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Tesla Review: Unconventional Biopic With Little Spark

Tesla contains notable storytelling and performances in its imaginative liberties, but this history lesson still fails at electrifying its audience.

Nikola Tesla’s reputation has only grown since his death in 1943. Considered an innovative inventor ahead of his own time, he played a key role in the ‘war of the currents,’ and underwent many troubles in his attempt at revolutionizing the world, tragically leading to a lonely and penniless end. The bottom line is, Nikola’s life story is filled with enough curiosity to squeeze into a feature film, and several movies have already documented the man who inspired an electric car company, such as The Current War and The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla. Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is the latest film to capture his life and legacy. Two decades after their last collaboration in Hamlet, he reunites with Ethan Hawke, who plays the titular role here. Almereyda approaches the narrative with his own unique spin, avoiding the creation of a typical done-by-the-rules biopic. With these creative choices, Tesla is bound to alienate audiences with some of its intended absurdity, but it will also satisfy with the wonderful performances of the cast.

The film’s fourth wall-breaking narration comes from Eve Hewson, who plays Anne Morgan, daughter of famed businessman J.P. Morgan. With her guidance, we dive into Tesla’s work years, from his short-lived employment with rival Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), to his partnership with J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). After Nikola quits his job working for Edison, he embarks on a road of research and effort to provide alternative current to the world, with many people’s support, but opposition by others as well. The flirtatious Anne admires Tesla’s drive enough to play the narrator role like a professor, using Google Images on her laptop and PowerPoint-like presentations to showcase his life. That may sound quite ridiculous, but I assure you that these are not even the strangest scenes in the movie. Tesla often jumps out of reality, reliant on these offbeat moments for us to comprehend just how Tesla’s innovations have helped shape the modern world, as Anne at one point suggests to the viewers that maybe the world we are living in is ‘a dream that Tesla dreamed first.’

loud and clear reviews Tesla
Ethan Hawke as “Nikola Tesla” and Eve Hewson as “Anne Morgan” in Michael Almereyda’s TESLA (Courtesy of IFC Films)

By experimenting with these anachronistic and absurdist techniques, Almereyda does more than just chronicle Tesla’s life. He comprises something that is uncommon to see in a biopic: deliberately fictitious moments. For instance, the film features a childish ice cream fight between Tesla and Edison, and Tesla sings a rendition of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears. Almereyda also has our narrator, Anne, make up conversations between Tesla and Edison that never took place, to add some exposition (which can be argued that it is unnecessary). These choices are made by the director with noble intentions, but end up feeling too unorthodox, as the film’s presentation is disrupted by these preposterous ideas. Ultimately, this approach can be a hit or miss for audiences: some might find these bizarre moments amusing, and others might find something unsuitable about Thomas Edison pulling out his cellular phone in the nineteenth century.

Ethan Hawke’s acting is the glue to this distracting style, accomplishing a unique depiction of Nikola Tesla. While Hawke captures the visionary’s accuracy, such as his emotionless conduct towards his social circle and the calmness maintained whenever conflict arose, his acting is also distinctive, as he ditches the Croatian accent that the real life Tesla had and introduces extreme shyness contrary to his articulate and quirky persona. Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan rivals him as famous inventor Thomas Edison. With the minimal screen time he has, Kyle’s performance contains Edison’s tycoon personality, but also brings out a softer side to him as well, revealing some romantic and tender behavior at times. It is a take on Thomas Edison that can easily be admired, for I have never seen his portrayed like in a lighter tone before. Eve Hewson is also wonderful as Anne Morgan, for she has the difficult role of playing both a fourth wall breaking narrator and an infatuated ally to Tesla.

Despite the film’s setbacks, Tesla manages to be somewhat educational without having to resort to playing out like a Wikipedia summary, for its distinct and stylish approach will help non-Tesla fanatics stay invested throughout the film. Taking into consideration the success Tesla found at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, one can appreciate the director’s refusal to follow genre conventions and establish a personal perspective on the subject matter. The constant presence of modern technology in the movie unsteadily builds an argument for Tesla’s way of thinking and his vision for the future. Ethan Hawke and the rest of the film’s talented cast do what they can to also emit some spark into the film, but Tesla still remains a flawed biopic with an uneven technique that often results in redundancy. If you want to experience a different kind of biographical story though, Tesla may be for you. One thing is for certain: this will be the most peculiar biopic you will watch all year.

Tesla was released in US cinemas and on Demand by IFC Films on August 21, 2020.

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