Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret...you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.
Two magicians, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale share one thing in common - an obsession for the art of magic. They are so taken in by the art of deception that they would go to any lengths, to any extreme to earn that applause from the audience. You would like to believe that this story is told in early 20th century but you don't really know. There are trains, old horse drawn carts. This is a time when Edison has a mafia team that works against Tesla (The guy had something to do with Magnetic forces?). The names, I guess are a tribute to those scientists. These two magicians start together in the same team but circumstances force them to become enemies and they are engaged in this constant one-upmanship over the other that just drives them to the extreme.
The story is told in a non-linear fashion. If you thought the backward-forward style of narrating a story in Memento was confusing, then this one really takes the cake. It swiftly cuts back and forth in time seamlessly. It is unapologetic about this. But yet, you know exactly what "time" the story is narrating currently. You have to come up to pace very quickly and concentrate really hard to know 'when' the things that are shown to be happening are indeed happening and exactly 'what' is happening. The movie opens with a key scene that is actually the penultimate part of the story's timeline and then much like the beginning it keeps revealing incidents that are much ahead of what(or is it when) the story has progressed. You wonder where somebody's wife has gone? You are told later. You wonder why he suddenly has a limp. You are told later. If you don't notice you never wonder and you miss out on the charm of the whole thing. The graceful back and forth movement is just one of those 'aha' moments.
The other 'aha' aspect is the recursion - the cheater is cheated and being cheated is part of his cheating game and so he still is actually cheating - but the other person knows this and so cheats him at another level. The movie is about magic and magicians and as they talk about the art of magic, the processes and the deception, the movie does the same on you. You are looking - but you are not - and you are constantly trying to find where the trick is and what it exactly is - but you are willing to be fooled at the same time.
Watch the chinese magician in the beginning, he is a sample for this movie. The concept of what level of sacrifice one has to make to make the act sound real is explained so beautifully and has a lasting impact on the movie. [ couldn't resist the analogy alert: I found people call fork() function and becoming two processes that share same memory and call "kill -9" on the other process :-) ( I gave too much away)]. The point of all this is - who thinks up of all this stuff? Who can conceive such a wonderfully layered idea and present it so well? Imagine the kind of work that needed to have gone to sculpt a movie to this precision. The way Nolan presents this movie is unbelievable. He owns the Noire world. He only shows the stuff in the movie that you want to see. He dabbles a bit in the turns and the pledges but every scene is really a prestige. You see what he wants you to see and you are fooled. Fooled in the micro world he takes you to and you get carried away by the revelation after revelation practically every scene in this movie seems to throw at you. It is a magic show - really - the whole movie is one delightful trick after another. and you are entertained. If somebody talk about pedestrian cinema and compares it to the work of a genius. Nolan is the genius.
To put it simply this is the kind of movie that makes you get those goospimples and makes you fall in love with movies.