“Tesla” is about the scientist, not the company Elon Musk named after him. It would be an interesting challenge for Ethan Hawke, in the title role, to play a car, especially a silent one. It also wouldn’t be too much odder than some of the imaginative flourishes writer-director Michael Almereyda has to offer in this highly stylized biopic: roller skating, Google searches, karaoke? Sure, why not. The choice of song for the karaoke number — not to be revealed here — is quite inspired.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) may not be the most famous scientist in the world. Thanks to Musk, he may have the most famous name. The pop-cultural currency of the man who helped make alternating current the standard for the electrical power grid, is considerable: from David Bowie playing him in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006) to his figuring as a character in numerous graphic novels and other works.
Hawke underplays to good effect: light on the accent, heavy on the mustache. (Jim Gaffigan, as George Westinghouse, is even heavier on the facial hair.) Hawke’s Tesla seems slightly haunted, as one might expect with a technological visionary. “My dreams are true,” he says. Thomas Edison, his chief rival, is as visionary as a blown fuse. Kyle MacLachlan, playing him as a bluntly sour grump, strolls away with every scene he’s in. Hawke and MacLachlan have an Almereyda history together: They were Hamlet and Claudius in his modern-day Shakespeare adaptation (2000).
A subplot involving Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) seems to have wandered in from another, less watchable movie. It might have been for the best if Eve Hewson, as J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Tesla’s sort-of love interest, had wandered out. (Her real-life father, Paul, is better known as Bono.) Hewson mostly sleepwalks through the movie, woodenly delivering lines like “You are not an economist. Everything has to be paid for, especially money.” Where’s the young Laura Linney when you need her?
Almereyda structures the movie as a series of slow-moving scenes, almost tableaux. Even when he uses a mobile camera, things still feel static, but in a good way. Sean Williams’s handsome cinematography never descends into mere prettiness. The movie’s look matters more even than usual. Light, thanks to electricity, is what makes the movies. Light, thanks to Tesla (and Edison), is electricity. Very early on, there’s a moment when a room’s illumination switches from candles to electric lights. It’s all the more magical for being presented so matter of factly. At that moment, Tesla’s dreams aren’t only true, they’re visible.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Ethan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan. Available via streaming platforms. 102 minutes. PG-13.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.