“It is largely entertaining, and clearly strives to begin discussions on its subject and his legacies – both scientific and cultural – but doesn’t really feel like a fully cohesive, singularly compelling work.”
by Ken Bakely
There is a certain contrast at the heart of Michael Almereyda’s Tesla. The script largely depicts Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) as a brilliant but reserved or stifled figure, who is perhaps remembered in spite of the circumstances around him. On the other hand, the approach that the film takes in telling this story is wildly vivid. Characters break the fourth wall (the film is narrated by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of J. P. Morgan, who comments on which events in the film did or did not actually happen). They behave anachronistically (characters use smartphones, and in one much-discussed sequence, Nikola Tesla picks up a microphone and sings the 1985 Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”). And they break the fourth wall while behaving anachronistically (there is a scene in which Anne Morgan pulls out a MacBook and walks us through Google searches for various individuals depicted in the film). Almereyda is no stranger to such unorthodox storytelling methods, and he is largely able to invoke them here without coming off as too distancing. But beyond the undeniable craft on display, there’s something missing under the surface; though Hawke’s performance is delicate and contemplative, the movie struggles to inform us in great detail of the motivations and spirit to Tesla’s creativity. It is largely entertaining, and clearly strives to begin discussions on its subject and his legacies – both scientific and cultural – but doesn’t really feel like a fully cohesive, singularly compelling work.
This is somewhat strange, because there is a clear throughline to the events of the film, beginning with the rise and fall of Tesla’s time working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), and following up from there. Tesla seeks to study key historical events through the lens of a propulsive desire to investigate what those involved possibly could have thought and felt. Seeking to do more than just emulate – as a conventional biopic might – the film visibly sets itself in an entirely new and constructed world. In it, Almereyda makes his own eccentric rules, places real-life figures within the setting’s heavily stylized confines, and sets them off on their complex journeys. The idea is admirable, and it’s one regularly fascinating to watch and reflect upon. Of course, this movie also has to exist as something more than just a vessel for its outlandish concepts. There has to be a reasoning behind a film’s choices. To be sure, Almereyda is well aware of this; he strives to use these flourishes in underscoring the points he makes about Tesla’s life and reputation (in particular, why it has traditionally paled in comparison to discussion of Edison’s). But often, the movie can’t do much more than just invoke. It’s hard to come away from the film with any greater appreciation or understanding of Tesla, perhaps because when the movie comes to the grit of discussing him, it merely indicates that he was underappreciated in his time – and for decades after – in a myriad of vaguely repetitive ways, and then moves on.
With all of this considered, Tesla is a complicated work to evaluate. On an aesthetic level, it’s the kind of lively and purposefully messy movie that provides a jolt to the stodgy conventions of its genre. It’s not afraid to make big swings and explore the depths of the many possibilities it has laid out for itself, and it’s compounded by solid technical credits and a sharp lead performance. When the movie is at its best, it synthesizes its style with its text; its broad ambitions work in harmony with the personal nature of its story, and we see Almereyda strive to connect his film to the mysteries surrounding Nikola Tesla. Yet when the movie gets to the heart of examining its subject and dramatizing the substance of his work, it’s prone to many of the same pat narratives and shallow character studies that the stuffiest of biopics are. While there’s a certain charm inherent to the whole movie, and Almereyda couldn’t possibly be accused of approaching this material dispassionately, Tesla comes up too short, too frequently to really feel like the big, vibrant portrait that it wants to be, even though there are moments when it comes particularly close.