Released: 19th March
Seen: 6th July
The last time I got to see a film in a cinema was the 21st of March when I went to see Onward. Even back then I kind of knew that I wouldn’t be walking into a cinema for a while but no way could I have known it would be a little over 3 months. In that time we’ve watched as film after film has been pushed back to be released either in the latter half of this year or sometime in 2021, if not just sent straight to digital streaming where they probably should’ve gone in the first place (Hello Artemis Fowl) and I was left to wonder just what would be the first film I saw when the cinemas would reopen. Well, they finally opened my local up again and to the shock of no one, the pickings are slim so I decided to dive into a big theme of this year in cinema… “Hey, what’re the Avengers cast doing to follow up Endgame?”. Well, technically this film was made BEFORE Endgame but still, I figured seeing Dr Strange, Spiderman, Beast and Zod running around in period outfits and arguing about electricity would be a fairly good time and I almost got what I expected, so that’s nice.
The Current War follows the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over whose system to deliver electricity is superior. Over the years they will have setbacks and heartbreak, loved ones will die and livelihoods will be put at risk. The tensions will rise as both of them throw jabs via the media and try to prove which is better, direct current or alternating current. In the background of this, a young inventor named Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) is trying to make his own way in a world where Edison and Westinghouse are the only names anyone cares about.
Filmed more like some kind of superhero film than a historical biopic, everything about this film is heightened as much as they can and I love how far they go. Every shot is as overly dramatic as possible, from Edison’s grand reveal inside a crop circle made of lightbulbs to a grand shot of a factory that looks like a dollhouse. If there was an over the top way to shoot something, this film did it and did it with gusto. You can almost see the cinematographer giddily bouncing about as he pulls off another glorious shot that just works so wonderfully. It really helps elevate the material to give this story an epic feel, turning it into a battle between two titans when it could’ve just been a slap fight between two insecure manchildren.
It does help that those two titans are played by Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch who have enough gravitas between them to sell this rivalry, making it compelling just by their presence which is fortunate because their performances, while good, feel remarkably familiar. Cumberbatch has definitely given this exact performance before a few times and it works but it’s not memorable or exciting, same with Shannon who both feel like there’s something extra missing from their performances. Then there’s Tom Holland who does feel a little out of place here, mostly because he looks like he’s 12 (something they call out during the film) until you put a moustache on his face and a cigar in his hand, then he somehow looks even younger. He still gives a fine performance, I dare say he has several of the best moments in the film, but he definitely feels out of place.
Honestly, the one person in the entire cast who seems to fit perfectly with the elaborate tone of the visuals and the historical period is Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla. He’s mostly relegated to the background, which is fine since he’s a peripheral part of the narrative, but his performance is so captivating that he genuinely lights up the screen every time he’s on it. Just seeing this character constantly try to get someone to listen to his ideas and be rebuffed every time is powerful and it’s sold perfectly by Hoult, who really is one of those actors that should go on a list marked ‘doesn’t know how to deliver a bad performance’.
Where this film falters, indeed the biggest problem that keeps it just barely above ‘good’ is that you can tell it’s been butchered at some point in the edit. The major arc of the film for Edison’s character is genuinely fascinating, Edison repeatedly says that he doesn’t want to invent something that could cause harm to someone and his big worry about AC current is that it can kill. Indeed, Edison refuses several well paying military contracts throughout the film because he doesn’t want to hurt someone… and then the government approaches him with an offer to help them build an electric chair which would use the AC current he so despises. While this plotline is still there, it never properly lands its real emotional impact because we just keep gliding past it. There are whole stretches where we just forget that it’s there, or the weight of it is ignored. This is felt most at the very end which I won’t spoil, but they have a real chance to do something emotionally devastating and instead, they just gloss over it.
The Current War is certainly more entertaining than a film about electrical currents should be, but much like real electricity, there are some serious misfires here. It’s still a fun watch, and certainly a visually appealing film that benefits from the scope of a cinema screen but I suspect it won’t be remembered that well. It’s fine, it’s a good watchable film that entertained me for a few hours and considering how this year has been, that feels like a goddamn miracle in itself.