Tesla

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Tesla Movie Poster Image
Experimental film about electricity giant sparks curiosity.
  • PG-13
  • 2020
  • 102 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Shows power of curiosity and perseverance. Genius needs to find a trusted partner to guide it through the business elements. But there's also strong messaging that wealth trumps brilliance as a key to changing the world and making a name for yourself. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tesla followed his curiosity to develop patents and be a leader in development of electricity. Philanthropist Anne Morgan is portrayed as an intelligent powerhouse, though her sexual identity seems to be misrepresented (she's shown as having unrequited love for Tesla but in real life preferred women).

Violence

In different scenes, a dog and a man are killed, off-camera.

Sex

Romantic interest, flirtation. A woman wears a see-through shirt. A prominently displayed painting depicts naked men.

Language

In one scene, an angry character says "goddamned" and "son of a bitch."

Consumerism

MacBook is featured prominently.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Smoking and cigar chomping. Drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tesla is a stylistically experimental biopic of electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke). It definitely isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea: Scenes are woven together by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of financier/banker J.P. Morgan, using a MacBook and narrating something akin to Tesla's Wikipedia page. The settings, the music, and other elements become more unrealistic as the film goes on, and statistics are shared in a way that's hard to retain. But historical figures like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Sarah Bernhardt are part of Tesla's life, and it's all intriguing enough that teens may take the movie's repeated suggestion to Google these turn-of-the-20th-century icons. Hopefully they will, because while they have their faults, they're still inspirational, particularly Anne. Her intelligence is shown to be on par with Tesla's, and she's a confident businesswoman who isn't afraid to speak her mind. However, the film potentially misrepresents Anne's sexual identity by portraying her as having unrequited love for Tesla; in real life, Anne Morgan preferred women. In terms of iffy content, a woman wears a see-through shirt, and a prominently displayed painting depicts naked men. Characters smoke cigarettes and cigars (accurate for the time period) and drink. A moment of profanity includes the words "goddamn" and "son of a bitch." Both a man and a dog die off-screen.

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What's the story?

TESLA takes an avant-garde approach to exploring the life of visionary scientist Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) during his most prolific years as an inventor. Narrated by philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) -- daughter of financier/banker J.P. Morgan -- Tesla's success and failure is measured through his relationships with her and her father, as well as with Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Sarah Bernhardt, and Tesla's mother.

Is it any good?

Writer-director Michael Almereyda's unconventional approach to telling Tesla's life story isn't so much electric as shockingly disappointing. An eccentric take on the revolutionary inventor is perhaps an appropriate tribute. Certainly, as the film points out, Tesla didn't always know how to communicate his ideas compared to his more marketing-savvy competitors. And maybe it's also appropriate that the film ends with Tesla remaining as much of a mystery as he's always been.

That doesn't mean information on the electrical systems designer isn't provided. It is -- so much so, in fact, that it's nearly impossible to retain it all. In an approach that's hard to understand, 19th century Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to viewers to instruct, analyze, and sometimes opine on Tesla. It's a little like Drunk History, but boring. The longer the movie goes, it begins to feel like they ran out of money, shooting against a green screen canvas or photograph. And -- spoiler alert? -- the penultimate moment, when Tesla reflects on his life's challenges through song, will go down as one of cinema's most "what the heck?" endings. You may not be able to make head or tails of it. But, then again, the same could be said for Nikola Tesla himself.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the filmmakers' approach to telling Nikola Tesla's story. How does Tesla compare to other biopics you've seen? How would you describe Tesla's contributions to electrical systems?

  • How does Tesla exemplify curiosity and perseverance? Could his inventions have been realized without those qualities?

  • A romantic admiration is imagined here between Tesla and Anne Morgan, who did have some kind of friendly relationship in real life. Do you think it's right to expound on that and give it overtones of attraction? Does knowing that the real-life Morgan came out later in life change your opinion? 

  • Why do you think Tesla has become a revered icon? Would you rather be successful while you're alive and then forgotten, or die broke and alone but be considered one of the greats and remembered forever?

Movie details

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