Revenge of the Electric Car: First Watch Review

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Chris Paine's 2006 documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car, was a rallying cry for fans of electric vehicles who'd felt betrayed by government and industry. Does his sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car grab the mantle and run? We got an early look to see for ourselves.

Note: The filmakers provided us an exclusive look at an intro for the movie that was never used — and we've included it above.


Whether one's view of the electric car suggests a sword-wielding redeemer of humanity's misguided desire for personal transport, or something a bit less swashbuckling, one thing's irrefutable. Electric cars have now generated enough dramatic tension to propel not just one, but two documentaries from award-winning director Chris Paine.

The first of these, Who Killed the Electric Car, chronicles automakers' declining interest in marketing electric-only vehicles to the public, from a peak in the early 1990s to 2005, when General Motors destroyed a stock of EV1 electric cars it had repossessed from lease-holding customers. That event opened a new, closer-to-home front for an environmental movement energized by Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, while serving up a juicy, anti-progress bête noire to conspiracy theorists, who saw shades of Tucker in the shadow of GM's car crusher.

But although "Who Killed" did a good job of unpacking the byzantine tie-ups between government and the auto industry, laying bare the unintended consequences they've produced, the film succeeded largely as an advocacy piece. And a skewed one at that.

The strength of Paine's sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, however, is in its storytelling. The film's multithreaded, character-driven narrative follows electric-car developments during the surprisingly fertile post-EV1 period — as Tesla released its roadster, GM introduced the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan launched the Nissan Leaf.


And "Revenge" is marginally about those cars. But with new access to all three companies' facilities and personnel, despite — or perhaps because of — his having earlier savaged the industry, Paine (along with producer Jessie Deeter and and co-writer P.G. Morgan) was able to humanize corporate entities he once portrayed as monolithic, making a complex business story more gripping for its intimacy.


While "Revenge" doesn't let go of the basic assumption introduced in "Who Killed" (i.e., gasoline-powered cars are toxic and must be replaced), it does loosen its grip, offering a less strident, more sympathetic vision of former antagonist GM, which has returned to the scene of the crime with the not-quite-all-electric Volt.

But the film isn't merely a GM follow-up, although the company's former vice chairman, Bob Lutz does slip easily into a leading role as the charming "car guy," a longtime internal combustion impresario who's staked his legacy on an unlikely new semi-electric vehicle. Lutz's cigar-chomping, self-effacing likability immediately diffuses any carry-over animosity from the first film, giving even radicalized viewers cover to accept other sides of the electric-car story.


Paine also follows the well-documented trials and triumphs of Silicon Valley veteran and Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, who arrives on screen with typical tech-world bluster, and Nissan's hard-driving "Emperor" and CEO Carlos Ghosn, who's bet billions in company treasure on the all-electric Leaf. Los Angeles-based electric-car conversion expert Greg "Gadget" Abbott, whose personal dramas provide some of the film's most poignant moments, represents the passionate but lesser-known DIYers.

Just as in the first film, Paine employs interviews to drive the narrative, with celebrities again sitting in as the recognizable public faces of the electric-car movement. Actor Tim Robbins fills the role of narrator, Wall Street Journal writer Dan Neil reprises his role as the car guy's conscience, and Jalopnik editor-in-chief Ray Wert and former Valleywag editor Owen Thomas function as an abbreviated Greek chorus of journalists, filling in details from their time covering the electric-car beat.


As "Revenge" rolls on, through the financial calamity of the late 2000s, the characters' personal lives take on greater narrative significance. Seldom do their lives overlap, though a tender moment of awkward bonding between Musk and Lutz occurs at the Detroit Auto Show, where both companies are showing their new electric wares at the height of the "Carpocalypse." The stakes are staggeringly high for both of them — one's bet his personal fortune, the other his corporate legacy. Through their eyes, we get the idea that building electric cars isn't merely an issue of political or social significance, it's a brutally risky endeavor requiring superhuman devotion. Failure could mean the end of them all.

While the first film built its advocacy case after the fact, that GM's EV1 fell to a perfect storm of misguided consumers, government regulators beholden to industrial interests and those industrial interests themselves, that issue soon became moot. "Revenge" picks up a story that would prove far more dramatic as events unfolded, to the ultimate benefit of its narrative.


Still, without a stronger rallying moment, I'm afraid "Revenge" may go unseen by many of the first film's ardent supporters — whether electric car enthusiasts or just liberal Manhattanites who would prefer their coworking spaces green — after all, the battle's won isn't it? And that would be a shame, because "Revenge" is the better film.

"Revenge" hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York City this Friday, and in other select markets over the next few weeks. See where here.