A biographical film about the eccentric Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, and Director Michael Almereyda (Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story) with his latest film, Tesla, starring Ethan Hawke, is arguably overdue to the world. But this is not your usual biopic. We know that in the very first scene, we’re in for a very different, more dreamlike, interior kind of film. A woman’s voice tells us that Tesla became fascinated by learning that the sparks he produced while stroking his pet cat were the same phenomenon as the lightning in the sky. “Is nature a gigantic cat?” he wondered. “And if so, who’s strokes its back?”
Almereyda became intrigued by Tesla as a teenager when he became friends with comic book artist Alex Toth, who was a Tesla enthusiast. It became an obsession that lasted for life. The Serbian inventor was the subject of Almereyda’s very first screenplay which would eventually be reworked into the script for Tesla by the writer/director. Possibly the director has read just about everything Tesla had ever written.
Along with the seminal 1981 biography of Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Almereyda was especially inspired by Christopher Cooper by the 2015 book, The Truth About Tesla: The Myth of the Lone Genius (which dispels many of the most popular myths and Internet rumours concerning the inventor), as well as Derek Jarman films and episodes of Drunk History. Although Almereyda’s movie is in tone serious, the latter’s influence is felt in its deliberate nonlinearity and clever use of intentional anachronisms.
For those unfamiliar with the “battle of the currents” of the late 19th century, George Westinghouse supported alternative current ( AC) for electricity generation and distribution; Thomas Edison favoured direct current ( DC). The latter had the popular name of Edison and the related power behind it, but it was cheaper to get AC current. It could fly faster, providing energy to homes in a broader area than DC, so Westinghouse’s solution required less copper wire and generating stations. When he arrived in America, Tesla initially worked for Edison but left in frustration when Edison declined to accept his innovative designs for AC motors and transformers. Westinghouse brought the young man on board, and Tesla’s AC design eventually won out.
Following that success, Tesla poured its resources into wireless energy transmission, setting up a laboratory in Colorado Springs. His main competitor in this field was Guglielmo Marconi who gave demonstrations on the radio and developed wireless telegraphy. In 1901, Marconi successfully transmitted the first wireless telegraphic signals across the Atlantic Ocean.
Tesla’s own wireless communication vision focused on constructing a global wireless communication system located in Wardenclyffe, New York, consisting of a power plant and a giant electric tower. The project foundered after financier J.P. Morgan pulled the funding,
skeptical that Tesla’s system was even feasible. But ultimately Tesla’s vision of a digital future came to life. That makes him the forefather of many of today’s most innovative innovations, which is why Tesla fans always consider him to be the “forgotten father of technology.” Tesla himself once said of his contemporary detractors, “The present is theirs. The future, for which I really worked, is mine.”
The man ahead of his time
Tesla is a well-known figure in my profession, so sometimes it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of the public really don’t know who he was — they assume that one is talking about an electric car. (Elon Musk named his company as a tribute to the inventor.) That said, he appeared as a fictional character in a number of novels, comics, films, and TV shows.
In particular, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel featured a fictionalized Tesla (played by David Bowie) inventing an electronic replicator to create a magician of the late 19th century who would recreate a rival’s illusion, called “The Transportation Man.”
And last year, the New War film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon released a fictionalized account of the historical struggle between Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to bring power to the masses in which Nicholas Hoult was playing Tesla.