It’s back. No, not the practical, affordable consumer electric car—despite the claims made in Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car?, such a thing had never really existed. No, the most prominent resurrection in Paine’s follow-up film, Revenge of the Electric Car, is the director’s overdramatic narration and penchant for snarky sound bites from dubious celebrities.
This time, instead of hunting for the man who took his sedan away, Paine chronicles the creation of a new generation of electric vehicles and the personalities behind them. His tools are the same: ominous shots of oil platforms, free-flowing hyperbole and a wise-guy chorus that includes Anthony Kiedis, Danny DeVito and several Gawker editors.
The success of Paine’s previous film has earned the director remarkable access, but at the expense of coherence. His camera hovers over the shoulders of great men of industry—Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz and Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn—but, beyond knowing that all three are working on plug-in electric vehicles, Paine doesn’t seem to know why we’re there.
We are treated to odd shots of business lunches and photo shoots, unflattering angles of stockholder meetings and a lot of powerful backs. Paine lingers on any potential conflict, giving the film the
tone of a Discovery Channel building competition.
Fittingly, Paine’s fourth subject is a regular on Discovery: Greg “Reverend Gadget” Abbott, a mustached metalworker who makes large sculptures and refits vintage cars to battery power. He’s a colorful character, but shockingly foolish: After he loses his uninsured workshop to arson, he buys a new building without bothering with an inspection. It turns out to be so polluted he has to abandon it.
Paine’s inclusion of Gadget, among executives who, despite their flawed personalities, at least get things done, is troubling. The film would have been better without the sideshow, and better still had Paine focused more on Musk. The Tesla (and PayPal and SpaceX) founder is the most interesting and troubled of the executives, and gives Paine the greatest access. We see him sweating through meetings with buyers, fighting with his fiancée and staring down bankruptcy as his company struggles to deliver its appallingly expensive, near-handmade sports cars. Next to overpuffed Lutz and closed-up, calculating Ghosn, he seems present and fragile. We want to believe in him, as does Paine—he already bought his Tesla.
Ben Waterhouse is the assistant arts and culture editor at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore.