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.
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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