The name Tesla evokes different things for different people. For some, it sparks intrigue and mystery. For others, it’s outside-the-box ingenuity yet unfulfilled potential. Some associate the name with the birth of radio, experimentation, and even electric cars. Regardless of how – or what – comes to mind, few 19th century figures have amassed such a powerful cult following as Nikola Tesla.
Tesla had some outrageous and, some would say, radical ideas for his time. In fact, they were usually so advanced he never quite got the opportunity to prove himself. Tesla had plans for a camera that could record your thoughts, a machine that replicated earthquakes, and a “Death Beam” which could kill thousands of soldiers in a single instance. However none of these ideas ever came to fruition, and are never really touched upon in the new film bearing his name.
These ideas are never really touched upon in Tesla, the film, because it’s not really a film with a sequence of scenarios adding up to one giant story. Rather, Tesla is executed as an experimental film meant to exude a distinct ethos – the spirit of Nikola Tesla, if you will. However, writer-director Michael Almereyda’s surrealistic style prevents us from getting anything else out of the picture.
Told from the point of view of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of prominent financier J.P. Morgan and unrequited lover of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke). The events she’s retelling are set in the late-19th century, but she’s often shown speaking directly to the camera while using a laptop computer. She offers some retrospective insight about Tesla, but not a ton. Most of what we learn is through the events shown on screen.
Tesla, an immigrant to America, worked for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) early on as an electrical engineer. Edison, who worked primarily in direct current electricity, laughed off Tesla’s ideas about alternating current. Tesla eventually left Edison to set out and secure his own financing. He had several prolific backers, but obstacles kept getting in his way. Many have argued that Tesla was too much of a visionary and not enough of a businessman. Unlike Edison, he lacked the natural charisma to lead others to buy into his enthusiasm. Tesla was a strange fellow and didn’t socialize very well, which may have very well been his downfall.
At a time when ideas weren’t exactly a dime-a-dozen, people also held a certain skepticism with new ideas. Heck, even film and automobiles were initially considered fads when they debuted, so how would Tesla sell the world on alternating current – something admittedly less sexy?
Almereyda’s script is filled with some unfulfilled potential of its own. Riddled with pontifications and stiffly poetic dialogue, Tesla is VERY into itself. The filmmaker loves speaking in idioms and sprinkling in aggressive subtext where it doesn’t need to be. He never actually tells us anything, though, he leaves it up to us to piece together every bit of minutiae thrown our way – scientific or otherwise. You have to applaud the filmmaker’s approach to not dumbing down his content, but the audience just never feels the breakthrough they expect to have about the enigma that is Nikola Tesla.
Almereyda’s Tesla tries replicating that enigma, but comes up short. When it comes to telling the man’s story, the film provides some educational material, but doesn’t even really scratch the surface. Despite being laden with 3rd person narration, the movie doesn’t quite capitalize on shedding light on Tesla’s elusive existence or gives us a peek behind the curtain to bring us closer to our subject. There’s a real opportunity to pick apart themes about capitalism versus idealism – the fact that Tesla’s futuristic and hypothetically possible visions were stifled by a lack of money never really gets punctuated. Almereyda presents this concept in his own way, but it’s not really effective.
The director stages his scenes like a play, and the Burtonian washed-out lighting and pretentious script make the entire movie feel like those dramatized cutscenes throughout a TV docuseries. There’s also an odd use of a very obvious green screen, and I’m still unsure if it’s supposed to look fake or not. Tesla has a sort of awareness that it’s a retelling of a story rather than becoming an immersive experience for the audience.
Almereyda plays by his own rules, filling his movie with anachronisms and several “that’s not what really happened, but it would have been funny if it did” moments. At one point in this very overly-serious film, Tesla, himself, is on stage singing karaoke. At another, he and Edison engage in a minimalist food fight. I suppose a film about Nikola Tesla should be made economically and outside the box. I mean, just because people didn’t understand him back then doesn’t mean they won’t now, right?
This isn’t the first film about Nikola Tesla, and it won’t be the last, but it’s certainly the biggest thus far to promise the fascinating inventor a story all his own. Who knows, maybe he would’ve liked this one. Tesla will surely come off as obtuse to those who can’t quite read between the lines as easily. It’s not Almereyda’s visionary filmmaking style that I have a problem with, but his script’s failure to really nail its subject. However, he may spark just enough enthusiasm from the audience to make them want to look further into the film’s subject matter. Although, it would have been nice if the movie, itself, provided enough of that for them in the first place.