At a time when modern science seems under siege, a pair of movies, “Radioactive” and “Tesla,” celebrate the field — not as it stands today, but through biographies that train a slightly fractured lens on the great pioneers of the late-19th century.
Neither film is especially memorable, which is too bad, squandering Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie and Ethan Hawke, very intense and brooding as Nikola Tesla.
The overlapping themes, however, feature notable echoes of our current anti-science impulses — in response to everything from coronavirus to vaccines to climate change — in a way that gives these movies additional heft. They stream into homes (itself a relatively modern marvel) at a time when scientists find themselves pleading with segments of the public to heed their advice regarding the worst pandemic in a century.
The parallels between the two films, their protagonists and present-day politics go beyond that, beginning with the fact that both of these historical figures were immigrants — Curie having left Poland for Paris, Tesla coming from what is now Croatia.
Curie, who discovered radioactivity working alongside her husband Pierre (Sam Riley), is shown struggling to get her ideas recognized and earn the requisite backing to pursue them. That continued after his death, when, among other things, she campaigned to introduce X-ray machines to World War I battlefields.
Tesla, too, must seek support for his innovations regarding electrical power from the likes of financier J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison — an inventor as well, but also a more astute businessman — the latter played by Kyle MacLachlan.
Each movie contains sequences in which the protagonist must go begging for resources, championing breakthroughs that the existing establishment didn’t fully grasp.
Both films also utilize the device of offering glimpses of the future that their respective subject’s innovations made possible, such as Curie paving the way for the atomic bomb.
“Tesla” even more aggressively incorporates documentary-style techniques and weird anachronisms into the drama. His story is essentially narrated by Morgan’s daughter, Anne (Eve Hewson), in a way that gives the movie a decidedly off-kilter spin. At one point, Hawke even sings a few bars of the 1980s song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” recorded decades after Tesla’s death.
Finally, both Curie and Tesla conspicuously chafed against the authority and social conventions of their era, paying a price for that personally and professionally. They’re presented as being difficult personalities who didn’t suffer fools particularly well, with Tesla balking when he’s asked, “Is your brilliance a blessing or a curse?”
In “Radioactive,” Curie dismisses being a woman as representing a major impediment to her endeavors, despite an actual photo in the closing credits that shows her as the lone female amid an assemblage of men.
Another shared theme hinges on the notion that an element of madness — or at least, eccentricity and risk-taking — goes hand in hand with genius. As Morgan tells Tesla, before writing him a big check, “I believe in the recklessness of great men.”
Despite all the marvels introduced during the past 120 years, “Tesla” and “Radioactive” deliver what feels like an unexpectedly timely message — namely, that great minds need to be heard and cultivated. It’s hardly a sign of progress that many in our society, far from heeding that, have chosen to wear resistance to science and expertise as a badge of honor.
Like their protagonists, give the filmmakers credit for some creative risks. Even so, it’s a shame that neither film lives up to the greatness of its subject.
“Radioactive” premieres July 24 on Amazon. “Tesla” will be available on demand on Aug. 21.