Revenge of the Electric Car – film review

8 July 2012

Revenge of the Electric Car title screen

Good: entertaining, fast-paced and dramatic
Bad: not nearly as good as its more memorable predecessor
When? In cinemas from 20 July, on DVD from 6 August
Director Chris Paine must number among a very tiny minority of the world’s population. Not because he’s an electric car enthusiast, but because he must surely have rejoiced at the 2008 global economic collapse. The financial crisis gave his documentary film, Revenge of the Electric Car, the dramatic second act that it needed to provide a compelling story. It introduced the palpable sense of jeopardy that all popcorn movies need before the triumphant resolution that inevitably arrives with the final reel.

Revenge of the Electric Car director Chris Paine

Squashing real events into a Hollywood-style plotline works to an extent in Paine’s second electric car film, although I occasionally felt as if I might be watching an exercise in editorial structure rather than a piece of cinema. The three acts of exposition, tribulation and resolution are also chopped into ten chapters, and we follow the exploits of four protagonists (only two of whom meet each other, awkwardly, rear the end of the film). The resulting string of vaguely interconnected vignettes can feel a little higgledy-piggledy.

Still, our four protagonists are all engaging people, worth watching, even if we do spend more time with some than others.

Bob Lutz and Chevy Volt interior mockup

There’s gravel-throated Bob Lutz, the silver-haired, cigar-waving Mr Detroit who surprised many by championing the Chevrolet Volt. There’s Elon Musk, the wide-eyed and sleep-deprived silicon valley entrepreneur who bankrolled and steamrolled Tesla into being. There’s Carlos Ghosn, gnomic leader of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, who comes across so much like Hercule Poirot that he could surely deduce who killed the electric car after calling all the suspects to his boardroom. And finally there’s Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a goateed electric car home-brewer with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of optimism, some lithium-ion batteries, a handful of classic cars and $250,000 worth of tools.

While we follow the exploits of this foursome, we also get to hear the opinions of various talking heads, plus narration courtesy of Tim Robbins.

Elon Musk at the Tesla IPO

We also receive a surprisingly frank insight into Elon Musk’s character – more so than the other three, who all seem much more self-aware and on-message. Near the middle of the film Musk reacts to an offhand remark by his English fiancée in a way that made me wince and laugh out loud at the same time. Amazingly, they still went ahead and got married.

Unsurprisingly, the movie is highly skewed to an American world view. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any mention of Renault, or Think, or the Reva G-Wiz, or indeed any of the dramas that have unfolded beyond the neat confines of Leaf, Volt and Tesla.

Gadget Abbott plus Speedster

As a piece, this film ends up telling the viewer a lot more about the four people at its centre than about any of the current generation of electric cars or their place in the automotive world.

If you’re going to watch Revenge, you will presumably have already enjoyed Who Killed the Electric Car? – Paine’s previous documentary about the tribulations of the electric car pioneers and the untimely demise of the General Motors EV1. If you haven’t seen the first film, watch it before viewing this sequel.

In Paine’s previous documentary, you couldn’t help but care about the car at the centre of the narrative. The General Motors EV1 felt like a member of the ensemble, just as the starship Enterprise feels like a character within Star Trek. When the few surviving EV1s are crushed near the end of Who Killed, it’s as tragic as the last gasps of any movie hero.

Carlos Ghosn at the Toyko Motor Show

Alas, that mechanical sympathy doesn’t carry across to Revenge. This time around, the Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster and even Gadget’s electric speedster are no more than walk-on extras, hanging around in the background trying to act natural while people wave their hands and talk about them.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t quite warm to Revenge as much as to its predecessor, even if it is a more human film. It’s a different kind of documentary, with a much less distinct message. It’s never boring, and its story feels engaging enough. But I doubt it will linger in the mind in the way Who Killed the Electric Car? so unexpectedly did.

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