There’s a metatextual Twin Peaks reference that Kyle MacLachlan’s Thomas Edison makes towards Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke). Celebrating Tesla’s newfound citizenship, Edison invites him to try something American – pie no less – and then proceeds to ask anyone for a light. Of course, it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, but unfortunately the in-joke is one of many pitfalls that go towards undermining the film’s intentions.
Cutting straight to the point, Michael Almereyda’s Tesla lacks spark (pun intended). For all its stylistic inventiveness and application, it’s a boring and tediously executed film that somehow manages to make its titular character less interesting than is deserved by the legendary inventor and what he managed to accomplish.
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Call it ‘Tesla fatigue’ after various modern interpretations in recent years – Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (the best one), the recent series of Doctor Who, or the critically panned The Current War just to name a few. But somehow the universe said we needed another one, which either shows a lack of imagination by Hollywood standards in recycling the same pivotal points in history or their inability to do something meaningful within the conventions of a biopic.
To give Michael Almereyda credit, Tesla opts for the latter. This is not your typical biopic; it’s more like an experimental arthouse re-invention that mixes its traditional period setting with the prophetic gift of foresight by incorporating modern advances of technology. It breaks the fourth wall, with Eve Hewson’s Anne Morgan flipping open her MacBook, making frequent references to Google a character to bring up their search results. On the surface, Tesla should have been ‘one of those films that has no right to work, but it does’ type of movie. But the manner and approach it takes ends up becoming a jarring experience.
It’s summed up in a scene where Tesla and Edison have a falling out – a disagreement over alternating currents and owed money. With ice creams in hand like a skit scene from Comedy Central’s Drunk History, they decide to fight, taking it in turns to dab their dessert in each other’s faces. It should have been a scene taken at face value – after all, we know biopics tend to add artificial scenes for dramatic purposes. But imagine that scene undercut with narration that not only states the obvious, but annoyingly, takes its audience out of the moment.
The severe handholding, the pressured urgency to change tack and narrate/monologue entire scenes robs any sense of fun or potential enjoyment. Add Tesla’s monologues into the mix as he writes in his journal, and you have an annoying mishmash of competing voices fighting for our attention. For comparison, it’s not like Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey for example, where the narration (like a self-proclaimed tribute to Martin Scorsese’s infamous trademark) is part of Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) psychotic personality.
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For her, talking to the audience is like therapy, or – by her definition – emancipation. But crucially, you quickly accept the madcap frenzy of its adventure. Tesla conducts itself as a serious biopic despite its extreme swings. But tonally none of the cast seemed to get to grips with its wild concept. Not even the enigmatic power of Ethan Hawke as Tesla can save it; a mythological abstract rather than a true to life depiction, but who operates as a passive and stilted spectator within his own film. For one hour and forty-two minutes, filmed like a cross between a low-budget documentary and stage play, it is as laboriously monotone as you can imagine.
Lack of energy aside (again, pun intended), the inclusion of modern technology doesn’t justify itself. The story makes these sweeping statements about how history treated Tesla unfairly, with shoddy deals, failed experiments and lack of belief from his competitors and investors, and yet doesn’t go anywhere with it. For someone who predicted the smartphone and the internet, and to whom we’re greatly indebted for how our current electrical system works, it never reinforces his accomplishments.
When Anne Morgan is telling the audience to Google something, it feels as if the audience has to fill in the necessary gaps the film didn’t bother to research for itself. And because of its surreal randomness, it leaves the impression that it was done for the sake of it – because it could – just to unconventionally differentiate itself from the crowd. And when the film borders on this territory, it becomes counterproductive and frustrating.
But the glaring truth is, Tesla doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Are we supposed to feel any sense of injustice in the rivalry between Edison and Tesla? Are we supposed to shake our fists to the sky that twentieth century capitalism ruined a possible brighter future for the world if Tesla had been taken seriously? Are we supposed to feel empathy for Tesla when he’s denied another loan by J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz)? Are we supposed to be left with a greater appreciation for his works when he was ahead of his time?
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Even if it wants to fall in line with traditional biopics, what stakes are raised? The film rarely takes stock of those questions. Its purgatory existence doesn’t say or leave anything for its audience to digest or learn from the man. Every scene is treated like a footnote in history. Any merit points are immediately scrubbed clean when its shallow script puts more emphasis on the oddball mechanics instead of character development. And you know you’ve crossed that threshold of patience when Ethan Hawke’s Tesla randomly breaks out into song singing Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’.
It’s not to say Tesla’s story shouldn’t be told, but here you have to do a lot of compensating to find some level of compelling enjoyment. It’s fundamentally clear that Michael Almereyda’s Tesla won’t be for everyone. Some may enjoy the straight-faced risk and eccentricity of the material where the past and present collide awkwardly. For me this was the epitome of style over substance. Instead of resetting the fuse box (third time’s a charm), it’s time to find a new story to tell.
Tesla is out on Digital Download from 21st September from Lionsgate UK.