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‘Twin Peaks’ star channels tech genius in ‘Tesla’

Can you picture Thomas Edison with a smartphone? Or poking a rival with an ice-cream cone? When you watch Kyle MacLachlan play one of America’s most famous inventors in the movie “Tesla,” you can.

And wait until you hear which 21st-century tech genius MacLachlan would love to portray next.

“The story of Elon Musk would be interesting, just because I think he’s a quirky fellow,” MacLachlan told me during an interview for the inaugural Fiction Science podcast. “That would be challenging, to understand who that his, and how he moves through the world, what he thinks, how he interacts with people.”

MacLachlan is pretty good at playing quirky roles. His best-known character is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who delves into dark secrets, interdimensional weirdness and damn fine coffee in “Twin Peaks,” the classic TV series directed by David Lynch.

In a wide-ranging Q&A, MacLachlan and I talked about “Tesla” and “Twin Peaks,” as well as “Dune,” the science-fiction cult classic (or classic flop, depending on your perspective) from 1984 that marked his big-budget movie debut.

To cut to the chase, proceed directly to the Fiction Science podcast, which is also available via Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

It’s interesting that MacLachlan makes a connection between Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. Just as Musk has a long-running rivalry with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos over rockets and cars, Edison butted heads with Nikola Tesla, a Croatian-born genius who was more eccentric in real life than Agent Cooper was on “Twin Peaks.”

The Edison vs. Tesla rivalry had to do with how best to distribute electricity, which was revolutionizing the American economy in the late 1800s. Edison favored the direct-current approach, which pushed the electrical charge in one unvarying direction. Tesla, in contrast, championed alternating current, which involves reversing the direction of the electrical flow dozens of times per second.

Edison argued that DC was safer than AC, and his associates went so far as to have dogs electrocuted with alternating current to prove his point (though a tale about electrocuting an elephant is said to be overblown). Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually won out — largely because DC electricity couldn’t be transmitted across long distances.

Tesla went on to blaze trails in wireless communication and power transmission — technologies that are continuing to change the world. But as brilliant as Tesla was as an engineer, he was a total failure as a businessman. He ended up dying penniless in a New York hotel room,

Edison, meanwhile, reaped fame and fortune — in part because of his pragmatism and hardheaded business sense.

“If he was working on something and it didn’t work, he would just try something else,” MacLachlan told me. “It was really that simple. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought given to it. It was just, ‘Let’s bring up the next thing and give that a shot, and see if that gets the job done.'”

Tesla’s life has been touched upon previously in TV shows and movies: In “The Prestige,” David Bowie played him as something of a light-bringing demigod with a Frankensteinian twist. More recently, Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as a foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Edison in “The Current War.” Both Edison and Tesla have had their turns in the documentary spotlight as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series.

In head-to-head match-ups with Edison, Tesla tends to come off as the lesser-known underdog. In fact, filmmaker David Grubin told me that when he was asked to do the Tesla documentary, he initially thought it was about the electric car built by Musk’s company of the same name.

In the new movie, veteran actor Ethan Hawke plays Tesla as an earnest electricity nerd who suffers outages in business — but nevertheless generates sparks with women admirers including actress Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan (the scion of industrialist J.P. Morgan).

Anne, played by Eve Hewson, serves as the movie’s narrator and occasionally addresses the audience directly as she pulls up pictures of Tesla on a MacBook. After the Tesla vs. Edison ice-cream fight, Anne immediately sets viewers straight: “This is pretty surely not how it happened, but what can I tell you?” she says.

Those aren’t the only anachronisms engineered by “Tesla” director Michael Almereyda: In one scene, Edison is seen idly thumbing a smartphone, while in another, Tesla sings a karaoke rendition of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

But not every weird twist in “Tesla” is an anachronism; some of them are true to life. Tesla really did rub elbows with Sarah Bernhardt and Anne Morgan, and he really did have many of the eccentricities shown in the movie — including an aversion to pearl necklaces and a need to polish his dinnerware with a set of 18 napkins before using them.

Toward the end of the movie, Tesla is shown obsessing over particle-beam weapons and the “statistical certainty” of extraterrestrial life. Back in Tesla’s time, such ideas may have seemed like science-fiction tales at best, and delusions at worst — but today they’re being taken totally seriously.

