As one of the more iconic voices in scientific history, the impact of the work of Nikola Tesla has been felt for generations. Without question, his discovery of alternating current and the connection between energy and matter were far ahead of their time. As a result, the mere mention of his name seems to suggest creativity and innovation.
But how well do you really know him?
In Tesla, Ethan Hawke plays the visionary 19th Century inventor, Nikola Tesla. After having first discovered electricity by petting his cat as a young boy, Tesla sought to reinvent the way that we understand electric current. Initially working with Edison himself (Kyle MacLachlan), Tesla’s views caused tension between them, eventually leading to their parting ways and competing against one another. As Tesla’s notoriety grew, he continued to push the boundaries of science on a never-ending quest to create worldwide wireless energy. However, in doing so, he also puts himself into serious financial difficulty and created more conflict with the scientific community along the way.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, the film feels like somewhat of a fever dream, blending fantastical and theatrical elements into their vision of reality. As a historical figure, Tesla remains someone of a mythic presence with very little specifics known about him. (The film notes that, by Googling him, you’ll likely only find three pictures repeated over and over.) As such, Almereyda’s use of non-traditional cinematic devices shroud the man in mystery. Standing rather obviously in front of a green screen removes him from reality yet furthers the narrative. In addition, by bathing him in colour (or shadow), Almereyda places his subject in an alternate reality. Whether Tesla is having an ice cream fight with Thomas Edison or bursts out into a performance of Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, Almereyda is unafraid to push the boundaries of historical biographies in an effort to blur the lines between fact and fiction.
In doing so, Tesla can be a jarring experience that never allows you to get too comfortable within the story. Even so, it can also be fascinating to watch, primarily due to Hawke himself. As with every role he takes on, Hawke immerses himself in Tesla, imbuing the character with quiet energy. Amidst Almereyda’s wild images, Hawke portrays the wild visionary as a man out of time. Though he would affect the future, he was not always able to interact well with the present. Despite the fact that he was far from a recluse, Hawke highlights the obsessive nature of his personality in such a way that he seems unable to fully connect with those around, always thinking about his research in the back of his mind.
As it unravels (or reinforces) the mystery that is Nikola Telsa, Almereyda’s film also speaks to the flawed ways that we tell our stories. Told primarily through the perspective of Tesla’s ex-paramour, Anne Morgan, the viewer understands that her experience of him shapes her re-telling of history. Though there are moments where he is held in high regard, Tesla’s flaws are also exposed in such a way that we know that both have been shaped by her attempts to understand him.
Similarly, Tesla takes the story of its subject and recognizes that our view of history is always filtered by our perspectives. Without more information or personal experience, Tesla himself will always remain somewhat of an enigma in our minds, filtered through our view of him as either innovator or madman. Should Tesla be known as the man who revolutionized the scientific world? Is he the eccentric that believed he’d spoken with people from Mars? Or a messy combination of both? Regardless of our position, our personal biases will filter our opinion of him.
Though I would be hard-pressed to say that Tesla is electrifying, Hawke’s performance is suitably charged up enough to maintain your interest. Through his use of unexpected cinematic devices, Almereyda’s film is as unique as Tesla himself, playing with reality as much as it wants to share the truth with you. This is a film that seeks not to dispel the legends of a mysterious man but to allow that mythology to shape your understanding of his life and impact.
Tesla is available on VOD now.