REVIEW: Star-studded cast can't spark more than boredom in 'The Current War'

Wong Jia Min
Contributor
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The Current War

Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in "The Current War" (Photo: Golden Village)

SINGAPORE — In the late 1890s in which The Current War is set in, when electricity was still a novelty, inventor Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) faces off with fellow electricity mogul George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) as they race against time and each other to see whose electric power transmission system comes up tops in the US. Tangled up in this war of the egos is Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who first joins Edison, and then Westinghouse in their chase after the former stifles his creativity at work.

Originally slated for release in late 2017 by The Weinstein Company, The Current War was withdrawn from wide release at the last minute when company co-head Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual abuse. As a result of the allegations, Weinstein was forced to leave, and the company declared bankruptcy a few months later. It has been a long and winding path to get this movie released, including extensive edits and more reshoots.

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Sadly, even with all that sturm und drang, this movie is nothing but a bore. The script and story is unstimulating, the dialogue far too unnatural, and scriptwriter Michael Mitnick focuses too much on exposition instead of letting the characters tell the story. Granted, the subject matter of electricity is a technical one, but at times it was so stilted that even Cumberbatch - who has made an entire career for himself playing intelligent characters who do nothing but explain their thought processes to those they deem to have inferior intellects - looked as stiff as a board.

The rest of the cast does not fare much better. Michael Shannon as Westinghouse has little screen presence (thought it is not his fault that his character is so poorly sketched out), and even Tom Holland fails to inject his usual spirit into Samuel Insull, Edison’s secretary. Nicholas Hoult as the misunderstood Tesla puts in a nice, if boring performance, but the inevitable comparisons to the late, great David Bowie’s turn as Tesla in The Prestige does not help his case either.

The story is nothing but history distilled and sanitisied to the point where it bears little resemblance to real events. The real war of the currents saw the gruesome deaths of several electricity workers, vile smear campaigns on both sides, a horrifically botched execution, and the live execution of animals. Unfortunately, all of this is trivialised in the movie, reducing it down to a mere catfight between two cash-starved inventors who were desperate for bragging rights.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has also made some bizarre decisions when it comes to the direction. The quick cuts, awkward framing and choppy editing are meant to modernise the tale, but it mostly comes across like the product of someone experimenting with a PowerPoint presentation. Additionally, a good portion of the movie is underlit, with minimal light design that is meant to highlight just how restricted people were by candlelight in pre-electricity days, but it does nothing to illuminate the overall story. As a result, every scene drags on interminably like the longest night, with nary a light in the horizon to look forward to.

Given the calibre of the cast and the historical nature of the plot, one might think that this was a movie destined for glory at the Academy Awards, specifically engineered to be catnip for voters. Unfortunately, it does nothing to shine light on one of the more intriguing fights in our scientific history, and fizzles out before it is really given a chance a shine.

Score: 3/5 stars

The Current War opens in cinemas on 17 October, 2019 (Singapore).