It’s debatable whether “Tesla” will succeed at the box office, but the mere fact that the movie was made with such high-profile stars argues that the real-life Tesla won’t be forgotten. And in case we’re ever tempted to forget, we should remember every time we switch on a light, flip open a laptop — or watch the movie on a mobile device.

Speaking of movies, here’s a video from astrophysicist Andy Howell that explains the AC vs. DC battle between Tesla and Edison in the context of “The Current War.”

IFC Films’ “Tesla” opens in theaters and on demand on Aug. 21. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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NASA works with Tom Cruise on space movie

Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise played a drone repairman who turned into an action hero in the 2013 sci-fi movie “Oblivion.” (Universal Pictures)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has confirmed in a tweet that the space agency is working with movie star Tom Cruise on a project that involves shooting a film on the International Space Station.

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Real-life planet quest goes far beyond Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine
Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, and its two suns are a good example of science echoing Star Wars. Or is it the other way around? (Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox Photo)

Over the past 42 years, filmgoers have seen exotic worlds come to life in a succession of Star Wars movies — a series that is now coming to a climax with “Star Wars: Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker.” But are those exoplanets really all that exotic anymore?

Sure, we’ve seen two suns in the sky over the sands of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet. We’ve been to an ice planet (Hoth) and a lava planet (Mustafar). We’ve even spent time on a habitable exomoon that’s in orbit around a gas giant (Endor).

Back in 1977, most of us might have thought those types of worlds to be science-fiction fantastical. Today, they’re seen as totally plausible categories in the study of thousands of planets beyond our solar system. And Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who focuses on astrobiology and the habitability of exoplanets, suspects Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this could happen.

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‘Terminator’ is back! AI experts do a reality check

'Terminator: Dark Fate'
The killer robot in “Terminator: Dark Fate,” played by Gabriel Luna, can split into a human-looking ectoskeleton at left, and a metallic endoskeleton at right. (Paramount Pictures Photo)

He promised he’d be back — and 35 years after Arnold Schwarzenegger created what’s now a cliche for artificial intelligence gone wrong in the first “Terminator” movie, the cinematic nightmares about time-traveling killer robots have returned to the big screen.

“Terminator: Dark Fate” also marks the return of writer/producer James Cameron — who directed the first two movies in the franchise, but wasn’t involved in the three sequels that followed. Cameron skips over those films and reboots the saga with an alternate timeline for the robo-apocalypse.

Although monstrous machines have figured in movie plots since Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in 1927, Schwarzenegger’s performance in “The Terminator” set the stage for worries about out-of-control intelligent machines.

Billionaire techie Elon Musk is among the best-known doomsayers. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street, killing people, they don’t know how to react because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said in 2017.

On the other side of the debate, Oren Etzioni, the CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, keeps telling people to calm down. “Even though AI is more and more being used, I want to reassure people that Skynet and Terminator are not around the corner for many, many reasons,” he told GeekWire in 2016.

Does the new “Terminator” movie update the saga with all the developments in AI, automation and robotics since 1984? How does “Dark Fate” stack up against the realities of our AI age? To get some informed perspectives, I invited two folks who work in the field to watch the movie with me — and share their thoughts afterward.

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Brad Pitt gets thumbs-up from space for ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt at NASA
Brad Pitt, the star of the space movie “Ad Astra,” chats with NASA astronaut Nick Hague over a video hookup to the International Space Station. (NASA via YouTube)

Imagine the taglines in the movie ads: “Really good” portrayal of zero-gravity! “Absolutely” better than George Clooney!

There’d be some justification for Brad Pitt’s space movie, “Ad Astra,” to use those lines after today’s Earth-to-space video call between the A-list Hollywood star and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, who’s finishing up a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station.

Pitt said the linkup, arranged through NASA, was a “real treat.” And he didn’t waste any time getting a film review from Hague, who watched an advance screening of “Ad Astra” with his crewmates on the station.

“Now that I have you all the way up at the space station, let’s talk about me,” Pitt said. “How’d we do? How was our zero-G?”

