I’ve watched The Prestige enough times to know what magic really is—a combination of illusion, salesmanship, mystery, spectacle and, in this modern era, expert video editing. David Blaine does all these things well and also happens to be a con artist, braver and more bizarre than most of his peers. The one thing he excels at the most, though, is continuously getting people to wonder what the hell is wrong with him and how he’s going to die from this.
By even titling his special Beyond Magic, he suggests that the extraordinary things he does defy categorization and that’s his obvious first trick. The announcer in the intro immediately plays into it, claiming, “This is not only magic. It is the spectacle of the real.” Blaine survives off this wonderment, though he’s aware that most things humans experience can be explained by practical applications of things like math, science and logic, and so he uses them to grand effect as magicians do (the special also refers to him as an “endurance artist”). He’s also very weird and crazy.
Certain so-called tricks Blaine has done (eating glass, holding his breath for 17 minutes under water) simply require him to be bold enough to test his body limits and, more important, to learn techniques that allow him to do so. Others—catching a bullet—require a foolish level of audacity. The first trick he performs in this special (see the clip below) is swallowing wedding rings. He’s filmed doing it on separate occasions in front of celebrities and their family and friends, including John Travolta, David and Victoria Beckham, Sir Patrick Stewart, Margot Robbie and Emma Stone.
After swallowing the ring—and successfully freaking out the participants who momentarily think their ring is gone forever—Blaine shows them his empty mouth and later grabs a wire hanger to retrieve the ring. He asks all the celebrities to pull out the hanger from his mouth. “You want me to pull that. Okay,” slurs Johnny Depp. Somehow, the ring appears on the wire and everyone either screams or stares blankly. “That’s ridiculous,” says Beckham.
There are questions: How did the ring get on the hanger? How much time passed in between when Blaine swallowed the ring and when he obtained the wire hanger? Where did this hanger come from? Why does everyone he performs the trick for somehow have a wire hanger? ’Cause I don’t! Who has wire hangers?!
There are explanations, but I don’t know, and the point is that people pretend to want answers but few of us actually do. We all know by now that Blaine’s appeal—and magic in general—isn’t about the magic itself, but rather stupefying people into believing what the magician is accomplishing is real. That Blaine has duped people into believing he’s a sorcerer is the real trick, from a person who’s learned to become alarmingly good at deception. I love it. Toward the beginning of the special, Blaine video chats with Jennifer Lawrence and does a card trick, after which J. Law further sells his magic skills by telling him he can’t die and, “If you started a religion I would follow it.”
Throughout this special, we learn a bit about Blaine’s process, which consists of deep research and consultations with medical experts who advise him over and over again not to do all these wild stunts, though he never listens. When he talks in his frightening monotone voice about a magician named Mac Norton who called himself a human aquarium, the point is that Blaine wants to learn this, too. “He had the ability to contort his stomach into a home where creatures could live and bring them up on command.” Blaine says he’s spent 10 years trying to “figure out his secret.”
In the special, we see him demonstrating that part of this trick is “overriding the gag reflex,” and he proceeds to get training from a sword swallower. It seems that Blaine has learned because after this segment, he performs a routine where he regurgitates live frogs in front of a group that includes Drake, Dave Chappelle and Steph Curry. They’re all flabbergasted. Knowing that Blaine has learned to swallow swords helps us to understand this and also the hanger trick earlier, but only a little. But anyone who doesn’t know or see any of this background would be like, what the fuck.
The main event of this special and of Blaine’s career so far is the bullet catch, which he did in 2009 in front of a live audience at the MGM Grand Arena. “The deadliest feat in magic is the bullet catch,” Blaine tells us in the special, adding that 12 magicians have died and they were only faking it. He’s doing it FOR REAL, using a mixture of science and fearlessness. “There’s no margin for error,” he says in a voiceover, making sure to sell how dangerous it is. When his friend, who plays the role of the distraught doubter in his circle, asks a good question—Why is he doing this for real and not just faking it—Blaine says, “’Cause it wouldn’t be fun.”
So we see scenes of Blaine at the dentist preparing a mold to help him catch the bullet. And his friend says, “If you do this stunt and you die, it’s the opposite of inspiring the person.” Blaine makes it through and lives, of course, despite having the bullet mouthguard break in his mouth twice. At the end, there’s a creepy convo between him and his friend about mortality and the fact that he might die on stage. “That’s not how I’m gonna die,” he says. “That’s not how I’m dying.” The special suggest there’s a chance he might, though, because it ends with this message on screen: “David Blaine plans on performing his bullet catch as part of an upcoming world tour.”
The one part of this special that freaked me out was Blaine’s mind trick with Margot Robbie. He tells her to think of a memory only she would know, something that Blaine can’t research, and then to find some random word in an article on her phone using search results. He ends up writing the words she’s thinking of (“bunny” and “numerous”) on her hand. There may be something Robbie said in a pre-interview that the show didn’t reveal to the audience, or a crucial portion they removed in editing. Either way, we’re left wondering if Blaine is now, in addition to being a weird magician, also a medium. And also, how is it that he hasn’t died yet.