For as ubiquitous as Nikola Tesla has been in the current public consciousness, you’d think there would have already been a big-budget Oscar-bait biopic made about him in the years since his name became synonymous with electric cars and David Bowie’s performance in The Prestige. So it’s refreshing to see the highly influential inventor and all-around cryptic cult figure get a film treatment as abstract as his revolutionary ideas.
This comes courtesy of writer-director Michael Almereyda, an underground darling of the ‘90s independent film scene who never met a story that he couldn’t turn into an avant-garde filmmaking exercise. Even through his prolific recent run of higher profile films with starry casts, Almereyda hasn’t forgone his uniquely esoteric vision, building a stock company of loyal actors in the process. Re-teaming with lead Ethan Hawke for the third time (after the modern-day Shakespeare adaptations of Hamlet and Cymbeline), the New York based filmmaker is less interested in a straight-forward re-telling of Tesla’s life than in presenting an impressionistic collection of scenes that illuminate (no pun intended) why the work of this genius electrical engineer has bridged time periods as dynamically as any H.G. Wells novel.
Using a similar structure as his 2015 Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter, Almereyda breaks the fourth wall immediately, introducing us to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P. Morgan and Tesla’s sorta love interest (he never actually married), as she tells us from behind the screen of an Apple laptop how many fewer Google search results come up for Tesla compared to, say, Thomas Edison. It’s a gimmicky tactic for sure, but one that instantaneously breaks down any notions of the stuffy period-piece cliché. Almereyda then manages to weave Anne’s continued narration and web searching with exaggerated fragments from Tesla’s life, including his initial employment by future frenemy Thomas Edison (played amusingly full of hot air by Kyle MacLachlan), his working relationship with entrepreneurial titan George Westinghouse (a genial Jim Gaffigan), through to his iconic experiments in wireless energy in Colorado Springs, providing a fluidly entertaining and fancifully imagined account of a scientist who has long been considered an inscrutable enigma.
Despite all the grandiose subject matter, Almereyda elects to keep things intimate, confining most of the action to cramped interior spaces and shooting outdoor scenes against evocative greenscreen landscapes. This is probably partly due to budgetary constraints but the effect gives the film a handmade Guy Maddin-esque quality, harkening back to the story’s time period and the concurrent birth of cinema. Meanwhile, Almereyda keeps the anachronistic surrealism going throughout, with a strangely fitting climactic sequence of Tesla singing a karaoke rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
At the center of everything is Ethan Hawke, proving once again why he’s one of today’s most valuable American actors. Notwithstanding a debatably shaky accent at times, Hawke slips into Tesla’s shoes with ease, playing him as a shrinking violet who still sneakily manages to capture the attention of everyone around him. His Tesla is a man who can seemingly see into the future, painfully aware of the fact that his ideas will lay the groundwork for our entire modern wireless communication system. Like he’s done so many times before, Hawke brings life and warmth to material that could have easily come off stale in the hands of someone else.
After the glossier, conventional dud of 2017’s Edison vs. Westinghouse tale, The Current War (Nicholas Hoult played Tesla there), it’s nice to see a more offbeat biopic like Tesla get some attention and acclaim (it won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at this year’s Sundance). For both Almereyda and Hawke, it’s a testament to tackling ambitious projects while defiantly working on the fringes.