Thursday 19 July 2012

Charge!: "Revenge of the Electric Car"

Here's a sign of the increased commercial viability of the documentary format: a docu-sequel, going up against the might of the new Batman movie. In 2006, the filmmaker Chris Paine gave us Who Killed the Electric Car?, a cheerful obit for the energy efficient vehicle that ended with the sight of General Motors recalling and crushing its much-loved EV1 range, in theory consigning the dream of mass-market carbon-neutral transportation to a premature grave. Yet Paine's follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, suggests that, only a matter of months after his first film wrapped, the corporations had a change of heart and made an unexpected U-turn. 

In this, they were - perhaps inevitably - driven less by ethical than financial concerns: high oil prices were taking a toll on car sales even before the economic downturn of 2008 put an additional squeeze on the market. It was also partly an ego thing, however, and Paine's film is strong on the personalities involved. GM's renewed interest in electrics is attributed to the desire of vice-chairman Bob Lutz, a cigar-puffing greyhair trying to lift his company out of the doldrums, not to be left in the shade by upstarts like Elon Musk, the South African-born Internet entrepreneur who sold PayPal to eBay and moved into electric car production with his own company, Tesla Motors. Meanwhile, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn tours the globe on a scouting mission, not wanting his American-based competitors to get too far ahead of the game.

The electric car's renaissance is thus conceived as a three-way fight: it's the old-guard of Detroit versus the hotshots of Silicon Valley (where Musk and the Tesla team are located) and the workhorses of Japan, with a couple of plucky indies on hand to represent smaller business interests. Whether they knew about it or not, each faction would push the others on to succeed, and were compelled to do so by the fact each had their eyes on slightly (but crucially) different sectors: Tesla going for speed (we learn its buyer list was heavy on rich middle-aged doctors), GM for the family market it had lost to overseas manufacturers, Nissan for affordability. 

Though he's moved to wonder whether he's being used for PR purposes, Paine has secured top-level access to the key players here: he rustles up a truly bizarre, reality TV-like interlude at home with Musk and his (now ex-)wife, the British actress Talulah Riley (St. Trinian's), but he's also invited into company boardrooms to observe the emergency business brunches and strategy meetings that followed in the wake of 2008, as his subjects seek to keep the electric model a stable proposition, if not - for the immediate future - a vastly profitable one. The film remains chiefly for car buffs - there's a fair bit of padding around motor shows as we wait for the prototypes to come off the production line, and for the electric car's fate to be sealed either way - but it's good to see petrol-free alternatives being addressed in a more considered, encouraging fashion than one might see on the average episode of Top Gear, for instance.

Revenge of the Electric Car opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, before its DVD release on August 6th.

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