It’s interesting that Tesla arrives so soon on the heels of Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive. Both films attempt to try something new with the standard, flat biopic, but both come up frustratingly short. While Satrapi tried to give a life-to-death biopic some visual flair, Michael Almereyda takes a more anachronistic approach, including having a character literally google facts about Nikola Tesla, best known for his experiments involving electricity. Unfortunately, there is little about the film that charms, besides the performance of Kyle MacLachlan and the costume design.
For his third collaboration with Ethan Hawke after Hamlet and Cymbeline, Almereyda cribs from his far-superior film about Stanley Milgram, Experimenter. What was successful in that film (fourth wall breaking, artificial backdrops, explaining science) feels like a retread here. By all accounts, Nikola Tesla was a weird guy, but Hawke never gets to really show that side of him. Hawke’s Tesla is quiet and reserved, speaking rarely and only in short sentences. There’s never a big electric moment for him, even when he spirals into madness over his obsession with a potential death ray. Kyle MacLachlan runs circles around him as a particularly cranky Thomas Edison. Newcomer Eve Hewson narrates the film as Tesla’s friend, Anne Morgan, but rarely is able to sell the drama of Tesla’s life.
The film picks up a bit when Tesla fully commits to his dangerous lightning-based experiments in the desert, but the momentum cannot be sustained. Even a last-ditch karaoke sequence (I know) baffles more than it entertains. Tesla can’t decide if it wants to be irreverent or dramatic, and its stars are lost in the current.
Dir. Michael Almereyda
Available in select theaters and on VOD Friday August 21st.
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