Who Killed the Electric Car?

| July 18, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car? is director Chris Paine’s first film, and a remarkable film at that. Tracking the creation and eventual destruction of the electric car, the film analyzes the various factors that contributed to the “failure” or “slaughter” (depending on your point of view) of the electric car movement.
Beginning with the promise of electric cars, Paine examines how General Motors took the lead in producing the EV1, using new battery-powered technology that produced zero emissions. Other automakers soon followed GM’s lead, largely due to landmark legislation in California that required automakers to produce a certain percentage of emission-free vehicles each year (the required percentage increased over time). Paine then tracks California’s repeal of the law and automakers’ recall of all the electric cars–which consumers had never been allowed to buy outright but only lease. In an extended series of scenes, Paine follows EV activists as they expose the auto industry’s destruction of every EV automobile.
Tightly structured and carefully plotted, the film is sleek and attractively packaged. Paine suggests a conspiracy theory through a combination of interviews, narration (read by Martin Sheen), and archival news footage. Actors like Alexandra Paul, Mel Gibson, and Peter Horton espouse the virtues of their EV1s, lending the film their star power. Paine cheats a bit by including a talk show interview featuring superstar Tom Hanks during which he, too, praises his electric car. There’s nothing like building an argument with the unintentional support of the world’s most popular actor. Yet Paine speaks to professional authorities as well: those in the auto or oil industry and environmentalists. With a clear timeline and efficient editing, Paine maintains a tight and energetic pace.
Paine’s point of view is clear; the title Who Killed the Electric Car? is no misnomer. Boldly laying out the murder suspects, Paine cites the oil industry, the auto industry, the U.S. government, the battery used in electric cars, competing technology like fuel cells, and the consumer. During the dramatic climax of the film, Paine stamps a red “guilty” on those deemed as assisting with the murder.
Despite his explicit condemnation of those deemed guilty, Paine strives for a balanced point of view. Industry specialists debate the rumored limitations of the electric vehicles. Acknowledging that the first EV1s were fitted with inadequate batteries and thus able to travel only 60 miles between charges, Paine builds good faith for his subsequent argument that newer batteries allowing 120 miles of travel suited the day-to-day needs of Americans who statistically travel only 30 miles a day. Paine also includes interviews with a member of the GM Board and with California Air Resources Board Chairman Alan Lloyd, granting the opposition an opportunity to speak for themselves.
At times, though, Paine resorts to melodrama. One interviewee, Chelsea Sexton, is a former employee of GM hired to tout the EV1 who later became an activist. She repeatedly refers to the EV1 as her “baby” and tears up twice when discussing the murder of the car. Now, I’m not saying that the crushing and shredding of these virtually new vehicles isn’t offensive in its wastefulness and deceit. But we are talking about an inanimate object here. As the music swells and the camera pans across smashed cars stacked on top of each other, Paine strives for pathos but instead achieves bathos.
Certainly, our current economic and political climate lends this film a particular resonance. With gas prices continuing to climb and the U.S. involvement in Iraq mired in conflict, alternative energy is on everyone’s mind–even Mr. Bush. Paine details the pros and cons of other alternative energy sources, including hydrogen fuel cells, current models of hybrid cars, and ethanol (also detailed on the movie’s informative website here.
Yet the ultimate point of the film is unclear. Does Paine hope for a return to the electric car? Does he want to expose a little known environmental outrage? Or does he solely endeavor to educate, encouraging consumers to be more discriminating about their auto choices and more suspicious of the auto industry? Whatever his intent, this film is unlikely to rally an army to bring back the EV1. The demise of the electric car indicates a broad corruption throughout the auto and oil industry, but it also demonstrates how large this Goliath is compared to the David of the individual consumer. Perhaps Paine can produce change one person at a time, but with an unclear message, he may only arouse purposeless anger rather than hopeful activism.

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