In the movie The Prestige, Hugh Jackman plays a magician who, when he performs a trick, gets cloned and becomes two people. But who is who? Is the one appearing on the balcony in the audience the original one or the clone? It would be logical if the clone was destroyed but how do we know it's not the clone that ends up continuing the trick / show?
Since we see that Tesla's device clones objects at a distance, it stands to reason that it's the original that is drowned and killed, while the clone lives.
However, I don't think it really matters, except for the one that is killed of course, since the "original" that is killed today is the clone that lived yesterday.
The movie makes an explicit choice in the age-old "who is the real me" cloning dilemma, opting for the "both the clone and the original are equivalent" choice.
It actually is the clone that survives, that's the deep dark secret behind Tesla's device.
In the original novel, the device actually kills its user. After creating the clone and depositing it somewhere else, it leaves the now-dead body of the original user in the machine.
In the movie, the original body is dropped, tied up, into the tank of water to drown, while the clone finishes the show.
This is meant to show the depths that Angier (Hugh Jackman's character) is willing to go to one-up his rival: he's literally willing to kill himself on stage.
Even more, he's willing to drown himself, in what amounts to a failed escape trick - the tied-up Angier never gets out of the tank alive. Recall that this is exactly how his wife Julia died (which Angier blamed on Borden, and started the entire rivalry between them). That was Angier's self-imposed fate -- to suffer through his wife's death every night just to one-up Borden, only for his newly-created clone (which has his memories, feelings, etc.) to walk around knowing he was going to do it all again the next night.
You're asking the wrong question. They're both the original Angier. The whole point of the machine is that it creates a perfectly exact copy of the object that it clones.
You could argue from a technical viewpoint that the actual particles of the guy who appears on the balcony have been created by the machine and thus don't have the history of being part of Robert Angiers body. But this is a flawed premise, since a particle's history has no bearing on it anyway. There is absolutely no way to tell one Angier apart from the other.
That is the entire point of the machine and a point the movie reinforces repeatedly, be that when Angier and Tesla first discover the workings of the machine by finding all the cloned hats:
Tesla: Don't forget your hat
Angier: Well, which one is mine?
Tesla: They're all your hats, Mr. Angier.
Or at the end when Angier reveals the obvious but dark truth of his trick to Borden:
It took courage to climb into that machine every night not knowing if I'd be the man in the box...or in the prestige.
The point being, that Angier was always both men. He obviously always was the one who survived all the previous shows, but he also is the one who will survive the next show and the one who will die in the tank in the next show.
(This notion can as well be extrapolated onto a more metaphorical level where Angier pretty much sacrificed his own personality by just making copies of his own self and killing himself with each show, in the same way as he sacrificed his very soul with those terrible deeds.)
The first Angier who appears outside the cage does say "No, wait, I'm the…!" just before he's shot. If you take him to be trying to say "I'm the original!", then either he's the original and teleported or he's the clone and can't tell the difference because his memories and sense of identity are identical. So Angier says he doesn't know whether he'll be the drowned man or the prestige because he knows that even if he thinks he's survived and teleported he can never be sure that it's not a cloned memory/identity and the original thread of consciousness didn't end up in the tank. The drowning Angier would have the inverse uncertainty. I think from the first time he uses the machine he loses track of his identity in a way the twins never do.
Though having said that, maybe a machine that clones AND teleports is less elegant and Occam's Razor-y than just a clone machine, so if we have to make the distinction (ignoring Tesla's saying they are all the same) then the original always dies. But according to Tesla's definition ("They are all your hat, Mr. Angier"), which I think is important, it is a clone AND teleport because the hat/cat/magician that pops up at a distance is just as authentic as the one in the machine.
I have read some very insightfull answers here and even though this post is 9 months old, I would like to add my 2 cents to the argument and perhaps in doing so leave you with some food for thought.
I have not read the original novel, but it would have been more clear cut if the version in the box was killed instantaniously like Mr Edenfield suggests, but that in itself leaves a very large conuncdrum. Why get in the box in the first place???
Here me out. Angier goes to Tesla (after aquiring the information from Bordens stolen diary) Tesla shows him the machine he made for Borden, but also that the machine is flawed. It does nothing (apparently). Angier repeatedly returns to Tesla to test the machine, untill finally they test the cat. It is only after testing the cat that Angier finds out that the box made clones. He finds the second cat (alive) and the multitudes of tophats. So, that would indicate that the machine was working "ALL THE TIME".
