In his 2006 documentary, director Chris Paine asked, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” His 2011 follow-up shows that the real answer was a Shyamalan-style twist: it was never dead at all. I see… living cars!
The first film was a post-mortem investigation of GM’s short-lived EV1, an early foray into the electric vehicle that got recalled just as it appeared to be on the path to wider acceptance. The culprits were, of course, Big Auto, Big Oil, and fat cats on both sides of the political aisle, though Paine’s suggestion that the EV1 would have been a break-out if it was just allowed to flourish wasn’t backed up with evidence. Early adopters falling in love with their new toys is one thing, widespread consumer acceptance another.
But just when all hope seemed to be lost, the electric car was jolted back to life by a series of separate initiatives beginning in the late-2000s. Paine traces four of them, the most shocking being an apparent Saul on the Road to Damascus-style conversion on the part of “Mr. Horsepower” himself, Bob Lutz, a vice-chairman at GM and global warming denier who once mocked the electric revolution, but who has now seen the light, and put his considerable muscle behind the development of the Chevrolet Volt. On the opposite end of the business spectrum, former PayPay mogul Elon Musk has poured his substantial personal savings into his startup company, Tesla Motors, a Silcon Valley venture making high-end electric cars for, essentially, rich liberals. Over in Japan, CEO Carlos Ghosn pushes the Nissan Leaf into mass production. And lower on the economic chain, Greg “Gadget” Abbott (also seen in “Who Killed?”) is a mechanic who converts existing cars into electric motors in his shop, at least as long as the shop’s not burning down.
Where the first film adopted a more combative and accusatory stance to the industry, Paine’s new film takes a bizarre turn into corporate advocacy, with mild skepticism lapsing into borderline hagiography of these execs who want to save the planet. I exaggerate a bit. The film acknowledges the evident reality that the only way for the electric vehicle revolution to succeed is for it to add to the corporate bottom line, and that’s what has attracted the interest of Lutz, Ghosn, and even Musk. On the latter front, Musk’s Tesla motors has hemorrhaged money from the day it started, and would surely have gone bankrupt had he not been able to funnel enough of his fortune into it to survive until the cash infusion of an IPO in 2010 and a massive subsequent loan from the Department of Energy.
Tesla is still cash flow negative, the Chevy Volt has been dogged by reports of mechanical problems which may or may not be true, and the Nissan Leaf has been a relative success, which leaves Paine’s film in an indeterminate but slightly more hopeful place than it began. The 2008 crisis put a lot of plans on hold (and help send Mr. Lutz out to pasture) but the nascent revolution is at least still nascent rather than dead. No killers here, just some nervous entrepreneurs.
Paine is certainly excited about the whole (he appears on screen during a tour of Tesla’s factory room to admit that the model they’re looking at is actually the one he has on order) and it would have been nice if some of that excitement could have translated into the film which is almost as plodding and repetitive as “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It is, at least, less celebrity-laden (Danny DeVito appearances bookend the film, but no more Ed Begleys) than the previous film, but it seems as if Paine plays things cautiously because he was granted behind-the-scenes access to some big wigs and had to play nice in exchange. Even a brief mention of Musk’s strong-arm tactics with other Tesla execs barely registers as criticism, more a grudgingly admiring acknowledgment that we need tough guys to power this revolution, not dreamers.
“Revenge of the Electric Car” lays out some of useful details about the recent renaissance of this niche industry, but no more effectively or entertainingly than a well-written article would have. This is more superficial rah-rah than investigation. I’m sure it serves its ideological purpose, but as a documentary, it’s uninspired.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is average all around, but this is a purely pragmatic film not intended to look visually stunning. The presentation is perfectly adequate, and nothing more.
The film is presented with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options, and there’s no meaningful difference between the two. Dialogue is clearly mixed throughout. No subtitles are offered.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track by director Chris Paine.
The extras include a talk from the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival (33 min.), Bonus Footage (20 min.), eight more interviews (25 min. total, mostly with characters already featured prominently in the film), a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.), and a Nissan Leaf Promo Ad (1 min.)
A little more discussion of exactly what “zero emissions” means would have been interesting. Electricity does have to be generated after all (old King Coal), and while we may be moving towards a cleaner grid, we’ve got a long way to move. But Paine is more interested in cheerleading the revolution than in providing a nuanced investigation. Perhaps that’s an appropriate approach in a short format like this, but when it feels too much like a sales pitch, it loses some of its effectiveness.