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Movie Review

Movie Review: 'Tesla' Is Filled With Curious Decisions


Early in Michael Almereyda’s biopic Tesla, the two great inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison are having a conversation, have a disagreement, and smush ice cream cones on each other. 

This is, apparently, not a thing that really happened. Maybe the conversation did, or maybe some of it, but we’re quickly told there was no ice cream. It’s a curious decision in a movie filled with curious decisions, but even though I don’t really understand it… it kind of worked? 


I very much appreciate directors who take artistic chances, because even when they go up in flames, at least they’re trying something. And when you’re really trying something and you succeed, it’s electric.


There’s both sides of this in Tesla, and the balance may tip a bit less to the successful side, but I admire Almereyda—who, by the way, is from Overland Park—for throwing whatever he can think of at the wall, especially in a biopic. The movie is about the so-called “war of the currents,” when Tesla and Edison had competing methods of distributing electricity, and then about the development of the Tesla coil and some later experiments. It does, sometimes, feel like a Wikipedia entry—although this, too, kind of works, as it acknowledges it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. That Tesla has become a bit of a mythological figure only adds to the haziness.


Now, I did know the broad outline of Tesla’s story, but I know nothing about him as a human being, and I’m not sure the movie does much to help that. Or maybe it does? At one point, Tesla says, “my brain is a receiver,” as if he’s just this vessel that collects ideas and knowledge. And this is exactly how he’s played by Ethan Hawke—he seems so singularly focused he’s almost passionless, sometimes without affect. Is this accurate? I have no idea. We don’t know Tesla any better than we did before, but I can’t tell you that’s not the point, either. In a movie where Thomas Edison glances at his iPhone and Nikola Tesla sings Tears for Fears, all bets are off.