The word ‘Tesla’ is mostly associated with Elon Musk’s company these days, but it was named after a famous scientist who was way ahead of his time. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an inventor, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, and futurist who conjured theories of text messages and fiber optic internet in the late 1800s. While some films have previously portrayed the famous scientist, notably The Current War and The Prestige, none ignite an eclectic vibrancy quite like writer/director Michael Almereyda’s Tesla.
The film follows Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) as he advances his career from Thomas Edison’s workshop to the World’s Fair in 1893, and later moving to Colorado and Long Island to explore other passionate hypotheses. A brooding introvert at heart, Tesla navigates relationships with a professional awkwardness. He devotes his passion to his work and commitment to his alternating current (AC) electrical system, instead of towards the women who longingly eye him from across the room. J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) is a temporary flame of Tesla’s, but the spark between the two is not strong enough to keep him engaged for very long. However, Anne is the narrator of the film. Calmly breaking the fourth wall, she discloses Tesla’s temperament and even opens a laptop to Google photos of Thomas Edison and explain how sad it is that he has significantly more images pop up than Tesla. These quirky elements propel the film and provide a refreshingly unique take on the standard biopic formula.
Almereyda leans into his experimental filmmaking in order to enhance history, build intrigue around Nikola Tesla as a person, and show appreciation for the work that he accomplished and predicted. Several scenes are shot using paintings and photographs as backdrops as opposed to shooting in a real-life setting. Anne describes one moment in particular when Tesla argues with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) about whose technology is more efficient. The two get into a light-hearted ice cream cone fight, and then the scene is replayed again but in a more accurate historical context. These playful interactions serve as the pulse of Almereyda’s film and directorial style. The zany writing choices are perfectly complemented by the characters and their offbeat interactions. When we see Edison causally pull out a cell phone, the audience knows nothing is off limits. And when Tesla bursts out singing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, it’s solidified that this film carries a creative charge unlike any other. These moments are not merely for comedy, however. Almereyda provides an added layer of social and political commentary regarding fame, corruption, the search for knowledge, and capitalism.
Production on the film lasted only 22 days and was shot around New York City and Brooklyn. Despite the quick turnaround, there were several ways the production paid homage to the time period. Authentic 19th century structures and spaces were dressed by production designer Carl Sprague while other sets were created from scratch. Several scenes were simply filmed in front of a green screen as opposed to outside, which give off an atmosphere similar to watching a play, but can also translate like a dry episode of Drunk History. Regardless, it keeps the audience guessing as to what other kind of anomalous filmmaking methods will be portrayed, therefore positioning itself far above the standard formulaic biopic. Cinematographer Sean Williams considered light to be a forefront character throughout the story, utilizing candles, lanterns, gas, and electric light. Working with shadows and sunlight, the illumination on screen further supports Tesla’s journey. Rear-screen projections were also used to enhance Anne Morgan’s narrations as though she is speaking from the future, and utilizing technology that Tesla helped invent is an allegory for how his influence is present today.
Ethan Hawke emits a magnetic pull as Tesla. His reserved demeanor is aloof yet attractive and when he lets loose, that innate introvert personality is delicately still evident. MacLachlan serves as a perfect character foil and the energy between him and Hawke is palpable. Fans of Twin Peaks will see small slivers of Agent Dale Cooper in Edison and despite the two historic characters’ feud, their chemistry is still more enjoyable than toxic. While the subject of the film is Tesla and his scientific achievement with his AC current, there is more to say beyond merely what he invented. The inconsistent tone of the film may frustrate some audiences, but the variability in approach is ultimately one of the film’s charms. Almereyda illuminates audiences by showing Nikola Tesla as a multi-dimensional scientist and exemplifies how science and storytelling are both creative endeavors at their core.
Tesla is available in select theaters and on VOD and digital platforms today.
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August 21, 2020