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Overall Rating

Awesome: 18.18%
Worth A Look63.64%
Average: 9.09%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 5 user ratings

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Who Killed the Electric Car?
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"The obvious suspects, of course."
4 stars

I joke that I don't like the idea of electric cars - after all, I'm a pedestrian, and I wouldn't hear one of those silent things coming. I like the idea of a zero-emission vehicle a lot, though, and if I ever had to own a car, I'd like to think it would be something like the Saturn EV-1 which serves as the main focus of the movie.

I can't, though, since as filmmaker Chris Paine documents, General Motors not only discontinued the model, but took all the existing cars back and destroyed them; similar things happened with other manufacturers' EV ("electric vehicle") models. The story of why and how this happens is almost too strange to be non-fiction, but is presented in a calm manner that manages to advance the case for the electric car without attacking the audience that's not already on its side. There's no question that this is a work of advocacy - Paine was an EV-1 lessee and almost takes it as a given that electric vehicles were an unquestioned good - but it's not a shrill one; this is the rare documentary that might actually convince somebody, rather than just repulse people on the other side.

One of the ways that Paine makes his film palatable for even those who might question the utility and usefulness of an electric car is by not hitting the environmental drum too hard. It's a smart decision, since although there are obvious local environmental benefits to a combustion-free vehicle (no smog-causing exhaust in densely populated and driven areas); it's an easy tack to appear to refute, or at least confuse - the electricity used to run these vehicles has to come from somewhere, and in America that's likely coal. Arguing that the EV-1 had less environmental impact than a gas-powered car is a numbers game, and numbers often confuse people.

Instead, he focuses on the relationship people have with their cars. If the sample shown is any indication, the people who leased EV-1s and other electric cars loved them. At a funeral staged as a means to protest the recall of the cars, actor Ed Begley Jr. jokes that cars that could only go three hundred miles on a charge weren't for everyone, just 90% of people. The cars were in the finishing stages of being recalled by the time the film was made, so Paine has to rely on stock footage and testimonials to describe why these people were so attached to their cars. It's mostly successful; the EV owners are effusive in their testimony to the point where the audience feels their aggravation and outrage when the auto companies reclaim their cars - every EV made, apparently, was leased rather than sold, and after a certain point GM et al declined to renew the leases - only to have them warehoused and destroyed.

Once the audience has established that sort of personal rapport with the owners, they're more likely to give Paine's speculations on why the electric car disappeared from streets almost overnight. The suspects are the expected - the oil companies, the politicians connected to them, the auto companies who stand to make much less money on parts and repairs on electric vehicles - and Paine isn't really able to find specific people to nail to the wall. Indeed, one almost gets the impression that he and his crew are taking their frustrations out on the guy running the site where the EVs are being warehoused before being sent to the crusher, just because he's the immediate impediment between these people and their cars. It downplays the environmental aspects, but highlights the absurdity of the situation: These companies have a product that people want to pay for, that gets them good publicity, and that arguably helps the world as a whole while turning a profit, and they're not only discontinuing it, but aggressively trying to destroy evidence it ever existed. It's the sort of conspiracy-theory events I usually scoff at, and it's kind of astonishing to watch them actually happening.

The film has its stumbles. Paine relies on the famous and near-famous a little too much: Although having some high-profile people extol the EV-1's virtues is certainly a good idea for grabbing attention, I'm hard-pressed to think of an electric car owner interviewed who wasn't involved in show business in some way. Even if someone like Alexandra Paul isn't particularly wealthy, audiences do equate rich and famous, so the film has to fight the impression that these vehicles were rich people's toys; Paine might have been better off finding a soccer mom or two who loved her EV-1, especially since several of the film's most engaging personalities aren't from show business: Consider Chelsea Sexton, an enthusiastic young woman who started working in a Saturn dealership at the age of seventeen and was the lead EV-1 salesperson for Southern California by her mid-twenties. Or Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, an elderly husband and wife team whose company created the batteries that helped make electric cars practical. As much as the actors are trained communicators, the rest aren't bad either, and frequently have more interesting stories to tell.

The film can be dispiriting at times; I'm no car guy but I know I've got inanimate objects that I would strongly object to losing in this way. And that's before considering the whole "corporate greed suppressing a relatively green technology" thing! Despite chronicling events which naturally lead to cynicism, though, the film is not despairing. People like Celsea Sexton and the Ovshinskys are too upbeat, and the product is too necessary to stay dead forever.

At least, that's the way I hope it shakes out. These folks deserve it, and practicality has to be worth something.

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originally posted: 08/31/06 09:14:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/29/08 Mark The movie didnt tell anything about ZAP. 4 stars
8/27/07 David Weinstein A beautiful review. Seaver should note, though, dealership have to service leased cars 5 stars
6/28/07 Abs worth watching once 3 stars
3/21/07 David Pollastrini Liberal Trash 2 stars
9/26/06 Zaw Wow! always wondered what happend those ugly cars! Too bad, Uncle Sam died long times ago! 5 stars
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  28-Jun-2006 (PG)
  DVD: 14-Nov-2006



Directed by
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