Monday, July 31, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Like the title suggests, this examination of the odd 86ing of the electric EV1 and other electric automobiles is structured like a murder mystery: we meet the victim, watch the crime and then are given a laundry list of possible guilty parties around whom the blame can be spread. And like most murder mysteries, the fun is in the follow-through, not the set-up. As director Chris Paine uses talking heads and consumer testimonials to explain why the electric car was such a societal boon, the film maintains a mere semblance of interest; once he gets to start slinging accusations at the automotive industry, the federal government, Big Oil and whomever else he feels has a hand in the car's demise, that's when the film really cooks. I think the problem with the first half of the film is that Paine's heart is dead set on uncovering the reasons for the discontinuation of the car, so he rushes through the obligatory introductions. We get a lot of fawning paeans to the EV1, some quick discussion of the drafting and later defeat of a crucial California emissions law and a general sense that there's a side we're not being shown. (The third paragraph of Mick LaSalle's San Francisco Chronicle review offers a credible explanation, borne from the nature of American consumerism, of why the car wasn't an out-of-the-box hit that Paine doesn't seem to want to acknowledge.) Once the cars start disappearing, though, Paine starts examining the issue rather than merely presenting a side of it; as a result, the film becomes far more compelling. What ultimately emerges is a rueful portrait of American industry's unwillingness to deal with its own wastefulness. The semi-happy ending, of course, is that Japan stuck with the concept and is now reaping the rewards with the increasingly popular hybrid vehicle while American companies stand around and wonder where the fuck all that came from.

Grade: B


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