The movie biopic has become so rote that even the word can elicit a sense of nagging boredom. So how do you inject some life into the prestigious, but ultimately by-the-numbers, biographical drama? By hitting it with a little lightning. Tesla stars Ethan Hawke as the groundbreaking inventor Nikola Tesla, whose discoveries in wireless energy would change the world. And with his fourth wall-breaking biopic Tesla, director Michael Almereyda hopes to change our perception of the genre.
The trailer for Tesla at first plays out like any old biopic. Stuffy men in period clothes holding meetings in stuffy rooms by candlelight, while the tortured genius goes unappreciated for his vision. But wait, is that Eve Hewson talking about Google? Is Ethan Hawke holding a modern-day microphone? Several anachronisms don’t line up with the 19th century setting of Tesla, but that is Almereyda’s intention: to inject a little electricity into the old-fashioned biopic.
The story of Tesla, which follows Nikola Tesla in his battle to create his revolutionary electrical system in the face of disbelieving patrons and fellow inventor and rival Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), is told with several stylistic flourishes, including Hewson’s Anne Morgan breaking the fourth wall by addressing the contemporary audience. It’s an inventive way to stage the biopic, especially after we’ve seen so many big-screen iterations of Nikola Tesla, one of which was played by David Bowie, no less. He’s also appeared in another recent biopic, The Current War, and in an episode of Doctor Who. The trailer plays out almost like a mystery, hinting at an otherworldly element to Tesla’s inventions, which is a fun way to keep us entertained through another biopic.
Also starring in Tesla are Jim Gaffigan, Hannah Gross, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. The film originally made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize.
Here is the synopsis for Tesla:
Brilliant, visionary Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) fights an uphill battle to bring his revolutionary electrical system to fruition, then faces thornier challenges with his new system for worldwide wireless energy. The film tracks Tesla’s uneasy interactions with his fellow inventor Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and his patron George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). Another thread traces Tesla’s sidewinding courtship of financial titan J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz), whose daughter Anne (Eve Hewson) takes a more than casual interest in the inventor. Anne analyzes and presents the story as it unfolds, offering a distinctly modern voice to this scientific period drama which, like its subject, defies convention.
Tesla opens in theaters and on demand on August 21, 2020.
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