The reason this movie is underrated, is because like any great movie, it's layered. IMO what sets a great director apart is that they are not only capable of telling a compelling story, but that story is crammed with 2nd and 3rd meanings. On its face The Shining is a movie about a man who goes insane and tries to murder his family. But it's also about an unemployed man who feels his manhood slipping away, or maybe it's about a man who abuses his child, or about humanity's tendency toward genocide (notice all the Native American imagery, and maybe even some Holocaust references). Good directors make interesting movies, great directors make DENSE movies, and The Prestige is one such movie. You can watch it time and time again, and still come away not just having seen something you hadn't seen before, but almost seeing a MOVIE you hadn't seen before. On the first viewing it's a movie about magic with several amazing twists, though to be honest, I wasn't that crazy about it after the first viewing. On the second viewing you can start appreciating the real messages: Great art comes from great sacrifice. Obsession leads to self-destruction. Thomas Edison was a prick (JK, kind of).
The central theme of the movie is that the great artist devotes his whole life to his craft in an attempt to achieve greatness in it. In the movie this is symbolized by Borden who literally spends his entire life on his craft (since presumably he and his twin had to start their ruse quite early on). Even their (the twins) personal lives are completely devoted to the craft since they don't even tell their loved ones the secret, and even sacrifice their loves for the trick. Angier symbolizes the danger the artist faces if he allows his craft, and the related desire for greatness, to consume him completely. Similar ideas are discussed in Inception. In Inception Cobb's obsession with his muse (symbolized by his dead wife) is a constant threat to his art (the creation of dreams). If the artist obsesses over his muse he ends up in purgatory (Inception) or dying a thousand deaths (The Prestige).
But let's break it down a little more systematically.
The reason it's underrated is 3 fold:
1. It's not really. It has a score of 8.4/10 on IMDB and 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, which I consider to be good scores, and fair ones. 76% is somewhat low for RT, but within the "good" range. Plus with a budget of 40MM it made 109MM. $70 million dollars is a lot of money. Nolan probably wouldn't have been tapped for the Batman movies if it hadn't made so much money. Which is not to say he isn't a great director, but a franchise like that also needs a director who knows how to make a commercial success.
That being said, here are some reasons I think SOME people might not give it the credit it deserves.
2. Angier's solution to the trick is a bit tough to swallow (though it is worth suspending disbelief for the payoff at the end). It requires the audience to believe that long before the cell phone was invented, Nikola Tesla invented a teleportation machine. Not only that, but it's a cloning machine that works using electricity, not chemistry, which I don't think is an easy thing for most people to unconsciously accept, because it's very difficult to imagine how applying electricity in any way would result in creating a copy of a complex biological organism. It's a bit distracting. BUT the reason this hiccup was tolerated by the author and filmmaker, and should be tolerated by the audience, is because it allows for the poetic message of the film: "Unchecked obsession can lead a man to kill himself … over and over again." Angier has to be able to create a copy of himself so that he can make the choice, "Do I stay a mediocre performer, or do I sacrifice myself, night after night, to become great?" Angier chooses the second path and demonstrates his commitment, or insanity, by choosing to die a horrible death every night for his art. The manner in which he creates the copy has to be similar enough to how an audience would imagine a teleportation device to look and operate so as to enable the author/director to hide the machine's true nature until the end.
A slightly different interpretation is that Nolan was trying to say that to achieve something great, a piece of the artist has to die. Toward the beginning of the movie, when Borden is just a stage hand and the magician, Virgil, does the vanishing bird trick, Borden tries to console the boy by showing him the surviving bird as if it was the only bird used. But the boy says, "But where's his brother?" That's right, he doesn't say "The other bird" like most people would, after all, who can tell birds apart? He says "his brother." Borden then says to the bird, "You're the lucky one tonight." This is definitely clever foreshadowing, but in addition it indicates that Borden knows, on some level, that becoming a great magician will require sacrifice–that one of the brothers will have to die. The fact that both of the main characters in the movie have clones (a twin is a clone), and that one of each pair is sacrificed for their craft (Angier isn't sacrificed, he's murdered for revenge) is too big a coincidence to be meaningless and it's not uncommon to use twins to symbolize two sides of the same person, for example, in the great movie Dead Ringers. Borden is great because he is willing to sacrifice a piece of himself, but he lives because he isn't willing to sacrifice his humanity. Angier becomes a great magician because he becomes willing to sacrifice, but he loses (dies) because he sacrificed his humanity. UPDATE: Upon re-watching this film it was even more clear that Borden and Fallon are meant to symbolize one man (the Artist) because they are intentionally completely indistinguishable. We know that they loved different women, but it's still impossible to determine which one of the twins loved whom. Whoever is playing Fallon acts like Fallon. Whoever is playing Borden acts like Borden, despite the fact that we learn that it is NOT the same person. Neither imbues either role with any semblance of individuality relative to themselves. What's more likely is that Fallon is meant to symbolize a side of the Man, the quiet, contemplative, reserved side, whereas Borden is the brash, manic side, the side that gets drunk in public and can't resist the urge to go backstage during Angier's final trick.
3. A significant percentage of the audience probably didn't get it. And even more probably didn't appreciate what it was really about: art, obsession, greatness, etc. Nolan intentionally kept the last scene somewhat vague. It was not immediately apparent that all the tanks were filled with dead clones, which was demonstrated by the fact that after the movie I remember a lot of audience members discussing what the final shot actually meant (with significant disagreement). I think ambiguity is a sign of good art, but also risks leaving some people in the dark. Also a lot of the details were kind of hurled at the audience in a brief period of time toward the end. It was a bit much to ask of an audience to assimilate all that new information, form it into a coherent narrative, then go back in their heads and revise the existing narrative that had already been implanted by the preceding majority of the film. It was a lot to ask of the audience and I think a lot of people moved on with their lives (a totally reasonable thing to do) before doing the mental gymnastics necessary to really appreciate the film.
