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  Tesla The Atmosphere Was Electric
Year: 2020
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Dan Bittner, Lucy Walters, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Greene, Josh Hamilton, David Kallaway, Karl Geary, Ebon Moss-Bacharach, Hannah Gross, Michael Mastro, Lois Smith, Rick Zahn, John Palladino, Rebecca Dayan
Genre: Weirdo, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) was an inventor with particular interest in electricity and its potential, who started to establish himself in the late nineteenth century with the help of the era's greatest technological mind, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) - or at least that's the way he preferred to style himself. But was Tesla the superior talent? Was this deep thinker in fact the grandfather of the modern world, whose concepts spoke to the modernity of a society where electronics were taken for granted as they had infiltrated every aspect of modern life? What kind of man was he, anyway? Did he love and laugh at all?

And what was his singing voice like, for that matter? If you have ever wondered those things, then this could be the Tesla biopic for you, a defiantly anti-documentarian approach to the thwarted genius's career and private life that naturally rubbed a lot of viewers up the wrong way. Even all these years later, Tesla commanded a strong following of those who made great claims for his visionary qualities, and how he had predicted the future in a way that even his great rival Edison had failed to - but the fact remained, Edison got things done, and Nikola for all his inspiration just could not get his stuff off the ground despite his endeavours.

This has made him a tragic figure in retrospect - he died in poverty, all his dreams having turned to dust - and he does not appear to have flourished in love either, having been very attached to his mother and no other woman. This adds to his legend: poor Nik, an unclaimed treasure who was too brilliant to cope with the niceties of romance, and Hawke played him as essentially an introvert who was awkward around pretty much everybody. This would go some way to explaining why he was not able to assert himself and get his creations out there and into every home on the planet, so at least that and the cult around him were in some kind of agreement.

But director Michael Almereyda was not about to allow any opportunity to get weird with this admittedly eccentric man pass by, so his Tesla came across as a type of savant whose ingenuity in the laboratory was never going to flourish when his personality proved a state of self-sabotage. It was an interesting path to take, and this was never less than "interesting", assuming you were not utterly turned off by a post-modern, anachronism-stuffed take on the biopic, in which case you would do well to bail out early or not give it a go at all, for the sake of your blood pressure. Everyone else, everyone who could tolerate the slightly too clever for its own good arrangement, might have found it more provocative and stimulating even as they acknowledged the low budget hurt the ambition.

Certainly the film picked up a few aficionados who responded to its playful, weirdly disrespectful take on one of history's finest nearly men, though the Tesla fanatics outnumbered them significantly. Perhaps it was because this never came across as wholly convinced Tesla would ever have made the most of his potential that seemed the biggest insult, despite that being by and large authentic. There are those who will tell you with a straight face that he invented the WiFi internet connection, not strictly true, he more wanted to harness the electricity in the air around us and use it for power, though his AC innovations proved longer lasting than Edison's DC which the better self-promoter was able to secure as the preferred form for a while (oddly, there was a film about this called The Current War the same year). This movie invented some frankly fanciful material about Tesla and sometimes told you it was doing so, but at others left you to work it out for yourself; you could, however, perceive that its main man never recorded Tears for Fears' eighties hit Everybody Wants to Rule the World. More insanity like that and this could have really flown, as it was, a curio, not negligible, but a footnote nevertheless. Music by John Paesano.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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