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Tesla is a weird, fourth-wall-breaking take on the internet’s favorite inventor

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It’s the kind of biopic where Ethan Hawke sings Tears for Fears

Ethan Hawke in Tesla Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Thomas Edison is the inventor you learn about in school. Nikola Tesla is the inventor you learn about on the internet — whether that’s The Oatmeal’s massive 2012 paean to “the greatest geek who ever lived;” Kate Beaton’s sexy Tesla comic; or the Drunk History episode where he’s played by John C. Reilly. (That’s not even counting the memes about Elon Musk’s car company and David Bowie in The Prestige.)

Tesla, directed by Michael Almereyda, adds one very important thing to this canon: a full-length rendition of the inventor (played by Ethan Hawke) singing the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in a slightly off-key drone. It’s oddly charming and one of the moments where Tesla’s weird pseudo-biopic approach works — although it’s counterbalanced with just as many scenes that don’t quite come together.

What’s the genre?

A fun, if slightly silly, bait-and-switch. Tesla starts like a straight-faced biographic film about the 19th-century war of the currents, with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) famously refusing to give Tesla a promised $50,000 payment. But for initially unclear reasons, they’re both eating ice cream cones. As the argument escalates, the men stand up and begin to gesticulate at each other. Then, Tesla smashes his cone in Edison’s face — and the film cuts to J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne (Eve Hewson), sitting behind a MacBook, informing us that this scene probably never happened.

Tesla has more moments that break the fourth wall or explore what-if scenarios, and it’s ostentatiously low-budget as well — virtually every “outdoor” set is a clearly painted backdrop, for instance. At the same time, it straightforwardly follows the major beats of Tesla’s life from his work with Edison to his research on wireless power in Colorado.

What’s it about?

Nikola Tesla is a brilliant inventor with a machine that could provide electricity to the world. His alternating current design clashes with Thomas Edison’s direct current model, though, and Edison begins a vicious campaign against AC that involves electrocuting dogs to death with it. (This actually happened, although it’s complicated.)

Ultimately, AC takes over the power grid. But Tesla is too idealistic and ambitious for his own good. He gives up a royalty deal for his invention, then begins work on a wireless power system with huge potential but little opportunity for profit. His fortunes dwindle, and his ideas become increasingly bizarre — although the film doesn’t go as far as noting Tesla’s later full-throated support for eugenics. After a long life, he dies widely admired but penniless. (I’m sorry if I just spoiled Nikola Tesla’s death, but to be fair, it happened nearly 80 years ago.)

What’s it really about?

Tesla hews to the well-established and arguably fair “David and Goliath” narrative of Tesla the idealistic small-time inventor fighting Edison the caddish businessman. While it doesn’t quite depict Tesla as the “nicest geek ever,” as The Oatmeal dubbed him, it thoroughly averts the “arrogant genius” archetype and makes a case for Tesla being mostly uninterested in people but still deeply humanistic.

Hawke’s Tesla nearly folds into himself when he sits with a colleague, and he’s more quietly self-deprecating than aloof. He gets exasperated with investors who don’t understand how his inventions could help humanity — which, far more than pure technical achievement, is always on his mind. But he stresses that nobody, including him, should claim to be a scientific expert. And while he’s resolutely celibate, he maintains a long-standing friendship with philanthropist Anne Morgan, who acts as the film’s narrator.

Is it good?

Tesla has oddball panache and is probably more compelling than a conventional period piece would be. Beyond obvious gags like the ice cream fight or Morgan pulling up Google search results, it’s got some delightfully deadpan humor. It embraces the fact that Tesla is a well-known and widely idealized cultural hero at this point, focusing on vignettes that explore particularly interesting and dramatic moments in his life.

The problem is that these moments aren’t always interesting or dramatic, and they leave too much plot to Morgan’s quirky, documentary-style narration. The film’s deliberate lo-fi design leads to endless shots of people sitting in cramped and dreary rooms — although there is a great scene involving the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) slinking and brooding through a snowy walk with Tesla. And Hawke leans so hard into Tesla’s sensitivity that he seems almost constantly on the verge of tears.

If Tesla had appeared during the Nikola Tesla revival a decade ago, I’d tentatively call it a cult hit. At the very least, Hawke’s musical number would rack up the views on YouTube. Now, it’s more noteworthy as an ambitious movie made with intriguingly tight constraints — even if the results, like Tesla’s big ideas, don’t always work.

How can I actually watch it?

Tesla rights were acquired by IFC Films, and it’s available to rent or buy as of August 21st.

Correction: Sarah Bernhardt is played by Rebecca Dayan, not Hannah Gross. We regret the error.