Tesla (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An unorthodox failure

Nikola Tesla was indeed an inventor ahead of his time. Although many of numerous things envisioned by him were not realized during his life and he eventually died alone in poverty in 1943, he was surely one of the pioneering engineers during the late 19th century, and he would probably be amused and excited to see that some of what was imagined and devised in his brilliant mind came true in our time.

Because I have some background knowledge on Tesla’s life and career, I came to have some interest and expectation on Michael Almereyda’s latest film “Tesla” after watching its trailer a few weeks ago, but, sadly, I have to tell you that it is not particularly engaging despite its unorthodox storytelling method. Although I respect that the movie attempts to illuminate its main subject from a fresh perspective and narrative structure, the result somehow ends up being mediocre and pedestrian, and that is all the more surprising considering good efforts glimpsed from here and there throughout the film.

At the beginning, the movie mainly focuses on the growing conflict between Tesla, who is played by Ethan Hawke with constant weariness, and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) in the early 1880s. After hired by Edison, Tesla has shown his considerable talent as an electronic engineer, but Edison still does not recognize him much while constantly disregarding Tesla and other employees in his company, and that certainly makes Tesla all the more frustrated and exasperated.

At one point in the film, Tesla comes to have a silly ice cream fight with Edison, but then Anne Morgan (Even Hewson), who is the daughter of J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz) and also functions as the constant narrator of the movie, tells us that this fight is entirely fictional. Often appearing with a laptop computer, she comments on a number of many different things including Tesla’s legacy after his death, and you may be amused a bit when she says the Google search result on Tesla is less substantial compared to the one on Edison.

Eventually, Tesla leaves Edison’s company for starting his own business, but things do not go well for him mainly due to his antisocial personality and lack of business instinct, and he ends up earning his living via menial jobs during next several years until he is approached by George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan), who was the main competitor of Edison during that time. While Edison prefers Direct Current (DC), Westinghouse chooses Alternating Current (AC) instead, and Tesla knows well that the future lies in AC because of its several advantages including a cheaper supply price.

What is depicted next is not so far from what we saw from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War” (2017), which incidentally puts more focus on Edison and Westinghouse. For beating Westinghouse, Edison tries everything for emphasizing that DC is better and safer than AC, and he even gets involved in the development of an electric chair as the latest method of execution, though he is personally against execution.

Meanwhile, Tesla is introduced to Anne, who instantly becomes quite fascinated with Tesla and his ambitious vision. Although Tesla does not actively approach to Anne, he comes to spend more time with her as time goes by, and we later get an odd scene where they have a sort of date while enjoying roller-skating together within an indoor space.

However, Telsa remains a rather distant figure even at that narrative point, and Almereyda’s screenplay simply continue to enumerate those keys moments in Tesla’s life and career while never delving that deep into Tesla as a human being. Although it becomes a little more interesting when Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) enters the picture later in the story, we do not get much understanding of whatever is generated between this legendary stage actress and Tesla, and then the movie keeps trudging as usual after that part.

Ethan Hawke, who previously collaborated with Almereyda in “Hamlet” (2000), tries to hold the center as much as he can, and he is particularly good whenever he is required to suggest the intense intelligence behind his character’s seemingly plain façade, but his character is rather flat and monotonous from the beginning. Sure, Hawke has been constantly interesting to watch during last three decades, but the movie is not exactly one of his better moments, and it also under-utilizes the other notable cast members including Kyle MacLachlan and Jim Gaffigan, who manage to leave considerable impression as bringing some colorful human qualities to their respective supporting roles.

“Tesla” could be a nice alternative to “The Current War”, but Almereyda, who has been regarded as one of the most underrated American filmmakers by many movie critics, and his crew and cast members unfortunately fail to generate something as interesting as his recent films such as “Experimenter” (2015) and “Marjorie Prime” (2017), and it is disappointing that his unconventional approach does work as well as intended. While I became quite intrigued while observing the offbeat presentation of the Milgram experiment in “Experimenter”, I was considerably touched by the calm but poignant moments in “Marjorie Prime”, but I only came to sense many artificial aspects of “Tesla”, and that is all I can say about this lackluster piece of work for now.

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