Ok, here goes. If we follow the novels trail of logic, the moment they put the cat in the box, it should have left them with a dead cat. Unless the cat comes walking back into the studio alive and well "whilst" Tesla is holding the dead body of the original cat, it would take a hell of a lot of guts to get into the machine if you knew you would just be dead like the cat. Who wants a box of death? It is the pivotal moment where he finds the two cats and then the tophats that reveals the true nature of the machine.
The film version actually puts a more plausible spin on the whole concept. It also leaves us with the conundrum that each time the machine is used, it makes a perfect copy, body/conscience/soul. Why do i say this...Tesla now has 2 cats, but imediately doing different things, as if it is a copy, but with a new life different from the original. This would also indicate why the copy is not made in the box, but rather some distance away. This indicates same, but seperate...ie unique.
We also see Angier falling into the water box and imediately trying to fight his way out. He "knows" he just got screwed. That would also indicate, that it is always the original that gets killed (in the watertank), which means the question you rather should be asking is this. Who killed who first? Remember Angier tests the machine on himself for the first and has that short episode of stunned realisation what the implication is of having 2 of himself around. He or he kills the other one in a very "there can be only one" type of way. SO did the clone kill the original, or did the original kill the clone...it depends on who thought about it first and we actually do not know...i will have to go check to make sure they dont show us. All we know is that one gets in the machine and climbs out and the other manifests somewhere else. That would indicate that when he knows that if he climbs into the machine he will die, because he knows he is killing himself, but that the "exact" copy up till that very second, will continue with his live. Will the copy keep up the act, or will it choose another path? We never find out.
Here is the bigger question i would like you guys to ponder over. It contains a SPOILER for those who have not seen the film after 6 years, so stop reading now.
Ok, keep in mind the old japanese magician with bowl of fish between his legs. We get a clue to the plot behind the film in that. "He is always doing the act, it never stops", this means he is always carrying that bowl between his legs...for the show. You got that...we later find that this is exactly what Borden does, he always switched roles. That is why he writes, he sometimes knows that he killed her and other times that he knows he did not. Which leaves us with the realisation that there is 2 Bordens. I always asumed this was just Bordens twin brother and that they masqueraded the whole thing. Very elaborate. It would also indicate why he was sometimes longing for his family and sometimes for the mistress, why 2 different persons, but very dedicated to the act(fishbowl)... Then it struck me, Angier read about Tesla in Bordens diary, borden went to Tesla for a machine, a machine that always worked. Did borden use the machine on himself, leave the studio after thinking it failed and then found himself in the forest? The only difference is he didnt kill himself like Angier, but conceived of the idea for the act. I will also theorise that it is the new Borden who shunned his family for the mistress, why...he could never be with the family he so desperately wanted to be with.
So what do you think...is Borden a clone or a twin...difficult to hide a twin for all those years.
The one who gets transported sees himself as the original and he would always do, in every act. In doing so, he does not feel the pain and the death of the one left behind. The one who drowns sees himself as the original and just right after the activation of the machine he discovers that he have committed a terrible mistake, he tries to cling on to life, to survive and to prove he is the original but he never has the chance.
Don't know how I missed this movie all this time, but I finally saw it. What I interpreted from this film was that the cloned Angier was always the one that showed up on the balcony. However, like others have said, at that moment they both believe that they are the real Angier. This is seen during the first cloning, when the Angier that comes out of the box is trying to say, "Wait, I am the real one!" So, like what has been said, after the cloning processes, the Angier on the balcony thinks he is the real one and is transported to the box, while the one in the cage thinks he is the real one and is dropped into the tank. But it is a risk he is willing to take for the trick. So, although, the primary Angier always dies and the new clone always lives, they have the same consciousness until the moment the new is made. This can be why the last Angier felt he never knew if he'd be in the tank or in the balcony, because the same consciousness is always the same until the clone is made, thus him always believing he is the original that was just transported and the one in the tank, thinking fuck I'm the real one and I'm gonna die. The consciousness of the new clone is never interrupted and the memory is always carried over. It is possible that Angier thought that the clone had no real consciousness or memory, because they were never kept alive long enough to determine this. So, I wonder if Angier thought that everytime he got in the cage he was transported and replaced with a clone. I know it kind of makes my previous point moot, as Angier should have thought he killed the original the first time then and why did he have all the memories. Probably a plot hole, who knows. So I wonder, did Angier devise the plot that he wouldn't show up on the balcony before the final trick and believe his clone would fall in the tank, only for the primary Angier at the beginning of the trick to think, "oh man, I fucked up!" and the new clone Angier to think that he was the original and decide to not show up on the balcony? Man I haven't been this fired up about a movie since Donnie Darko! PS: I wonder how many times I said Angier in this post?!