Bound to be polarizing, ‘Tesla’ is as daring as biopics get

It’s difficult to know where to start with a film like ‘Tesla.’ Although it takes a little while to congeal, in my opinion, it grows into a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts masterpiece. But I can guarantee you not everyone will feel the same way.

Ethan Hawke gives a moody, striking performance as Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor who never got his due in his lifetime. The film is basically a thesis statement for the value of Tesla’s inner workings; his humming drive. It combines this psychoanalytical exegesis with an exploration of the stream he swam against. He never cared much to make money for himself or others; he genuinely wanted to change the world. And his ideas really did.

Director Michael Almereyda’s unorthodox storytelling techniques here include a Tesla-sung music video of a well-known 80s pop hit and an invented ice cream cone fight with Thomas Edison. That’s the kind of movie this is. Its flights of fancy and low-budget shortcuts can either seem totally jarring or totally earned. For me, they felt totally earned.

Part of earning it is being intellectually and emotionally consistent. Here, Tesla constantly struggles with the concepts of profit vs. achievement, love vs. lust, and human connection vs. individual accomplishment. The film subtly paints a picture of a man who banked on his own considerable genius so much that it prevented him from making the connections necessary to perhaps achieve his vision.

The flights of fancy keep the film’s view of Tesla from feeling like an abject tragedy. They keep Tesla’s ambition fresh in one’s mind rather than his failures. Almereyda’s film is a cascade of color, history, music, and mood; undeniably sexy, sneakily intellectual. To me, it’s like getting to eat vegetables and dessert at the same time.

-George Napper

‘Tesla’ is now available for rental and purchase on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu

1hr, 42min; rated PG-13 for some thematic material and nude images

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