With crime thriller Drive still revving its engine at the multiplex, another entertaining high-stakes car movie rolls onto the big screen this weekend. This one, however, is quiet and emission-free.
Revenge of the Electric Car is the upbeat sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car?, director Chris Paine's crushing (literally) 2006 feature documentary that tells the life-and-death story of the EV-1, a fully battery-powered car developed and built by General Motors in the late-1990s.
Paine was one of 800 California drivers leasing an EV-1 when GM cancelled the program and began repossessing and ultimately destroying the fleet. Motivated by frustration and looking for answers, Paine structured his first film like a mock trial, "cross-examining" various suspects – GM and the auto industry at large, oil companies, consumers, hydrogen fuel cells, the government etc. – in the EV-1's death.
The first film eventually ran out of steam because it was mostly filmed after the fact, and relied too heavily on an inanimate object – albeit an attractive and environmentally friendly one – as the central character.
Its visually slick follow-up, on the other hand, never falls asleep at the wheel.
Revenge is powered by human drama and by three very different charismatic auto-industry leaders in the risky, multibillion-dollar process of resurrecting the battery-powered consumer car. Paine started filming in 2007 and had backstage access to all three under the condition he not release any footage until 2011. During that time, of course, the world economy collapsed and auto-makers' CEOs flew their corporate jets to Washington to ask the government to save the industry. The film navigates the bailout process, exploiting its twists and turns to create maximum tension.
For quick reference, Paine introduces his characters with superhero-like nicknames. "Mr. Detroit" is the cigar-chomping Bob Lutz, GM vice-chair, a former skeptic turned convert now pushing the development and production of the Chevy Volt in the wake of GM's near catastrophic downfall.
"The Warrior" is Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, an unsentimental strategist determined to make the Nissan Leaf the first true mass-market electric car and who provides a welcome perspective from outside the California-Detroit axis.
"Rocket Man" is PayPal founder Elon Musk, who sank a significant chunk of his personal fortune into moving Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors into a manufacturing mode. In one scene, as Musk frets over production flaws in the small fleet of what is by far the sexiest electric car of the bunch, Paine shyly admits he's actually buying one of those flawed vehicles. We get some tantalizing glimpses into Musk's home life and the stress he feels as he inches closer to bankruptcy. The stakes are more personal in his story, and you really feel Tesla could hit the wall.
Paine makes room for a couple of detours with "The Outsider," Greg Abbott, who retrofits classic sports cars for battery power and hits a major unexpected bump in the road when his warehouse shop, filled with tools, gear and gorgeous cars, is destroyed in a fire. The inclusion of Abbott is a respectful nod to the legions of skilled tinkerers in garages and backyards who are doing their personal bit to make the road a more electric place.
It's not giving anything away to reveal that these moguls, and their companies, all seem pointed in roughly the right direction. Given Paine's penchant for B-movie-sounding titles, let's hope he gets to make it a trilogy that concludes with The Electric Car Lives!
Special to The Globe and Mail
Revenge of the Electric Car
- Directed by Chris Paine
- Written by Chris Paine and P.G. Morgan
- Narration by Tim Robbins
- Classification: G