If you like documentaries with plots and characters that recall narrative film genres, Chris Paine is the director for you. His 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car was a whodunit. Its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, evokes Frankenstein. The creatures are vehicles made of lithium and steel instead of filched body parts, but they threaten to destroy their makers, all the same.
Revenge of the Electric Car surveys the state of the electric car a decade after GM decided to recall and crush its tiny fleet of EV1 electrics, the crime that drives Who Killed the Electric Car. Paine tells the story of the return of electrics through profiles of four larger-than-life entrepreneurs, CEOs, and impresarios with enormous egos and nicknames to match: Bob “Mr. Detroit” Lutz, Vice Chairman of General Motors and the force behind Chevrolet’s hybrid Volt; Elon “Rocket Man” Musk, co-founder and CEO of Silicon Valley electric car company Tesla Motors and head of SpaceX; Greg “Gadget” Abbott, who refits gasoline cars with electric motors; and Carlos “The Warrior” Ghosn, CEO of Nissan/Renault and the mastermind behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
Paine has chosen his cast well. None of these men quail in front of the camera, and the four capture the wide range of the rapidly evolving electric car market. Lutz, veteran of Ford, BMW, and Chrysler, represents old Detroit, belatedly embracing electrics, after a decades-long emphasis on SUVs and trucks, but only via the safer alternative of a gas-electric hybrid. Musk, who bankrolled Tesla with the fortune he made when he sold PayPal, is the arrogant visionary who thinks he can find a niche market for stylish, high-performance electric cars without the deep pockets and vast R&D resources of established automakers.
Abbott is the archetypal American tinkerer/bricoleur who wants to reinvent the past, bringing classic gas-burners from the heyday of the sports car—the Porsche Speedster, the Triumph Spitfire, the Chevy Camaro—into an emissions-free future. Ghosn represents the brilliant strategist whose brash realignment of Nissan toward an all-electric fleet reflects a pragmatism guided by cold calculations.
Paine doesn’t pick a favorite. The morale of Revenge of the Electric Car seems to be that multiple approaches will solve the problem of our fossil-fuel addiction, or rather multiple paths will lead to what all four men see as an inevitable future in which all-electric vehicles have replaced gas-powered automobiles.
Like a well built electric, Revenge of the Electric Car cruises along so smoothly you don’t always appreciate the craft that went into making it. The horror angle in the film’s title and marketing campaign isn’t just superficial. Electricity here regains its dual nature as clean, modern, and futuristic on the one hand (the dynamo created by the namesake of Musk’s company); the mystic, volatile spark of life on the other (Frankenstein).
As with any good mad scientist film Revenge of the Electric Car begins with an initial euphoric reel, when success seems within reach. Then comes the crisis that tests the visionaries’ mettle: in global terms the economic crash of 2008; in personal terms, the fire that destroys Abbott’s workshop. And while there are no angry burghers wielding clubs and torches, the representatives who greet Lutz and his colleagues when GM testifies before Congress, or the customers Musk faces en masse after tapping them for additional cash to pay for cars that haven’t even been delivered yet, make for a very tough room.
Theirs are not the only critical perspectives expressed in Revenge of the Electric Car. Pulitzer Prize–winning Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Neil provides off- and on-screen commentary that augments the more neutral voiceover narration by Tim Robbins. A cross between star-struck Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby and the irritatingly persistent reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) from The Night Stalker, Neil is a muscle-car-loving convert to electrics who lauds our four heroes for their achievements even as he excoriates them for their missteps and hubris.
In his portion of the DVD’s extra interview footage, Neil admits with more than a little pride that Musk called him a “douchebag” in The New Yorker. The friction between the two is on display in a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Neil, Musk, and Ghosn that took place after the premiere of Revenge of the Electric Car at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival (well moderated by David Duchovny and also included among the DVD extras).
Paine closes Revenge of the Electric Car with a hopeful glimpse of one small victory. Abbott and his wife/business partner pull out of their new L.A. workshop in the converted Speedster, to Cake’s song of highway gridlock, “Long Line of Cars”, and head to Palm Springs, a journey punctuated by shots of the car’s charge needle moving toward empty. They make it to their destination without running out of juice, plug in the Speedster, and relax with a cocktail on the terrace.
It’s an appealing, and particularly American scene: the unrepentant, even smug, tinkerer uncompromisingly insisting on a green version of one of the key features of post–World War II car culture, the weekend getaway.