The first several minutes of writer/director Michael Almereyda’s “Tesla” unfold in fairly typical biopic fashion. We see young inventor Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) working under fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) upon first arriving in New York. He soon leaves to strike out on his own. But a meeting between Tesla, Edison, and other associates becomes strange as we see them all licking ice-cream cones, with Tesla and Edison ultimately becoming so heated in their debate over the merits of alternating current that they start smashing their cones on each other’s faces. Voiceover narration from Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, explains that this exchange never took place, before the camera cuts to Anne, in period clothes in a period setting, breaking the fourth wall as she opens up a MacBook to show the audience how few results you get if you Google “Nikola Tesla” compared to his contemporaries. This unexpected twist sets the tone for the rest of the movie, with Anne narrating Tesla’s story seemingly from the future as some other modern touches—particularly in regards to the soundtrack—contribute to the film’s thesis statement of Tesla proving that Tesla, first of all, still does not get enough credit for his contributions to his field; secondly, that he was ahead of his time; and thirdly, that there is so little information about him out there that the reliability of our narrator and the story we are about to watch is called into question. Unfortunately, while this biopic gets points for unconventionality, it never weaves these elements together into a coherent enough structure to be either particularly engaging or informative.
The film primarily focuses on Tesla’s career from his arrival in America in 1884 to the ceasing of his Wardenclyffe Tower project—which experimented with wireless communication—in 1905 due to lack of funds (it was initially funded by J.P. Morgan, played in the film by Donnie Keshawarz). It was the last of Tesla’s big ventures before he eventually faded into obscurity. The obsessed genius is a character type not unfamiliar to many stories, but Hawke’s portrayal of him is rather cold and flat. Of course, some of that may be a side effect of the fact that in real life, Tesla was known to be kind but reserved, and prioritized science over relationships; he respected women, but he never married. Almereyda’s film flirts with this side of Tesla’s life somewhat, most effectively in the character of Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan), an acclaimed French actress who becomes intrigued with Tesla, and he with her. Anne, while serving as narrator, also serves a role in the story; she is intelligent, and fascinated with Tesla’s work, and with Tesla. In real life, Anne, a prominent activist, also never married, but the film often portrays her relationship with Tesla as close to that of an unrequited crush. Hewson’s performance, like Hawke’s and many of the other actors in the film, is also cold and distant, despite the need to establish a more intimate connection with the audience as the story’s narrator. In fact, her narration often tells the audience what’s going on as opposed to showing them, again making the story feel rather cold. MacLachlan’s Edison is a treat however; he’s so boisterous he makes him a hard fellow to entirely dislike, despite some questionable actions. Jim Gaffigan also briefly but entertainingly appears as George Westinghouse, the found of the Westinghouse Electric Company and the man who ultimately purchased Tesla’s patents and supported his views on alternating current against Edison.
Ultimately, you’ll likely learn more about Tesla’s life and career from doing that Google search like Anne than you would from watching this movie. The film’s initial promise of making bold choices is exciting, but it doesn’t commit to those choices enthusiastically enough for it to come across as much more than jumbled and confusing. When in the last ten minutes of the film Hawke, as Tesla, sings “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” it’s a head-scratcher as opposed to a culmination of everything in the film leading up to that moment (compare this to “Radioactive,” a biopic of Marie Curie released a couple months ago that also made creative choices, but succeeded in making them make sense within the narrative). Rather than being consistently weird, it’s for the most part a fairly normal biopic interspersed with instances of weirdness.
There are some further interesting choices made regarding technical aspects of the film, however, particularly regarding the lighting and backdrops. Some sequences are lit almost naturally, while others appear to use a sort of rear projection to cast an otherworldly glow over the scene that is reminiscent of the Technicolor seen in films from old Hollywood (this is especially evident when Tesla is working in his tower). On the other hand, while visually these scenes are stunning, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of narrative purpose to them, outside of experimenting with different kinds of light; in the end, it just further contributes to the confusing look and feel of the film.
It’s possible that, like Tesla’s work, Almereyda’s film is just ahead of its time, and will hold up in future viewings. Plucked from the context of the movie, there are a few individual scenes here that are intriguing and exciting. But it’s too bad that a film that promises such a unique take on such an interesting figure ended up being so dull.
“Tesla” will be released in select theaters and on video on demand on August 21, 2020. Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Media review link courtesy IFC Films.