I knew Tesla would be no ordinary biopic when it opened on Ethan Hawke’s Nikola Tesla roller-skating to Wojciech Kilar’s score to Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, while a voice-over informed us that, after learning that the sparks generated by stroking his cat were the same thing as lightning in the sky, a 7-year-old Tesla had wondered, “Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?” Director Michael Almereyda delights in dissonance: Not long after that opening scene, we see the turn-of-the-century philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) look at the camera, whip open a laptop, and do a Google search for “Nikola Tesla.” (Later, she’ll look up “Thomas Edison.”) And what to say about an extended sequence of Tesla singing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”? I love it, but I don’t entirely know what to make of it — which I could say about the entirety of this bizarre, bewitching film.
Tesla’s sharpest turns are not narrative or temporal, however. They are thematic and tonal, and that question about who strokes nature’s back isn’t just a cute anecdote. Invention, for Tesla, isn’t about creating new things but about unleashing the latent mysteries of the universe. He’s not building so much as uncovering, channeling, exploring. Over and over, the dialogue hits us with these ideas. Unseen gears and engines thrum and echo in the background of nearly every scene. Earth as spirit, Earth as animal, Earth as machine, or maybe Earth as spirit-machine-animal — this might be the most animist film ever made about scientists.
Never one to tell a story straight, Almereyda (whose 2015 Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter was similarly offbeat, if not quite so wonderfully deranged) does dutifully hit some of the key events in Tesla’s life: his brief early employment under Thomas Edison (a smugly confident Kyle MacLachlan) and his lifelong rivalry with the inventor, his partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) to produce and market his revolutionary induction motor, as well as his relocation to Colorado Springs to experiment with wirelessly sending electricity across the world. The film also expands and speculates on Tesla’s long-running relationship with Morgan (daughter of J.P. Morgan) and his obsession with the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan, whom Almereyda shoots as if she were her own paradoxically liberating-intoxicating, techno-natural Earth-machine force: At one point, we see her enter a room to a throbbing disco beat, a very contemporary-looking entourage trailing behind her, like she’s bringing modernity itself with her).
Despite the ubiquity of his patents and inventions, Tesla was never good with money, or with contracts, or with self-promotion. Westinghouse took advantage of him, while Edison blew past him as a businessman with an inferior product. Tesla let himself get used, he squandered fortunes, and he found his noble intentions thwarted. His ideas about wireless transmission were prophetic, of course, hence those laptops and all the other occasional anachronistic doodads that populate the film, but his vision had a dark side, too. In Colorado, we see Tesla framed against majestic landscapes — mountains and ranches and forests — most of them clearly fake, projections against which Hawke stands awkwardly. Almereyda never tries to cover up such imperfect effects. Rather, he indulges them. That’s a clever way for the director to get around his limited budget, but it also speaks to a kind of alienation that will come full circle when we all eventually go wireless.
Discussing the potential uses of his induction engine, Tesla says, “That motor will do the work of the world. It’ll set men free.” Hawke delivers the lines like both a prophet and a haunted man (which I guess is another way to describe a prophet). Tesla sees a continuum between unlocking the power already within nature and the democratic use of that power, but maybe he also sees, or perhaps intuitively understands, that once these forces are unleashed, they’ll be exploited by those with less noble ends. He himself is both seer and guinea pig, poster child and cautionary tale. So maybe that’s why we find our hero on stage, mic in hand, singing Tears for Fears’ synthesizer-heavy New Wave hit about corruption and disarmament and pollution near the movie’s end. Technology makes both creation and destruction easier. The more we discover about the world, the film seems to say, the farther we get from it. In the end, we’re still just left with our fractured selves.
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