‘Tesla’ Has Electric Originality

by Jonah Desneux on August 21, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Nikola Tesla is a boring man with a brilliant mind.

His electrical innovations changed the world and inspired new possibilities for the future of technology. Tesla himself doesn’t have the same charismatic spark as the products he produced and is known for being incredibly introverted. This personality type doesn’t usually stack up well for biopics, as audiences want to learn and be enthralled by the exciting stories of some of the most important figures in history. Biopics themselves are tied down to their own stigma of being bland and unoriginal, which is why the idea of Tesla being a subject of his own has the potential of being a dull disaster. Writer and director Michael Almereyda takes on this challenge in his newest feature Tesla and conducts a film that is anything other than boring and dull.

Tesla is a bizarre biopic that escapes the genres stale archetype by crafting a quirky structure and having no problem breaking the fourth wall. Part narrative, part existential monologue, part Ted Talk on what looks like the set of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Tesla is a controlled mess that makes for an unforgettable viewing experience. While the film lacks some substance to make it great and one of the best films of the year, the runtime of Telsa is a perfect blend of experimental film and a well-taught history lesson. The film might never enter the realm of gripping, but it is never not interesting, which is one of the greatest compliments a biopic can have. Similar to Telsa’s quest to control and utilize lighting, Almereyda attempts to create cinematic lighting of this own. There are flashes of greatness throughout the film with no real purpose and preparation on when it will strike next. All one is left to do is sit back, watch the bright phenomenon, and say “Woah.”

Tesla takes place at the end of the 19th century and early 20th, as Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) finishes his time with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and sets out on his own ambitious product of perfecting an alternating current. Tesla meets and becomes infatuated with Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P. Morgan, and the story of their unique romance intertwines with Tesla’s progress. Anne also serves as the film’s main narrator (there’s a few more that pop up now and then) who attempt to explain Tesla’s desires and reasoning. Sometimes proving to be unreliable while narrating a scene that never actually took place, Anne is the engine of what makes Tesla as creative and compelling as it is. Occasionally voice-over, Anne narrates the story in a dark classroom set, using modern technology to explain and introduce the characters in the film’s story. With every one of importance, she makes sure to include how many searches pop up when you Google their name.

Anne’s ambitious narration not only explains the historical facts of the story but lays the foundation of the film’s creativity. The film is less focused on painting the most accurate picture of Tesla but instead wants audiences to engage with trying to get inside the inventor’s one-of-a-kind mind. The audience is guided to be mesmerized by the enigma that is Tesla such as Anne is. We attempt to make sense of a mind that is not like others, therefore the film strays away from being traditional. Tesla in many ways is a grounded fantasy about a man who is in many ways the embodiment of a grounded fantasy. In making sense of Tesla, Anne asks the audience to think and ponder the same questions that Tesla asked himself. In doing this, we throw away traditional logic and Almereyda throws away a traditional film style.

The cast of Tesla effectively takes on the film’s absurdity and runs with it in different ways. All of the main actors in the film each act as if they are in a different movie. Secondary characters play up a more standard period piece style of acting, while the leads stick out as if they were each asked to act in a different genre. Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse acts as if he were in a comedy, MacLachlan performs with such Lynchian oddity, Hawke dramatically grumbles, and Eve Hewson steals the show with her phenomenal deadpan charm. These different styles keep the actors from having genuine chemistry, yet they all flow together so well. It’s like if a new sport is created where players use bats to hit footballs into basketball hoops. The combination of the familiar doesn’t initially make sense, but that doesn’t keep it from being entertaining as hell.

Not without its flaws of being grating at times and lacking one singular moment of greatness, Tesla excels at presenting a tiresome style of filmmaking in a new and exciting way. Almereyda’s ambition shines bright like Tesla’s and he accomplishes the goal that many teachers have tried and failed at over the years, making history cool. Whether it be the cat-themed metaphors to question the will of God or the use of practical effects that are reminiscent of classical Hollywood, Tesla stands out as one of the most interesting biopics you’ll ever see. The surprise that is the second-to-last scene I can’t say is good, but it made my jaw drop and immediately tell my closest friends to check out a film that is unlike no other.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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