-- WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? written and directed by Chris Paine, with Mel Gibson, Alexandra Paul, Peter Horton and others. 92 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (July 14). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNNN
Forget the record-breaking weekend for Dead Man's Chest. This summer's big film story is the wave of eco-conscious documentaries.
First came An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's informative lecture on global warming, which recently expanded its run to suburban theatres. And now comes Chris Paine's electrifying doc about the birth (and mysterious death) of the clean car.
Coincidentally, both films premiered at last year's Sundance and have been released within a few weeks of each other.
"It's like this big one-two punch," says Paine on the phone from Los Angeles. "I remember looking over at director Davis Guggenheim at Sundance, and we both said, "Wow, things are really coming together. '"
Unlike the Gore doc, which is essentially an extended PowerPoint lecture, padded with personal moments, by the almost-president, Who Killed The Electric Car? features a full on narrative. As its title suggests, it's part murder mystery.
"The title really helped me structure the film," says Paine, who admits he was inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the arc. "The mystery element helped me organize these big ideas and kept me on-track. If it had been up to me, I would have spent a lot of time on things like the magic carburetor."
Opening with an actual staged funeral, the film backtracks to tell the history of the car, which emerged from the smog-filled days of the mid-1990s. The situation was so bad in California that the state's Air Resources Board ordered that 10 per cent of all new cars sold in the state be emission-free by 2003. This resulted in GM's EV-1, an affordable, fast, sexy and quiet vehicle that, after plugging in at night, ran for 80 miles. (Other batteries promised greater mileage.)
Within several years, though, GM recalled those cars, the Air Resources Board decision was overturned and the motor and oil execs were happily exhaling. The only people who were upset were the drivers themselves, who were forbidden from buying them. (They were only available for lease.) Turns out the perfectly fine cars were being destroyed.
It wasn't so easy being green.
The electric car's case is helped by the appearance of a few celebrities, among them Tom Hanks (who plugged the car on the Letterman show), former Baywatch babe Alexandra Paul (whose bravery goes beyond that of a TV lifeguard) and a heavily bearded Mel Gibson, displaying The Passion Of The Consumer.
"It helped with Mel that he had just done The Patriot with our producer Dean Devlin. So it took two phone calls instead of 20," says Paine. "But any celebrity who drove the car really wanted to talk about it."
Still, the film's best spokesperson remains the chipper Chelsea Sexton, who was so excited about the car that she gave up school to sell the vehicle and then passionately followed the bloody trail after its disappearance.
"Thanks to Chelsea, I didn't have to be in the movie," laughs Paine. "She became the protagonist for me. And her experience both inside and outside was invaluable. Plus, she's way easier to look at than I am."
Of course, with rising gas prices, controversy over foreign oil supplies and the wacked-out state of the environment, the timing for something like the electric car couldn't be better. Paine points out that the public is more tuned in now about alternatives.
"But we need help," he says. "Ford just scaled back plans for hybrid cars. Apparently they're not proving themselves in the marketplace, which is BS. And the government needs to step in. Big industry is like the Spanish Armada. Unless they get orders from Spain, it's going to keep on going in the same direction."
He adds that consumers do have an influence.
"Ask for what you want," he says. "Urge car dealerships to sell these things. Convert your gas car to a plug-in by taking out the engine and putting in batteries. There are too many things going on in the world not to be an activist. It makes the democratic process work better."
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? (Chris Paine) Rating: NNNN
Who Killed The Electric Car? is an informative and infuriating look at the environmentally friendly electric vehicle that was born in the smog-filled mid-1990s, then mysteriously offed eight years later. Director Chris Paine, himself a one-time clean car driver, structures the film like a whodunnit, offering up some obvious suspects (oil and car companies, the U.S. government) and some not-so-obvious ones (the consumer, batteries).
Highlights include one car company's hilariously ominous TV ad, a sweet old battery inventor and the eye-opening revelation that hydrogen fuel-cell technology, which replaced electric cars as an eco-friendly alternative, is too expensive to become a reality. Tracking the vehicle's whereabouts, Paine mucks through boardrooms, junkyards and finally - in one sad scene - a museum, where one bright observer says the car shouldn't be merely a part of automotive history. Amen.