Review: Revenge of the Electric Car

By · May 02, 2011

It's been five years since Chris Paine's cult classic documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" ignited a sentiment of lost opportunity and anger at those who would rob a future filled with plug-in cars from consumers.

In that time the car world has fundamentally shifted. Now in the midst of a transformative change, manufacturers are scrambling to find more and more ways to use electricity as a fuel and consumers now have several modern electric cars to choose from.

Yes, a diverse array of forces influenced this change, but with its clear and convincing storyline wrought from a passion to bring electric cars back from the grave, that original film was one of the unarguable catalysts. And now Paine and company are back with "Revenge of the Electric Car," a triumphant follow-up to the original.

I couldn't catch the premiere of the film in New York—our own Tom Moloughney did that—but the "Revenge" crew gratefully sent a screener my way. I had it in my DVD player within an hour of getting it in the mail.

As an EV advocate and green car nut who follows these things closely, I enjoyed the film immensely. At its core, it's a feel good film that electric car enthusiasts the world over will instantaneously connect with and even attain a sense of accomplishment from.

There are many scenes that had me reminiscing about the last five years in a way that showed just how far the EV world has come—and in some scenes, for a few fleeting seconds, you can see my hand typing away on a computer or my face behind a camera snapping pictures at some of the events highlighted in the film, showing just how much a part of this all I've been.

The footage is often put together in a beautiful way and makes for some strong emotions for those who care enough about EVs to have watched "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and followed the story afterwards. Commentary from renowned automotive journalist Dan Neil—featured heavily in the movie—is occasionally profound and regularly thought provoking, and there are some truly candid and special moments with all of the featured personalities.

But even though it is entertaining—and certainly worth the admission price—the documentary lacks a bit of punch and it's unclear what the ultimate story is beyond simply that a lot of electric cars are going to be built now.

"Revenge" has an amazing amount of behind-the-scenes, all-access footage of some of the world's most powerful and influential car people, yet it never really delivers the crux of an argument as to why these cars will stick around this time and includes several stories and footage that mostly just made the film longer than it needed to be.

Alongside the stories of plug-in powerbrokers Elon Musk (Tesla), Bob Lutz (GM) and Carlos Ghosn (Nissan), a man named "Gadget" was featured as the EV do-it-youselfer with an incredibly large amount of bad luck. Gadget's inclusion in the film is never really explained or even justified. To be honest, any number of very interesting EV enthusiasts could have filled his spot in the movie—but none of them would have done much better in that role.

The film also doesn't make much of an attempt to explain or even highlight some of the controversies surrounding electric cars and, more importantly, the three distinct EV strategies employed by Tesla, Nissan, and GM—the stars of the film. The concepts of range anxiety, battery life, different battery management strategies and the different types of plug-in vehicles are only tangentially touched on—and often in a way that an average consumer would be left confused and in need of more information.

For instance, in one scene the camera is following Musk and Lutz around the floor of an auto show and they stop at the Nissan booth and have a laugh about how the LEAF "only" has 100 miles of range—but they never tell the story of why Musk and, especially, Lutz would have that reaction. The time used to tell Gadget's story would have been better served stirring up the controversy pot a bit and explaining why the three different manufacturers chose the strategies they did and what kinds of markets they are targeting.

It felt like the beginning of the movie was taken up with too much backstory and the end was wrapped up too quickly. The audience is told that electric cars are back and there will be lots of them and you will eventually be driving one no matter who you are, but because very little time is spent explaining the differences between electric cars and the big controversies/issues surrounding them, only EV enthusiasts would walk away thinking that the whole thing was clear.

If the goal of the film is to produce a well put together and beautifully shot documentary for EV enthusiasts to watch and feel proud of all they've accomplished in the last decade, then "Revenge of the Electric Car" delivers in droves. But as an information-disseminating tool to help more people understand why electric cars are important, the film falls a bit short.

As an EV enthusiast I want "Revenge" to be successful and I love it just for what it is—and it truly was entertaining. Perhaps it's a function of the fact that they started filming the movie before many of the controversies became apparent, but it's a bit disappointing to see a filmmaker who so clearly cares about plug-ins and has beau coup cachet not use that influence to tell a more thorough story and help even more people understand why EVs are important.

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