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Oct 072011

(REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR opens in theaters Oct. 21.)

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Revenge of the Electric Car  will appeal to car geeks who want to hear all they can about the vanguard of electric vehicles and the personalities behind them.

For us, the film could have delivered even more geek. Having driven a few EVs — the Leaf and the all-electric Ford Focus (which did not make the movie), we want to know ALL about them. Was it hard to achieve acceptable range? What is their range? Why did GM decide to enter the market with a sport vehicle? Were they consigning EVs to a niche play? How do they really feel about Nissan jumping ahead with their family sedan?  Will the Tesla roadster ever get below $100 grand? Why did Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn go all-in on the Leaf? We get whiffs of answers to all these questions, and some precious behind-the-scenes vignettes, like Ghosn whispering hush-hush to his staff before springing the Leaf on the world.

We would have crawled happily even farther under the hood with filmmaker Chris Paine, the director of the venerated Who Killed the Electric Car, known for kicking the car industry’s butt back in 2006.

Most viewers, though, have not have been squeezing in test drives of these new electric cars over the last few years. They haven’t kicked the tires yet and they’ll likely be thrilled with this fresh look at the electric car business, the changemakers and selected pivotal moments. Paine, once an outsider, now has unprecedented backroom access. So maybe he was right to let up the pedal on the geek and go with the personalities while panning the larger landscape.

Considering that people were still debating which technologies would take the cars forward (remember the hoopla about hydrogen fuel cells and compressed natural gas?) when Paine began his interviews a few years ago, he’s done an admirable job of wrestling that landscape into shape, amid a seismic shift  in the auto industry.

Revenge. voiced by Tim Robbins, is fast-paced and up to the moment. In 2011 – with time and oil running out – it’s obvious that EVs are driving the auto industry. These are the cars that can help slow climate change, without stressing other natural resources. This is the future for a lot of reasons, and our veteran filmmaker resists getting out the charts and graphs.

EV titans Elon Musk and Bob Lutz talk cars.

What we do get is a fascinating look at the characters lined up at the starting gate: GM’s cigar-chomping Bob Lutz, a man who breathes gasoline fumes but somehow manages to break toward the zero-emissions future; Tesla’s quirky Pay Pal bazillionaire, the baby-faced (wait he’s still really young!) Elon Musk; frenetic Carlos Ghosn, the whirling dervish behind the Leaf. And a guy dubbed “The Outsider,” who lives in an RV and makes his own electric cars in urban warehouses, representing that slice of Americana, the DIYers.

We don’t quite get the full download on certain matters, like why Lutz championed the EV. Opinions are offered and there’s a kicky moment when he and Musk meet up at an auto show. But there’s the man himself, overlooking his Michigan estate, and he’s fairly reticent.

Lutz at a Volt unveiling: “The electrification of the automobile is a foregone conclusion.”

That’s a definitive statement, but how did he get there? Was he shamed into, as Paine suggests, or was there something more? But there’s no time, we’re on to the next kingmaker, Ghosn.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and the Volt

The Nissan chief, too, is “very confident about what’s coming. What I don’t know is how fast it’s coming.” But for him, the decision to put the Leaf at the center of everything is clearly based on environmental concerns: “You need to predict the future. Prepare for it.”

Here’s another thing that probably will be said about this film, and so we’ll say it too. You won’t feel the indignation, the wrenching sick feeling in your gut that you got from this film’s prequel, Who Killed the Electric Car.

Who Killed the Electric Car became a “cult classic” because it talked back to power. But don’t let that stop you from seeing Revenge, set in a different time with a different storyline. This film’s a sleek Tesla; the last one was an intriguing homemade electric Porsche. Comparisons are not so valuable here because that whole 1990s experiment in which car companies put out some early EVs, discovered customers adored them and then returned that love by crushing those vehicles with giant compactors, that’s a story in a lifetime.  You don’t get natural narrative tension like that handed to you every day.

Paine does his best to capture the current excitement, but times have changed. Electric cars are a hugely exciting new element in modern society. But, they’re arriving during dismal times. People are broke and unemployed and that’s an unavoidable cloud over the za-zoom factor in this story. Paine writes in a segment about 2008, which sort of bifurcates the film into before and after sections. Za-zoom, crash, hummm.

Revenge director Chris Paine

So we aren’t waiting for a car wreck like we did in Who Killed The Electric Car, which created such delicious suspense with its car company antagonists and the evil oil companies lurking offstage.

It’s more like we’re in suspended animation, stuck in the ditch in our own wreck and watching some people, dreamlike, appear on glitzy stages with pretty girls telling us about the new cars glimmering under the stage lights. And we hear through the din that Detroit might get back to work again, while we wait for the ambulance to arrive.

See, it’s just not as tension filled. There’s pain. But nothing’s getting smashed.

Revenge does capture a unique moment in time, and that’s not faint praise. Put aside for a moment that you can’t afford to trade in that sagging SUV in the driveway. If you’re a car buff at all, or think you might someday pony up $25 K for an electric car   (if our angry Congress continues to offer rebates, otherwise it will be more), you’ll find this film to be a fast, fun ride.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network