Movie review: Emotionally muted historical drama 'The Current War' fails to electrify

  • Nicholas Hoult plays futurist Nikola Tesla in "The Current War: Director's Cut."

    Nicholas Hoult plays futurist Nikola Tesla in "The Current War: Director's Cut." Courtesy of 101 Studios

  • Inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) demonstrates the power of his DC electrical system in the historical drama "The Current War: Director's Cut."

    Inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) demonstrates the power of his DC electrical system in the historical drama "The Current War: Director's Cut." Courtesy of 101 Studios

 
 
Updated 10/24/2019 5:07 PM

"The Current War -- Director's Cut" -- ★ ★

Whoa! Did I miss the non-director's cut of "The Current War" or what?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yes, I did, and so did the entire Chicago market.

The original version of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "The Current War" met with less than electrifying reviews when it premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

In a twist of terrible timing, its distributor, the Weinstein Company, went bankrupt after studio founder Harvey Weinstein floundered in the wake of #MeToo allegations of sexual assault.

"The Current War" landed at a company called Studio 101 after Gomez-Rejon added five scenes and trimmed 10 minutes from its running time.

So, the drama was never released here, but the "Director's Cut" opens this weekend, begging the question: Is this the version Gomez-Rejon really wants to put his name on?

This visually ostentatious, emotionally muted historical drama claims to be "inspired by" real events, which is usually code for "most of what happens in this movie really didn't."

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"The Current War" begins in 1880 and traces the contentious relationships between three scientific geniuses: egomaniac inventor/marketeer Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), pragmatic industrialist George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and visionary futurist/engineer Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

Edison, advocating his Direct Current (DC) electrical system, runs into competition from Westinghouse, who champions a cheaper, superior Alternating Current (AC).

Tesla at first works for Edison, but resigns when the stubborn, selfish inventor doesn't value his work.

So, Tesla switches to Westinghouse, a more caring and empathetic man who threatens Edison's plans and ego by devising the first functional electrical motor.

Then, Hoult's Tesla inexplicably fades into the background as does Tom Holland's underused personal secretary Samuel Insull.

The conflict between the big personalities and their competing electrical systems leads to both men bidding on a coveted, lucrative contract to provide electric lights for the Chicago World's Fair.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

These giant figures waging war over America's techno-future should be fascinating.

But Gomez-Rejon's placid direction and Michael Mitnick's minutia-packed screenplay (filled with scientific details) give the drama all the inspiration of a junior high book report.

When the competition for public approval intensifies, Edison lashes out at Westinghouse for promoting a deadly current with the power to kill.

Edison goes so far as to demonstrate the dangers of AC by electrocuting a horse in front of horrified witnesses, then claiming the poor animal has been "Westinghoused."

Mitnick (who reportedly envisioned this story as a musical) gives both Westinghouse and Edison heavy personal losses to make them more sympathetic. But Gomez-Rejon (who directed "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" with quirky aplomb) never gets below these one-dimensional facades.

Cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung equips "The Current War" with a visual riot of gimmicks and splashy effects -- weird fisheye-lens shots, tilted horror film angles, swishpans and caffeinated camera movements -- presumably to keep audiences from dozing off.

And they don't. They've already been Westinghoused.

• • •

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Katherine Waterston, Tom Holland

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Other: A 101 Studios release. Rated PG-13 for violence. 107 minutes

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