Slow start, fast finish for Revenge of Electric Car


editors-blog-entry3Revenge of the Electric Car, Chris Paine’s follow-up to the documentary film classic Who Killed the Electric Car, starts out a little bit like a gasoline car, meaning it takes awhile before it hits a high enough rpm to achieve full torque.

However, once it does – about 25 minutes into the film – Revenge stays revved up. And, by the time the credits start rolling about 60 minutes later, Paine’s taken the audience on another worthwhile trip into the future of motorized transportation– electric vehicles.

Who Killed Electric Car fans hoping for a return to the main characters of the first movie will be disappointed – my wife, who managed to escape our kids with me to watch Revenge at Denver’s Landmark Chez Artiste theater for a sparsely attended 5 p.m. Sunday showing, was one of these. Thus, for instance, there’s no Chelsea Sexton, the attractive and articulate back-then GM salesperson who, some might say, pretty much carries Who Killed the Electric Car.

Mr. Detroit, The Warrior, Rocket Man & The Outsider
The more everyday characters of the previous film are replaced by three power-broking automotive industry males, GM Executive Bob Lutz, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, and Telsa Motors’ Elon Musk, with a fourth male, dubbed ‘The Outsider’ by Paine, Greg ‘Gadget’ Abbott, also playing a key role.

Paine does a decent job of building Revenge’s main characters, with Abbott – whose custom EV garage was torched by arsonists while Paine was filming Revenge – perhaps the most sympathetic, in large part because he’s more of an average guy than anyone else in the film.

revenge-adThis isn’t to say that many audience members won’t be able to identify with some of the other stars of the film – at least some of the time.

For instance, if you’re a parent, you have to feel for Musk during a scene in which he’s trying to manage fighting among several of his five kids even as he appears increasingly overwhelmed by the insane work demands he’s forced upon himself.

And Lutz’ self-effacing humor comes across frequently as well, for example, when he jokes about being able to write off anything outlandish he might say as a factor of his growing old age. Indeed, the cigar chomping Lutz seems rather like a George Burns – minus the glasses and with a decidedly different voice.

Paine too fawning?
One might criticize Paine for perhaps fawning a bit too much over his main characters – the comparatively humorless but tireless and driven Ghosn ultimately comes across as the savior of the modern car industry and, after, showing what one might describe as the darker side of Musk, for example, via Musk’s disdain for Tesla Roadster brainchild Martin Eberhard – who happens to be the only person in the film to appear with an EV parked in front of a solar system, Paine celebrates with Musk as Tesla’s IPO takes off and the Department of Energy comes through with a $465 million  loan.

It’s clear that all it might take are a few bad breaks and the entire EV revolution could come to a screeching halt.

To be fair, Paine zeroes in on the precariousness of the electric car revolution for an extended period. Thus, he foregrounds GM’s and Tesla’s financial duress following the 2008 collapse of the American economy. And, although Revenge ends on an upbeat note and it’s clear where Paine wants the future to go – to an all-electric world in which transportation is increasingly powered by an ever-greener electric grid, Paine never presents the EV as a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, although Nissan has now sold nearly 20,000 all-electric LEAFs worldwide, GM’s sold thousands of Volts, and Tesla’s sold a couple thousand Roadsters – including one to Paine himself, who, during a funny scene in the movie, becomes one of the many people for whom Musk is unable to deliver a working Roadster on time — EVs aren’t necessarily a sure thing yet.

Volt a fire hazard?
Take the recent and growing media frenzy over fire hazard concerns with the Chevy Volt, something which has just led GM to offer all of its current Volt owners loaner vehicles until the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration can investigate possible Volt safety issues more thoroughly.

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Whether unfounded or not — I’m for as much car safety as possible but the Chevy Volt fires feeding frenzy seems a bit over the top, especially when one considers how many gasoline cars go up in flames each year for a variety of reasons — it’s clear that all it might take are a few bad breaks and the entire EV revolution could come to a screeching halt.

To his credit, Paine captures this fundamental tenuousness while also managing to fuel the flames of the EV passion he propelled so powerfully in Who Killed the Electric Car.

Indeed, Paine’s first film was a key catalyst in setting into motion the modern U.S. EV movement. It’s a movement that’s helped to inspire one-time EV skeptics such as Lutz and Ghosn to change their views on plug-ins and to push forward what could turn out to be one of the most radical transportation revolutions of modern times.

That’s quite a legacy for Paine, one for which all EV fans, past, present, and future should be grateful.

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