Who Killed the Electric Car?
Directed and written by Chris Paine
Narrated by Martin Sheen
Who Killed the Electric Car? sounds like the title of a hilarious sixties caper B-movie but, alas, there is not much to laugh about in this high-octane documentary that sets out to discover who or what killed the electric car just a few years ago. In fact, the only funny thing in the whole movie is the substantial stone-age beard worn by actor Mel Gibson, a former EV1 driver who appears in a couple of interview segments.
It's fitting that the main setting of Who Killed The Electric Car? is California, a place where America's love affair with the car is central; what else is a Californian to do after his car is towed but make a movie about it?
Almost a decade ago, filmmaker Chris Paine was one of 800 drivers in California and Arizona leasing an EV1, an electric car developed and built by General Motors. Perhaps because of the abundance of celebrity drivers, GM's high-profile test market was California, where the smog was so bad that CARB (the California Air Resources Board) passed a mandate in the early nineties requiring 10 per cent of vehicles to be emissions-free by 2003. But a few years ago, GM cancelled the program, started laying off its sales team and began repossessing its EV1 fleet without offering drivers the option to purchase their cars ( thirtysomething's Peter Horton is shown taking a final spin).
In his first feature doc, Paine calls on celebrities like Tom Hanks and Gibson to present the life-and-death story of the EV1 (there is mention of other electric cars on the road at the time) by setting it up as a mock trial of various "suspects": GM and the auto industry, oil companies, consumers, hydrogen fuel-cell technology, government, battery life etc. Although we know which direction this baby is headed, the film's first half portrays the joyful mood surrounding the new dawn of the electric car. Then a corner is turned and things grow dark and confusing. CARB changes its tune; hydrogen fuel-cell technology gets a presidential plug; and GM seems to be trying to kill demand - one of its TV ads for the EV1 is eerily apocalyptic, portraying the car as some kind of invading alien to which all electric appliances submit.
The film's densely packed 80 minutes - tied together by Martin Sheen's innocuous narration - includes interviews with representatives of the "suspects," stock footage and a subplot of the ultimately futile efforts of former drivers and salespeople turned activists to save a group of repossessed EV1s awaiting their fate in a locked-down lot. Cynical bike riders may well snicker at scenes of car-lovers behaving like tree-huggers, but Paine effectively builds the viewer's affection for EV1, so the removal of the cars works as the film's climactic moment.
There are eloquent human characters here, including the straight-talking former energy adviser to Jimmy Carter, S. David Freeman, and senior duo Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, inventors of the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery and many innovations that have created or bolstered new industries. But a car - even a sleek, sporty-looking and environmentally friendly one - as central character becomes somewhat exhausting in the final stretch. In the end, you find yourself caring less about the car and wanting to know more about the intriguing Ovshinskys and their inventions.
Paine does offer something of a heroine in Chelsea Sexton; the attractive EV1 sales specialist was laid off in 2001, became an EV1 activist and is now executive director of Plug In America, which advocates electric and hybrid cars. Hers is a true American love story, told with such liveliness and passion that she almost becomes the human voice of the EV1. Even with her great loves crushed or shredded beyond recognition, Sexton remains optimistic. A true California ending.
Special to The Globe and Mail