Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Michael Almereyda has become known for telling well-known stories in unorthodox ways (his revisionist take on Hamlet is interesting, to say the least). For better or worse, his new biopic Tesla (re-teaming him with frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke) is unabashedly different, though its attempts at quirkiness seem like thinly-veiled attempts to mask a less-than-stellar script.
The film takes a look at the life of inventor Nikola Tesla, who became involved in the race with Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to bring electricity to the world. Unfortunately for Almereyda, another (and arguably more energetic) version of this story was released in theaters last year, and it is far more of a crowd-pleaser.
One could talk for days about all of the purposeful anachronisms in this movie (a performance of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Hawke’s Tesla will turn heads), but the bigger issue is that, despite this false sense of energy, the film is morbidly depressive. The bleak outlook of the movie despite the fact that it is set in one of the greatest periods of American scientific discovery is off-putting.
Also frustrating is the fact that the narrative is barely coherent, much less cohesive. The film jumps through time at will, and the structure with a fourth-wall-breaking narrator presenting alternate scenarios ends up being more confusing than intriguing. The amount of wasted potential on display here is nearly tangible.
Tesla is certainly a very interesting historical figure, and the movie makes a good point that his contributions are often overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. Yet in an attempt to bring parts of the film into the modern day (presumably to make the character more sympathetic), it creates this weird aura of insincerity around his struggle.
Still, Hawke’s performance in the leading role is excellent, leaning into the more bizarre aspects of the script. It’s definitely over-the-top, but it’s also like nothing you’ve ever seen before in a biopic. The supporting cast is strong, with some interesting turns by Kyle MacLachlan and Jim Gaffigan, although Hawke expectedly and frequently steals the scene from them.
Almereyda does some interesting things with the visuals, but a significant issue with the movie is that there are portions of the film that are lit poorly, either making them difficult to see or giving them an oversaturated glow. As a whole, this is a movie of extremes, with most of its aspects falling radically in one direction or the other but little landing safely in the middle.
There are some things to recommend Tesla, like its strong performances and air of creativity, but it disappointingly will leave most viewers unsatisfied. It’s a shame — with this pairing of talent, this easily should have been great.
Tesla hits theaters and VOD on August 19.