McKee 240).

Plots in Back to the Future move forward through conflicts. “The inciting incident launches” Marty in the journey of conflicts and gaps. Marty wants Dr. Brown to “get [him] back to home”, but Dr. Brown rejects him and says, “I think you got me confused with the Wizard of Oz” (Zemeckis 40). Even after Dr. Brown believes Marty, Marty still cannot get back to the future, because there is no available plutonium in 1955 (Zemeckis 44). Conflicts occur continuously. Once they solve one, a new one comes. They solve the electricity problem, but new conflict occurs: Marty influences the first meeting of his parents, so he needs to get his parents fall in love (Zemeckis 45). Marty tries to make his mother love his father, but there are still so many conflicts: Lorraine is fascinated by Marty and has no interest in George (Zemeckis 49, 58); George is too shy to invite Lorraine to dance (Zemeckis 51, 57); Biff always brings troubles (Zemeckis 51, 57). Conflicts are everywhere. Those conflicts “hook [the audiences’] interest” and “hold [the audiences’] uninterrupted concentration, then carry [the audiences] through time without an awareness of the passage of time” (McKee 210). Conflicts between Marty, George, Lorraine and Biff are personal conflicts, and conflicts between restricts of reality and Marty’s desire of backing to the future are extra-personal conflicts. However, there is no inner conflict because Marty never make choice. A true choice should be “the lesser of two evils” or between “irreconcilable goods” (McKee 304), but Marty never face such a dilemma. However, although the absence of inner conflicts prevent Back to the Future from being great, its conflicts still benefits a lot on making good plots. Back to the Future has good plots: the strong inciting incident, the ubiquitous conflicts and the setups and payoffs.

Although Back to the Future’s plots are good, The Prestige still can win the competition of plots, because The Prestige is a masterpiece. It masters almost all the gears of story: the inciting incident, the setups and payoffs, the conflicts, the crisis and so on. Firstly, The Prestige has a very strong inciting incident, which “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life”, arouses Angier’s “conscious desire” and launches Angier “on a Quest for his Object of Desire against forces of antagonism” (McKee 197). In The Prestige, the inciting incident is the death of Angier’s wife, Julia. After Julia drowns, Angier “desperately BRUSHES water from Julia’s chest” (Nolan 29). From this detail, we can find that Angier loves Julia very much. As a result, the irreversible death of the woman Angier loves most makes a radically upsetting of Angier’s life. After Julia dead, Angier believes that “Alfred Borden and his repertoire of exotic knots” kills Julia (Nolan 36). When Angier see Borden and Sarah, he says, “I saw happiness…happiness that should have been mine” (Nolan 46). Angier tells Cutter, “The man stole my life. I am going to steal his trick” (Nolan 53). Angier’s word shows his “conscious desire” of becoming the greatest magician and revenging on Borden (McKee 197). Angier’s “the conscious desire” launches him “on a Quest for his object of Desire against forces of antagonism” (McKee 197). In conclusion, the inciting incidence of The Prestige is strong. It gives Angier a strong push and pushes him into the journey of conflicts and gaps (McKee 197).

Secondly, The Prestige has a strong crisis. Angier’s decision of whether using Tesla’s machine or not makes the crisis of The Prestige. Angier says, “It took courage to climb into that machine every night…Not knowing if I’d be the Prestige…Or the man in the box…” (Nolan 125-126). Tesla’s machine is an “Opportunity” (McKee 303). It is best chance Angier ever gets to create the best magic and beats Borden. However, it is also the “Danger” (McKee 303). It is very dangerous. Every time he uses the machine, he has to make real sacrifice —— to kill himself. Moreover, once there is some problem in the machine, it can kill Angier and make Angier “lose forever what [he] want” (McKee 303). Between the “Opportunity” and the “Danger”, Nolan creates a “true dilemma” for Angier (McKee 303). However, because the protagonist of Back to the Future, Marty, never make choice, Back to the Future does not have a crisis. Compare with the none-crisis of Back to the Future, the strong crisis of The Prestige makes The Prestige have more superiority over Back to the Future.

Thirdly, The Prestige is full of conflicts on all three levels: “inner, personal and extra-personal” (McKee 215). Borden says, “Nothing easy about two man sharing one life” (Nolan 125). Angier tells Borden, “It took courage to climb into that machine every night…” (Nolan 125-126). To present the best magic, both Borden and Angier go through “inner conflicts” between the wonderful magic and the sacrifice (McKee 215). With inciting incidence, Angier and Borden become enemy. Angier shots Borden in the hand (Nolan 35); Borden ruins Angier’s new magic (Nolan 43); Angier copies Borden’s magic (Nolan 60); Borden bribes Root and embarrasses Angier in the show (Nolan 73). Almost all the plots moves forward through the “personal conflicts” between Angier and Borden (McKee 215). After Angier is “dead”, Borden “has been found guilty of the murder of the Robert Angier” (Nolan 30). Borden does not kill Angier, and he does not want to die. However, the Judge judges him as a murderer and needs him to die (Nolan 30). The conflict between the judge and Borden is an extra-personal conflict. Nolan perfectly combines all three levels of conflicts into the screenplay, while Back to the Future only has extra-personal conflicts and personal conflicts.

Fourthly, The Prestige is full of tasteful setups and payoffs. Different from the simple setups and payoffs, The Prestige’s setups and payoffs are complex and tasteful. In the final conversion, Angier realizes that Borden is two people: a couple of “twins” (Nolan 125). This scene makes “the audiences rush back through what story it’s seen so far, seeking for answer” (McKee 235). Then, so many setups appear in the earlier part of the screenplay: the magic of brother birds (Nolan 18); the sacrifice of the Chinese magician (Nolan 21); the duplications of Angier (Nolan 125); the strange relationship between Borden, Sarah and Olivia (Nolan 93-94). All of those setups combine and become setups and payoffs of each other when the final payoff occurs. The magic of brother birds reflect Borden brothers; the duplications of Angier reflect the substitute of Borden; the sacrifice of the Chinese magician reflects the sacrifice of Borden and Angier; the death of the bird reflects the death of one of the Borden brother and the duplications of Angier. Sacrifice, brothers, loves, substitute, all of those stuffs become meaningful through the combination of each other. All of those setups and payoffs “click into a new configuration” (McKee 235). As a result, the setups and payoffs make audiences “experience a rush of insight into character and world, a satisfying layer of hidden truth” (McKee 235).

The Prestige wins the competition of plots with no doubt. Both of the screenplays have a strong inciting incident. However, Nolan perfectly combines all three levels of conflicts beats the personal and extra-personal conflict of Back to the Future; the complex and tasteful setups and payoffs in The Prestige beats the simple setups and payoffs of Back to the Future; The strong crisis of The Prestige beats the none-crisis of Back to the Future. To be honest, Back to the Future has quite good plots. However, its opponent, The Prestige, is too strong. The Prestige masters almost every gears of story: the inciting incident, the crisis, the setups and payoffs, the conflicts and so on. Nolan is just like the magician who makes impossible into possible in his screenplay, and The Prestige is his great magic.

Work Cited
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1997. Print. Nolan, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. The Prestige. Final draft, 2006. PDF. Zemeckis, Robert and Bob Gale. Back to the future. Fourth draft. Oct. 21, 1984. PDF.


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