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by Eric Kohn
April 29, 2011 4:40 AM
2 Comments
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TRIBECA REVIEW | "Revenge of the Electric Car" is a Happy Ending that Doesn't Ask Too Many Questions

Has Chris Paine sold out? That question lingers throughout "Revenge of the Electric Car," the director's celebratory follow-up to his mournful 2006 exposé "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The first movie focused on the untimely death of the General Motors EV-1 model, a sleek vehicle that carried the hope of a world without gasoline. The message took the form of a gripping drama because Paine had plenty of villains, from a cost-cutting GM to nefarious oil moguls in cahoots with the U.S. government.

In "Revenge of the Electric Car," everyone's basically on the same team. With the recent influx of electric car production at major companies, the faceless baddies of the initial installment now become reluctant accomplices. Top execs from Nissan and GM provide Paine with a ton of access to detailed board meetings loaded with optimistic plans for new electric car models. Their motives are dubious, of course: Curmudgeonly GM vice chairman Bob Lutz takes a sharp turn from his initial disdain for electric vehicles to instigate production of the Volt, while money-grubbing Nissan head Carlos Ghosn aspires to compete with the Nissan LEAF.

In both cases, Paine watches closely as these men plot strategies for dominating the marketplace. The result is that "Revenge" plays more like a prolonged happy ending to Paine's initial treatment of the material, as if the access came with the ground rules that he couldn't probe too deeply into their intentions.

But if "Revenge" is an extensive informercial for the electric car, it's a sleek one. Narrated by Tim Robbins with a spiffy soundtrack and swift editing tricks to keep the narrative flow alive, it's an continually watchable breakdown of the electric car's imminent return to the road, which it successfully presents as an exciting prospect.

Paine does sympathize with the little guy -- relatively speaking, of course. Silic, Valley innovator Elon Musk enters the fray with his ambitious start-up, Tesla Motors, and tries to compete with major companies in Detroit by spending less and promising more. It's a bumpy ride. One of the inspirations for Jon Favreau's adaptation of the Tony Stark character for "Iron Man," Musk has extraordinary one-man-band determination to right the wrongs of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" But it seems like GM and Nissan want to do that as well. The mission of the sequel emerges from the first entry and just keeps running--with no less efficiency than the late EV1. Even Danny DeVito, one of the angry voices whose EV1 was confiscated, gets to put on a happy face when a new electric car model arrives at his doorstep.

On the whole, "Revenge" delivers the cheery alternative to the dour prognosis of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Paine estimates that a million plug-in cars will be available to consumers by 2015, a figure that heightens the supreme optimism about the future of automobiles. But this creates distance from the more complicated reasons for wanting this type of vehicle in the first place. If the point of electric cars is to encourage a world without oil, then there are a few more pieces involved in this puzzle. Paine doesn't touch that mess.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Automobile junkies and environmentalists are likely to embrace the movie with the same excitement they brought the first one, although since it doesn't reveal a lot of new information, Paine is most likely to attract audiences at special screenings and on DVD rather than at theaters.

criticWIRE grade: B

TAGS: Reviews

2 Comments

  • JJ | April 30, 2011 12:52 PMReply

    The infantile fanaticism over EV's is passing. It should not longer be a theory, but a practice. Only early adopters will change their lives to fit the EV's limited capabilities.

    A film should identify the gaps between expectation and EV reality and arc the possibilities.

  • ramon h | April 29, 2011 8:30 AMReply

    Chris Paine seemingly can't produce a factual documentary if his life
    depended on it. For those of us hoping for an electric car revolution,
    Paine's nonsensical cheerleading is doing more harm than good. His
    films are making foolish and fictitious claims which can only result in
    making EV supporters look as unreliable and silly as his films. "Who Killed
    the Electric car" was his Opus One for the electron set, and despite the
    enthusiasm from this younger set, could only be characterized as a totally
    ficitious piece of utter nonsense,using as evidence the words of some truly
    ignorant yet famous souls, including Tom Hanks, who recently displayed
    both his considerable ignorance of the war in the Pacific, as well as
    our educational system's apparent inability to educate. Paine's attempts
    to convince his audience using advertising techniques : the human endorsement.
    His film is more or less a cheerleading attempt to push electric vehicles. He's
    producing propaganda, and unreliable propoganda at that. In his first film,
    the viewer is led to believe that the only obstacles to the widespread adoption
    of electrical cars were the auto executives, in particular those at GM. One wonders
    at that strange claim, since GM had spent many years developing an electric car
    following the oil crises of the early 1970's. I had followed that development and
    there was no mystery what the basic problem was that stood in the way of a
    practical electric car : the battery required to store the energy. Batteries were
    either cheap and extremely heavy (lead acid), with pathetically short driving ranges
    (less than 60 miles), long recharge times (many hours) or very expensive and still
    pretty heavy (nickel metal hydrides), and still requiring many hours to recharge.
    That's all you really needed to know in order to understand why electrics were
    woefully inadequate. All the other claptrap and red herrings Paine's film tossed
    around were simply there to satisfy his conspiracy-addled younger audience.
    Watching "Who Killed.." left the viewer worse than before, when total ignorance
    prevailed, by providing lies and silly conspiracy theories as explanations. Paine
    was totally dishonest - he would not admit that his beloved electric cars were inferior
    and impractical in practically all cases (sans millionaire Hollywood actors looking to
    improve their images), and so he invented and manufactured silly and patently
    illogical alternative reasons to explain their failure in the market place.
    Paine is an ineffective EV proponent : he is decidely NOT a documentarian.
    Paine's newest "documentary" provides, if anything, even less information about
    the film's supposed subject. Instead it lionizes those who have attempted to
    bring forth this generation's version of the electric car. Batteries have improved
    immensely since Paine's highly esteemed (and thoroughly crappy) EV-1 of the first film,
    and provides THE only reason anyone is attempting to resuscitate the electric car.
    But while I can argue that today's batteries do in fact provide the functionality to
    allow the electric car to compete, they are still very expensive, a crucial
    fact that Paine naturally disregards, being a wet blanket on his preposterously
    optimistic expectations. Right now one can say that, at the higher price points
    where BMWs and Mercedes' roam, electrics (such as those like the Tesla Model
    S) CAN compete against gas powered vehicles. But to do so requires a battery
    pack costing between thirty and forty thousand dollars. Paine has provided
    false information and more red herrings than a Charlie Chan movie in both of
    his films. Hopefully his films will be examined by serious critics (and for once, knowledgeable) and given the roasting they so thoroughly deserve. It would be no
    sin to incinerate his two films. They completely deserve such treatment. This kind of garbage-in-cinema is not acceptable, especially in a country that claims to honor thruthfulness. But since when was truthfulness part of Hollywood's code of ethics?
    Hollywood depends upon lies and fantasies. Paine is right at home here.