In recent years, Hollywood has been trying hard to make Tesla happen. Not the car, nor the late-’80s metal band, but the father of modern electricity, Nikola Tesla, who invented the alternating current in the late 19th century. Tesla was memorably played by David Bowie in 2006’s “The Prestige,” and by Nicholas Hoult in last year’s much-delayed “The Current War.” He was a supporting character in both, however, a wild and unknowable eccentric who only played a small role in a larger story. With “Tesla,” the wildly original new film from director Michael Aremeyda (“Experimenter”), the great inventor finally gets his own story, and it’s just as innovative as the man himself.
It opens conventionally, if only to set you up for the subversive twists that follow. When we meet Tesla, he is already a grown man who, having immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe, is working under the tutelage of Thomas Edison (Kyle McLaughlin). Tesla is just as smart as Edison, although less adept at public relations, so it isn’t long before he strikes out on his own, bringing his alternating current to market just in time to compete with Edison’s direct current.
Instead of conforming to the Wikipedia-entry-as-film structure of most biopics, “Tesla” vivisects the form, exposing its conventions and magnifying them for greater scrutiny. The film skips directly over Tesla’s childhood and instead enlists Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), Tesla’s love interest and the daughter of his benefactor, J.P. Morgan, to periodically address the audience as an omniscient narrator. She speaks directly to the camera from the present, reading the details of Tesla’s early life from her laptop. She does an image search for him on Google, and is impressed by how many results there are. Then she does the same for the film’s other central figures. It’s a playful choice that reveals how old-school biopics have outlived their usefulness. Almereyda recognizes that we don’t need biopics to tell us what happened to a person. We can pull that up online in about 10 seconds.
Many films have used such postmodern trickery as a gimmick, but here it derives from an honest reading of its subject. Tesla does not fit into a traditional narrative. His invention, for example, is a hit, but when events conspire to keep him from making the profit he deserves, he takes it in stride. He retreats to Colorado, where he studies lightning storms in near-isolation. He is not interested in professional achievement, only science. Tesla follows his imagination, and that’s why a traditional biopic wouldn’t serve him. The usual metrics of professional and personal success don’t explain him.
Almereyda fully commits to the approach: He uses obvious matte backgrounds to revel in the artificiality of film production. There are anachronistic music choices, such as a delightful sequence in which Tesla sings a Tears for Fears song in a karaoke setting (yes, you read that right). And there is, of course, unreliable narration: After a scene in which Edison apologizes to Tesla for his behavior, settling a long-simmering feud between the two geniuses, Anne butts in again: “This meeting never happened. Edison never apologized.” The effect is to shake up the biopic, as well as the audience who has become numb to its failures, and lay the groundwork for something new to emerge.
Tesla is not quite that new thing. The film is successful in revealing the ways the genre must change, but it never builds a replacement. It’s never boring – Almeyereda’s mastery with the camera and expressionistic staging ensures there’s always something compelling to look at, and Hawke’s mysterious charisma keep us alert – but you might leave the film feeling more engaged than moved. The final scenes bring its characters together for profound discussions of the economic implications of electricity – yes, this is a film about “power,” in all its meanings – but it feels more like a jumping-off point than a conclusion. Not that this is a criticism. “Tesla” may not know what to do with all its energy, but it shines a bright light on the problem.
“Tesla” is now streaming everywhere.
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