Almereyda’s Experimenter-style mode is not as organic of a fit for the often compelling but ultimately overburdened Tesla.
Having risen to renewed prominence on the indie circuit with 2015’s fourth wall-defying biopic Experimenter and 2017’s sci-fi drama of memory and quasi-dystopia Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda returns to the former mode with his latest, though flourished with the thematic inflections of the latter, for a consideration of the life and times of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke). Yet, while Tesla approximates the self-awareness of Experimenter and hues closely to Marjorie Prime in its preoccupations with remembrance, its deviations are notably marked by having its narrative assume the third-person and filtering the recollection of its central figure through the terms of another. In this way, Tesla is a film that approaches a sort of Wikipedia-style stenography, and as the film’s narrator and chief supporting character, Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of the famed J.P., recounts the historical context, idealistic visions, and personal shortcomings of the brilliant, undervalued scientist and inventor.
Various events and ideas related to the man are accounted for and critiqued, to greater and lesser extents: period superstition, the war between AC and DC currents, Tesla and Edison’s mutual admiration and disdain, a fascination with celebrity and death, and a materialist comprehension of the universe. It’s an immensely busy and overcooked narrative that struggles to balance its analytical ambitions against a runtime that cannot support the depth of investigation needed for such cogitations. For example, Tesla is presented as an innocent, passive genius dashed upon the rocks of finance as he busies himself about his own ideas and dreams, while Thomas Edison (Kyle McLachlan) captures the quirk and vapidity of capital-acquainted scientific ambition; yet there is nothing to suggest a meaning to either’s failure in relation to the power of money, those who wield it, and the advantage its sums give in making use of scientific developments to shape the world. And all the while the representation of the daughter of one of the wealthiest men of the late-1800s tells this tale and berates the subject for his idealism, which is explicitly stated as ill-suited to “work hand in hand with capitalism.” It’s a whole lot of what’s-the-point for the most part, as the sum of each of the film’s individually curious pieces amounts to little.
As stated, formally the film is of piece with Experimenter, cognizant as it is of its own telling, yet it takes up a more pronounced Malickian cubism under the terms of a broader sense of montage: if Malick seeks a multiplicitous, naturalistic photography to express the many angles of self then Almereyda finds these dimensions in the strangeness of his imagistic conceits, as a POV shot might be followed by a Google Image search or a character ruminating in front of a rear-projected landscape. So while intermittently interesting, this technique also more redolently invites comparison to the infographic sensibility of the PowerPoint slide than anything biopically or historically compelling. The Malickisms continue, in inverted form, in the ultimate questions Almereyda’s film asks throughout, such as “Is nature a gigantic cat? And if so, who strokes its back?” — which while expressive of the pervading materialist sensibility that conflicts with Tesla’s more transcendentalist inclinations, often serve to lend a sanctimoniousness that amounts to little more than saying “no such answers here.” Minds reign over matter, but throughout we come to find that minds are also regularly self-absorbed, venal, and strange — aware of grandeur present in the world but too drawn to superstition and self-interest to strain the very limits of ambition and the world as then known.
Still, conducting this narrative probe within a materialist framework is a compelling choice, one supported by Almereyda’s commitment to an aesthetic of artifice — albeit one held over from both Experimenter and Marjorie Prime — even making a connection between the innovations of Tesla and the cinematic form as a mode of interrogation/presentation of history. Yet, while Experimenter set about implicating the audience through its inquiry into the function of authority, and Marjorie Prime refracted and magnified concerns regarding technological advancement and reified issues of mental wellness and memory, Tesla offers limited critical purchase or significance beyond highlighting an underappreciated individual intelligence, even as it attempts to connect to contemporary developments in applied sciences. There is a potency of idea and critique here — one only need consider that the central figure’s name presently brands one of the world’s most visibly pioneering corporations — but it’s lost in a final product so dubiously overburdened that it’s hard not to feel that Almereyda, like the Tesla of his film, couldn’t quite fit his designs to reality.