It was a full house at the screening of “Tesla” I attended in Salt Lake City. Sundance attendees filled up a magnificent theatre with a capacity of well over a thousand. I wasn’t closely following which films were the ones to look out for at Sundance 2020, so I had no idea it would draw such a huge audience. Bystanders clamored outside the theatre for someone to give up their tickets. But the excitement didn’t surprise me. Everyone loves an underdog story, and festival goers were appropriately amped to see a biopic on the internet’s darling martyr of scientific history.
I’m not sure what I expected from a biopic about Nikola Tesla, but the movie turned my undefined expectation on its head. It is a wholly weird, fourth-wall-breaking work of avant-garde artistry. The film is narrated by J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson, “Robin Hood”), who sets the scenes with a MacBook and a projector. Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke, “The Kid”) and Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”) have a historically inaccurate ice cream fight. Ethan Hawke sings a karaoke rendition of Tears For Fears’s 1985 hit “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” all while in-character as Tesla. I shit you not.
While “Tesla” is sometimes hilarious — even if its intent is sometimes ambiguous — it’s mostly terrible. It is a genuinely boring film through and through, trading the constraints of logical narrative for Aesthetic™. Much of the film focuses on a rivalry between Edison and Tesla that more accurately existed between Edison and Westinghouse. There’s a lot of history tied to the late-19th-century war of the currents depicted in the film, including Westinghouse powering a world’s fair in Chicago, New York’s first electric chair execution and Tesla’s neurotic experiments in Colorado. But, all of this layered with artistic surrealism makes the whole thing difficult to follow. It grasps at so many threads of Tesla’s life, but fails to get anything meaningful across about the man himself.
The film acknowledges its lack of historical accuracy about Edison and Tesla’s relationship — Anne Morgan chimes in with a “it didn’t really happen like that” after the aforementioned ice cream fight — but it’s still overly misleading. Especially in what all my research indicates is a largely speculative construction of Tesla’s relationship with Anne Morgan and infatuation with French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The film does give a truthful depiction of Tesla’s insanity toward the end of his life, showcasing his oddball obsession with free energy. Still, by the end, there’s no indication of a purpose to this film. It clearly wasn’t meant to be informative, nor was it meant to send a message. It sure as hell wasn’t entertaining. So by the end of the movie, after the three people to my right walked out halfway through and the person to my left began incessantly snoring, I was left asking: Why? What is your purpose, “Tesla”?
Popular culture has gone on to hold Nikola Tesla in high regard. Still, a depiction of Tesla that does him justice remains elusive. For someone whose story holds so much popular interest and whose life journey invokes so much intrigue, the lack of a decent documentary or biopic should be a statistical improbability. I guess what I’m saying is, “Tesla” beats the odds with its soullessness. I’d rather read a sci-fi book’s crackpot take on Tesla as a member of a secret society.