2020, PG-13, 102 mins.
Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla / Kyle MacLachlan as Thomas Edison / Hannah Gross as Mina Edison / Josh Hamilton as Robert Underwood Johnson / Eve Hewson as Anne Morgan / Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda
The fascinating, but poorly executed TESLA tries to cover a lot of history in a far too brief running time, not to mention that the titular Serbian-American inventor, engineer, and way ahead of his time futurist becomes sort of an underwritten cipher in his own movie.
the sheer scope of Nikola Tesla's breakthrough ideas and inventions - some
of which included the design of the alternating electrical current and
even shockingly prophetic ideas about wireless transmission of currents a
century-plus before Wi-Fi was even an ubiquitous thing - a biopic of this
intrepid and brilliant visionary should have been equally grand.
Directed Michael Almereyda has made one here that's anything but
conventional, which is commendable in its own right.
But all the avant garde approaches can't hide the fact that TELSA
doesn't ultimately add up to anything of substance.
It's an ambitious, but frustratingly underwhelming work.
film offers up a portal into the late 19th/early 20th Century life of the
man in question, which hones in much of its focus on the mid 1880s to the
early 1900s, during which time Tesla would move from his home nation to
America and have a rather tenuous working relationship with Thomas Edison,
another inventor that hardly needs any introduction.
In the early stages of the Almereyda's script we meet up with Tesla
(Ethan Hawke, who previously worked with the writer/director on their
compelling modern day take on HAMLET), who's working for Edison (Kyle
MacLachlan), but the former's domineering management style annoys Tesla,
not to mention that both have opposite views on delivering electricity to
the masses. Edison favors a Direct Current system, whereas Tesla likes
his Alternating Current method, and he strongly believes that his
invention is the finer of the two and the true path to future development.
Unfortunately for him, his ideas never really gel with those of
Edison, which forces Tesla to branch out on his own to further perfect his
technology. There's one
problem, though: he requires sizeable capital investment to take his
research to the next level.
trial and error, Tesla finds a money man in George Westinghouse (a very
decent Jim Gaffigan), an American businessman with an eye for talent, not
to mention that Tesla's work has caught the eye of the daughter of the
ultra rich J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz).
With ample financial backing, Tesla commits himself to his work
with fearless determination, but faces several punishing impediments along
the way, like the fact that many can't grasp his frankly out-there ideas
about electricity, not to mention that the more well known and established
Edison and his inventions clamor for the limelight.
That, and Tesla makes some rather horrible business deals that hurt
him outside of his scientific research. He does have a confidant in
his wife, Anne (Eve Hewson), who's not only the aforementioned daughter of
Morgan, but also serves as a narrator of sorts (more on that in a bit)
that chronicles her husband's life work and struggles for legitimacy.
appreciated the fact that TELSA - at least early on - is a piece of
experimental cinema as far as the biopic goes.
It's not trying to spin a tale of its subject matter in question
with obligatory storytelling that goes from A to B and finally to C in a
fairly mechanical and conventional manner.
Almereyda is obviously not compelled here to make an ordinary
historical drama about this extraordinary man, so instead he opts for some
visually inventive stylistic flourishes here alongside having Tesla's wife
in Eve frequently break the fourth wall - and oftentimes using modern
technology - to provide a mosaic-like impression of this man that's
cultivated from multiple time periods.
In one cheeky instance, Eve sits at a desk and anachronistically
turns on a laptop to inform us that Edison has far more Google search
results than Tesla (especially when it comes to actual archival photos),
which, in turn, helps to emphasize his underdog stature in the world he
occupied. The point with
moments like this, I think, is to help cement the fact that Edison's work
and inventions are common knowledge and that Tesla's were less mainstream
and on the fringe. There are
times when TESLA takes on the form of a intimate college lecture or even a
play, but the director's ultimate end game is to shatter preconceived
viewer expectations in the material.
In modest respects, Almereyda's approach here is refreshingly
different, which matches the anti-establishment mindset of Tesla himself.
though, this is also a source of one of the larger problems that I had
with this film. TESLA
is undeniably bold and take risks in ways that few filmmakers would with
the genre, but I rarely felt like I gained a true impression of who Tesla
really was. We get sprinkles
here and there of his conceptual brilliance and just how far advanced he
was thinking for his time (I mean, the fact that he was pondering a future
world of omnipotent and easily accessible wireless conductivity of
electricity and communication as far back as 1893 is staggering to think
about), but most of what we get here is superficial surface details.
We witness his quirks, idiosyncrasies, faults, but not much of a
fundamental understand of his inner thought processes and how he tapped
into his mind boggling for the era contraptions.
I think this has a lot to do with TELSA being quite fractured and
episodic, which consequently leaves many aspects of his life either under
developed or ignored.
are instances here and there when Almereyda doesn't seem to have a
unifying tone to his piece as well, and for every solemn scene in the film
there are more distractingly incongruent ones that seem like they've been
lifted from a far more outlandish Tesla effort altogether.
I'm thinking of one sequence that imagines a verbal sparring match
between Edison and Tesla that breaks out into an ice cream throwing
contest between the pair that aims for chuckles, but just comes off as
weird. And speaking of weird,
there's another montage that seems lifted from the David Lynchian
nonsensical playbook, which shows Tesla grabbing a microphone and engaging
in an impromptu rendition of Tears for Fear's "Everybody Wants to
Rule the World" (huh?). Scenes
like this are frankly more bizarre than eccentrically endearing, and
Almereyda does manage to tone things down a bit by utilizing some
welcoming low-tech stylistic choices (probably born out of budgetary
restraints) of static photographic backdrops and rear and front screen
projection (early techniques of a bygone era of Hollywood of yesteryear),
yet all of the wink-wink slight of hand movie tricks that the director
employs here can't override what is a pretty shallowly written portrait of
last thing: Ethan Hawke has always been one of our most reliable of actors
and maybe one of the best to have never won an Oscar (look at his searing
work in Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED),
but he's so flat registered, so disappointingly sullen, and so
unflatteringly mannered as Tesla that it simply becomes very hard to latch
onto this man in terms of any level of rooting interest. Hawke does capture this man's level of tunnel visioned drive
and unwavering conviction; there are times when he seems frankly befuddled
as to why no one can understand or comprehend his ideas for an electric
utopia of the future. Yet,
Tesla is also portrayed her as a figure deeply uncomfortable in his own
skin, where even engaging in the social niceties of his time with other
well meaning people seems wholly foreign to him.
Still, Hawke never finds a manner of modulating between multiple
extremes here: All in all, his Tesla here is internalized, moody,
monosyllabic, and just not altogether engaging as a character.
It leaves you wondering why you should even care about him or the
film he occupies.
That's all too bad, because there's a great, against the grain biopic buried deep within TESLA that desperately wants to emerge, but the end result is something that seems haphazardly cobbled together and lacking in cohesion. Again, there's nothing wrong with a film that flips the bird to genre troupes (I like filmmakers that challenge tired formulas), but TESLA just lacks - pardon the obvious pun - that ethereal spark of dramatic innovation. Nikola Tesla was indeed a rule breaker and a maverick scientific mind that shunned established status quos. He rebelliously thought outside of the box, but his risks rarely led to rewards, which might be why he became relatively penniless and had his work become a footnote in history when he died in 1943 (it was only in the subsequent decades afterwards where a greater understanding of his work became more appreciated, especially in relation and comparison to Edison). Tesla demands a better biopic than this fearlessly experimental, but in due course undisciplined and unfocused film here. Much like the historical man in question when he left this earth, TESLA will fall into relative and forgettable obscurity very quickly after being screened for most.