“I gotta tell you, it was really good,” Hague said as he floated amid the trappings of the station’s Destiny laboratory module. “The depictions, the settings, as you can tell, look very similar to the type of setting I’ve got around me.”

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Revisit the wacky world of corporate musicals

"Bathtubs Over Broadway" cast
The cast of Dava Whisenant’s documentary, “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” does their big production number. The film’s central character, comedy writer (and record collector) Steve Young, is wearing a hat, tie and jacket — and singing his heart out. (Cactus Flower Films / Focus Features)

No fan of Broadway musicals should miss classics like “I Never Enjoyed My Operation More,” “My Insurance Man” and “My Bathroom Is a Private Kind of Place.”

What’s that? Never heard of ’em? For decades, those songs were heard only by employees at morale-boosting events, plus a precious few record collectors enchanted by what are known as industrial musicals.

Now one of those record collectors, TV comedy writer Steve Young, has had his quest turned into a hilarious and sweet documentary titled “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” The movie has already been picking up awards on the film-festival circuit, and it’s opening this weekend in Seattle for a regular run at the Varsity Theater.

Ironically, the innovations that have allowed Young to flesh out the little-known saga of industrial musicals — including the rise of the modern tech industry, the internet and online video — also contributed to the decline of industrial musicals.

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‘First Man’ and ‘The First’ put a new spin on space

Ryan Gosling in "First Man"
Ryan Gosling plays the role of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (Universal Pictures Photo)

Two big-name dramatic productions — “First Man” in theaters, and “The First” on Hulu — are putting the glorious past and potentially glorious future of space exploration on big and small screens.

But if you’re expecting the Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Armstrong, or the Sean Penn streaming-video series about the first mission to Mars, to tell a geeky off-world tale like “The Martian” … expect to be surprised.

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5 ‘Martian’ miscues to fix in future space flicks

Scene from "The Martian"
Astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) climbs through a hatch in his pressurized rover in a scene from “The Martian.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

LOS ANGELES — Planetary scientist Pascal Lee could give astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson a good run for his money when it comes to truth-squadding movie depictions of space missions.

For almost two decades, Lee has been working on the tools and techniques that will be needed for future Mars expeditions, as the leader of the Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic. The project, funded by NASA, the SETI Institute and other institutions, provides an earthy analog to the Red Planet’s bleak, cold, dry, isolated environment.

Astronauts could conceivably set up shop on Mars sometime in the next decade or two, and there could be a crewed base on the moon even before that. So Lee says it’s high time for Hollywood to provide a more accurate picture of how such missions would work.

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Elon Musk touts scary movie about AI

Elon Musk
Elon Musk talks about AI in “Do You Trust This Computer?” (Cinetic / Papercut Films via YouTube)

If you want to get really scared about the future, you could see “A Quiet Place” this weekend at your local theater — or you could stream “Do You Trust This Computer?”

The latter movie, about the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence, comes with a thumbs-up from Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla who has long voiced serious concerns about AI.

Musk is one of the prominent interviewees in “Do You Trust This Computer?” — which was made by Chris Paine, the filmmaker behind “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Paine’s new 78-minute documentary had its premiere on April 5.

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5 tech twists from ‘Ready Player One’

Ready Player One scene
Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) wears a haptic suit in “Ready Player One.” (Warner Bros. Photo)

“Ready Player One,” the Steven Spielberg movie that blends memes from the 1980s with a virtual-reality vision of 2045, is getting mostly positive reviews from film critics and filmgoers, and from box-office trackers as well.

Some see the film as a metaphor for the yin-yang, love-hate, fanboy-hacker relationship we’ve developed with our hyperconnected world. But for techies, one of the biggest allures of “Ready Player One” may well be the way it amps up today’s frontier technologies to reveal tomorrow’s everyday realities.

During a Cinerama preview organized by Madrona Ventures Group, managing director Matt McIlwain told the audience that the movie reflected the VC firm’s interest in intuitive “multisense” interfaces that are on track to transform the way we use high-tech applications.

If you want to go into the theater knowing absolutely nothing about the movie other than what you’ve seen in the teasers, put this story on pause and come back later. But if you’re ready for a quick rundown on five real-world gadgets and tech trends that are amped up for “Ready Player One,” read on.

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