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WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Martin Sheen
Director:  Chris Paine
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  November 14, 2006

“We are gathered here today to bereave the loss of  something dear to us…”

 

Film ***

Ever heard of the EV1?  That makes two of us, assuming you’re not in California.

The EV1 was an electric car designed and release by General Motors in the late 90s to comply with a California law that an increasing number of cars sold in that state must be zero emission.  It was different than electric cars of old that didn’t go very fast or very far, and were rather ridiculous looking.  The EV1 still didn’t boast a lot of interior space, but it could go fast enough to get you a ticket and at least 60 miles to the charge.  Celebrities like Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Alexandra Paul bought it and loved it. 

Yet a few years later, it was completely gone.  People were only allowed to lease, not buy the EV1, and when the lease terms ended, the factory didn’t renew them.  The cars were gathered up, housed for a period of time under the sad and watchful eyes of former owners, and eventually destroyed.  You’ll have to go to a museum of automotive history to look upon one today.

So what happened?  That’s the question writer/director Chris Paine, himself a former EV1 owner forced to part with his beloved car, tries to address in Who Killed the Electric Car?  Like many of today’s documentaries, it’s passionate to the point of narrow-mindedness, activist in nature, and more interested in serving predetermined conclusion than finding real answers.  But it’s fairly well done, and when not on a soap box, sublimely educational.

The movie puts ‘suspects’ on trial, from the automakers to the oil companies, from the consumers themselves to the government.  It concludes many are guilty…no surprise there.  Not even the disdain for ordinary Americans, who didn’t embrace the EV1 is surprising.  Paine has his opinions, which he presents as indisputable facts, but the viewer can look at the evidence and do his own detective work.

Oil companies, the Bush administration, the manufacturers…all favorite and easy targets.  President Bush backed the wrong horse by pushing hydrogen cells over electric, the oil companies conspired to squash the cars, and so on.  From watching the movie myself, it seemed to me to be mostly a combination of the automakers and the consumers.

The electric car required very little maintenance…no oil changes, no gears, no transmissions to replace.  Its trip to the shop consisted mainly of rotating tires and filling washer fluids.  The companies make a boatload of money selling replacement parts…a successful electric car would be detrimental to that.

On the other hand were the buyers, who didn’t respond to the push.  The electric car is, fairly or not, a tainted piece of technology.  Too many of us remember the first wave from decades past where the cars couldn’t go a safe highway speed, they had to be recharged quickly, and the recharging process took a long time.  Even if someone came out with a new version of the Betamax that was better than anything ever seen before, including DVD, it would go nowhere.  The first impressions just don’t go away.

And the marketing wasn’t very good…it didn’t do much to replace the image of the old cars in the way of telling people the EV1s were fast, efficient and easy to maintain.  Many people were wondering where the heck they would even go to charge one up if they bought one. 

But the EV1 had a lot going for it.  One of the developers, Chelsea Sexton, is an enthusiastic young woman who was in the business long enough to see a dream realized and then destroyed, but remains optimistic for the future.  Her struggle to first get the car out there, then try to keep it out, is dramatic and moving. 

And following the history of the car is fascinating, especially the many satisfied customers who have to watch in disbelief as their cars are taken away and eventually crushed.  They raise enough money to buy the whole fleet from General Motors, but no deal.  GM and the auto industry successfully sued California to repeal their law dictating what could and could not be sold, and that was essentially the move that removed the feeding tube from the EV1.

Would the EV1 really have changed America?  Did it get a fair shake?  Or was it just another technological flash in the pan that was either too far ahead of its time or too far behind it?  The movie has its opinions and lobbies for them and presents mostly only what serves them best.  I can’t look to it as a film that provides answers.  But the questions it asks are important and fascinating ones.

And it’s not the fault of the movie that the answers aren’t all satisfying.  You and I can’t go to our local dealership and test drive an EV1 for ourselves.  If we could have done that, we wouldn’t have to take Chris Paine’s word for anything…or for that matter, General Motors’, either.

Video ***

This is a good looking documentary mixing, as most do, many types of source materials and stocks, but the overall result is pleasing…mostly sharp, crisp and clear throughout.

Audio **

The 5.1 mix is decent, but not too demanding…it’s mostly talking heads and dialogue with a few effects thrown in here and there.

Features **

I’d have enjoyed a commentary from Chris Paine, but he lets his movie do his talking.  Instead there are deleted scenes, a music video and a “Jump-Starting the Future” featurette.

Summary:

So Who Killed the Electric Car?  Was it murder, suicide or euthanasia?  Chris Paine has his thoughts, which he shares in abundance in his slanted but informative documentary.  I wasn’t convinced by all of his arguments, but I learned an awful lot.  Sometimes that’s more than enough.

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