4. Another major theme possibly missed by the average audience member is obsession and the battle between Tesla and Edison. I can't explain it any better than Tesla himself does in the movie:
Nikola Tesla: Go home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession, no good will come of it.
Robert Angier: Why, haven't good come of your obsessions?
Nikola Tesla: Well at first. But I followed them too long. I'm their slave… and one day they'll choose to destroy me.
Originally I thought Tesla was alluding to the fact that Angier would have to kill himself to use the machine, but when I watched it yet again I realized that Tesla hadn't yet made the machine, and even after he finished it, he didn't know that it worked by creating a copy, which is why he didn't think it worked until Angier stumbled on the hats and the cat. Tesla didn't know the specifics of what would happen, he only knew that this level of obsession destroys men. The true purpose of this speech (IMO) is to allow Nolan to talk to the audience, he's telling us, "Pay attention to the obsession of these men." This movie is not about magic, it's about obsession.
I had heard the theory that this movie was actually about the battle between Edison and Tesla, but never really believed it. After my last viewing though, I do think that this conflict was more central than I originally believed, and may even have been a serious consideration while making the movie. The parallels are hard to ignore. Borden is the artist who cared more about his craft than anything and is described as a "natural magician." Angier is a rich snob who simply copies and buys the tricks of others and passes them off as his own. These same descriptions could easily be attributed to Tesla and Edison. Tesla was so far ahead of his time that one could literally call him a "natural magician." But at the very least he was a "natural" scientist. You can't teach what he had, largely because he was coming up with stuff no one else even understood. In addition, money had little meaning to him other than as a means of allowing him to pursue his science, in fact, it is this obsession with science that left him penniless and alone at his death. Edison, like Angier was wealthy, had no qualms about using that wealth to acquire inventions and pass them off as his own as well as to squash any competitors, even if they were superior (Angier blatantly ripping off Borden's Transported Man). And like Angier, he only seems to get richer. The parallels are too big to ignore, and I wouldn't be surprised if to some extent Nolan was trying to implant the idea, almost "subconsciously" (sound familar? Inception anyone? BTW that movie was actually about using movies to implant ideas into the audience, not about dreaming), that Edison was pretty much a dick, a tough idea to overtly discuss given the general reverence with which he is treated. This is supported by the fact that when Edison is referenced in the movie, or when his agents appear or are referenced, it is always in a negative light with a healthy serving of vitriol. On the other hand, maybe he was just using the Edison-Tesla conflict to discuss the rich v. poor dynamic (e.g. poor people will always be exploited by the rich and powerful). Maybe he was even saying that how you deal with obsession depends on how much money you have. For example, had Borden been born rich, can we honestly say that he wouldn't have grown to become just another Angier? I wouldn't be surprised if all of these ideas were floating around those brilliant noggins while crafting the script.
5. Was Borden really the winner? When I first analyzed the movie, I thought Borden was the clear winner. At no point in the movie does Angier get to see the crowd's reaction to the Transported Man's prestige, the one thing he seemed to truly desire (watch the movie again, he literally is never able to look at their faces). He committed suicide at least 100 times and then he gets shot in the gut. But the last time I watched the movie, I started to feel like it wasn't as clear cut. When Angier is talking about his motivation, and the look on the crowd's faces, he seems genuinely happy … and Borden seems almost confused. Earlier in the movie Borden explains to the small boy to never tell the secrets to a trick, because once you give that away "You're nothing." No one cares about you. He did magic so that people would care about him, it was ego, not art, which is why he never once discusses the audience. Throughout the movie you get the sense that he almost despises the audience. There were people who cared about Borden/Fallon, but he pushed them away. In that final scene, no longer distracted by the details that Angier was revealing, it became clear to me that there was no clear winner here. Angier at least performed for others. He might not have seen their faces, but he could hear them, he KNEW what they were doing, and in that final scene you see it bringing him joy. Sure he wanted to see their faces, but he was never as uncompromising as Borden, the applause, while not ideal, would be enough in the end, and it's important to remember that he did get to see the audiences react to the prestige for every OTHER trick, just not the Transported Man. Still, Borden lives and regains his daughter, but the hope is that he has learned from Angier's dying words. Borden is no longer the virtuoso, Angier is the one giving the lesson.
Finally there is one thing I've never heard anyone mention, but I actually think may be the most interesting part of the movie, and that is the question "If you die, but a clone of you, with all of your memories, continues to live, did you really die?" After all, each clone goes on performing Angier's trick. Every clone is in every sense Angier, so much so that each one is willing to murder himself out of commitment to the trick. Now THAT is a pretty awesome concept to be discussing in a major motion picture.
I do not ascribe to the theory that Tesla's machine never really worked and convincing Borden that it did work was Angier's final great trick. Here is a summary of the arguments against it:
1. In the book the machine works
2. The screenplay describes the tanks in the final scene as being filled with "yet another Robert Angier." Considering who reads the screenplay (cast and crew) it doesn't make much sense for the Nolans to lie in the script.
3. When Angier tests Tesla's machine for the first time, the new Angier that appears is very obviously not "Root" (the original double) which can be discerned by his teeth and nose, which were always significantly different than Angier's. In addition, in the screenplay, the man who appears is described as "Second Angier."
4. Finally in an interview on MovieWeb, Jonathan Nolan was asked if he considered having the machine not work. His response was that it "feels fundamental to the book."
5. This theory being right would invalidate the much better messages permeating the movie. If Angier doesn't get onto that stage knowing that he's going to die, the movie is reduced to an M. Night Shamalyan joint.