The Future is Now

Ethan Hawke brings tale of overlooked visionary inventor whirring to hip, flip movie life

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Tesla
Starring Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan & Jim Gaffigan
Directed by Michael Almereyda
PG-13

Chances are you don’t think much about what happens when you flip on a light, turn on an appliance, talk on your smartphone or casually change your TV with the remote.

But Nikola Tesla did—a long, long time before those things ever became things.

Director Michael Almereyda brings the story of the visionary—and largely overlooked—inventor whirring to life in this fluid and freewheeling biopic, which shows how Tesla, an immigrant from the Austrian Empire, arrives in America in the late 1800s determined to put his dreams and his ideas to work.

Specifically, and most significantly, Tesla believes that electricity can be conducted more efficiently—and more safely—through “alternating current,” or AC, than through surging direct current, or DC. He just has to design a machine that can do it. This puts him at odds with America’s greatest inventor and capitalist, Thomas Edison, who’s rushing to get his DC electrical inventions into homes and cities.

It’s no coincidence that the movie begins with Tesla (Ethan Hawke) on roller skates, setting off for a leisurely spin across the floor of a stately sitting room, glancing both behind him and ahead. This lyrical, artful movie itself glides across time and plays fast and loose with its moorings; it’s never content to stay in one place—namely, the past. Tesla was all about the future—a future where feats of science and engineering would “do the work of the world [and] set men free.”

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Kyle McLachlan as Thomas Edison

And likewise, this jazzily innovative cool-cat movie looks ahead, in ways that remind you that Tesla’s “future” is indeed now, and we’re using many inventions that were born from his ideas. A haughty Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan, channeling some unmistakable Twin Peaks vibes) casually pulls out an iPhone at a bar. The daughter of super-wealthy Wall Street tycoon J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), the headstrong Anne Morgan—played by Eve Hewson, from TV’s The Knick and The Luminaries—often pauses to flip open her MacBook and take us through Google search results about Tesla and other characters as she narrates.

And Anne carries a torch for Tesla, one that never heats up beyond a smolder. She’s the movie’s “love interest” that never really finds love, only admiration, forever trying to break through to the heart of a man totally consumed by what’s going on in his head. In an early scene, where she first meets Tesla, she’s fascinated by his invention, a tiny object that generates electricity by magnetic fields instead of moving, whirring parts that create friction, things that actually touch and connect. Tesla’s electricity is clean and safe, no friction, no sparks; nothing to rub against anything else, nothing to generate heat.

And no sparks, no friction, no heat, Anne comes to realize, is a bit too chilly for her.

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Railroad tycoon George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) takes young Tesla under his entrepreneurial wing.

Jim Gaffigan waltzes in, his face almost overtaken by a bushy walrus moustache and enormous muttonchops, as railroad industrialist George Westinghouse. Former model Rebecca Dayan provides some electrical sizzle of her own as the French stage-actress Sarah Bernhardt, an international touring sensation with whom Tesla is positively starstruck.

Tableaus played out “seriously” against obviously fake backdrops of outdoor scenery—Niagara Falls, the Colorado sky, a train depot, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—remind us that we’re watching reenactments being tweaked, manipulated and flexed, like in a pageant or a play. Anne helpfully reminds us when something we’re seeing that “almost certainly didn’t happen that way,” reinforcing a film-festival statement from the director that one of his influences in making Tesla was TV’s Drunk History. It’s a safe bet, for instance, that Tesla never smooshed an ice cream cone into Thomas Edison’s face, or grabbed a microphone and laid down an off-key karaoke groove to a popular ‘80s—and I’m talking 1980s, not 1880s—tune with lyrics uncannily right-on about the power struggles of the industrial conglomerates of his day wanting to “rule the world.”

Hmmm…maybe Tesla really could see the future.

Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) sometimes uses a laptop (!) to aid her narration.

It’s a hip, flip, time-twisting trip, and Hawk—an extremely versatile, often-overlooked actor whose impressively varied career spans films of just about every kind of genre, from slow-burn indie dramas to gritty cop thrillers, immersive musical biopics and chilling horror flicks—intensifies this mesmerizing portrait of a largely forgotten inventor genius by underplaying him, drawing us inward to ponder the deep, churning energies underneath his quiet surface.

Tesla knew that his innovations—advancements that today live in technologies from x-rays and MRIs to florescent lights, wireless communications and laser beams—would shake up the world, perhaps even change it forever. He boldly predicts the impact. “Humanity will be like an anthill stirred with a stick,” he confidently proclaims.

This trippy livewire of a movie suggests a modern world dreamed to life by an immigrant visionary a century ago, a man some of his contemporaries tried to dismiss as a mad scientist, an enigmatic Euro-crackpot who sometimes babbled about talking to planets and photographing thoughts. But Tesla’s clean, alternating AC/DC won the “current war,” and his accomplishments factor into just about everything we do today—even if most people may know his name.

At one point, Anne asks him what he would do if his dreams ever came true.

“All of my dreams,” Tesla replies, “are true.”

Indeed, they are, or were—eventually, if not in his actual lifetime. But Tesla the movie creates a world teeming with ideas where the inventor and his inventions, the dreamer and his dreams, actually do fuse together, at least temporarily, for one time out of time and in one crazily, wildly inventive place.

In select theaters, and available on digital/VOD, Aug. 21, 2020

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