'Tesla' biopic is audacious but doesn't connect

Brad Keefe

First off, can we appreciate how weird and cool it is that a scientific rivalry from the late 19th century has somehow found its way into pop culture in recent years?

There’s even a Nikolai Tesla vs. Thomas Edison edition of Epic Rap Battles. Proto BuildBar, a former eclectic maker space in Dayton, created a video game console called War of the Currents that pits Tesla and Edison in Mortal Kombat-style battles (and the game actually gives you a small shock).

And now, hitting VOD this weekend is the latest movie telling of the inventor’s story, called simply “Tesla.”

Ethan Hawke stars as the titular Serbian-American scientist whose competing vision of electrical current put him at odds with his onetime employer Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan).

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There’s a subtext of the industrialist Edison’s views on how his discoveries will change life versus Tesla’s personal passion. To quote another great movie about scientific discovery, “Twister”: “He’s in it for the money, not the science.”

The story is effectively narrated by Tesla associate Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) in frequent asides that have a pseudo-documentary feel.

Writer-director Michael Almereyda takes his own experimental approach to the traditional biopic. There are staunch scenes of men sitting around tables stroking their chins. There is also an inexplicable but unexpectedly good scene featuring Hawke’s Tesla singing a pop song karaoke-style directly into the camera. I’ll let the song be a surprise.

Hewson’s Morgan also sets viewers up for the Tesla/Edison rivalry by discussing the number of results in a Google search for each name. So you have her in a late-1800s setting but sporting a laptop.

Personally, I preferred Almereyda’s occasional flourishes to the rest of the narrative, which never truly drew me in.

Hawke is too talented an actor to give a bad performance, but he’s so understated that he’s trying to convey too much with a furrowed brow. Admittedly, it’s tough to convey the gears of genius turning inside, and he does his best.

I also have only a passing background in Tesla’s story, so I imagine the Tesla stans will take away more than I did.

“Tesla” has moments of creative spark, but overall it didn’t connect for me.

“Tesla”

Now streaming on VOD

2 stars out of 5

Ethan Hawke as Nikolai Tesla in "Tesla"