Sunday, 25 March 2007

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Who Killed The Electric Car?

Morgan Spurlock's got a lot to answer for! His Super Size Me film, which looked at the junk food industry, set in motion a whole set of theatrical releases of documentary films which would previously have been consigned to a 30 minute slot on Horizon, Newsnight or some other current affairs programme.

I'd hoped the whole obsession with 'green' documentaries had reached its final nadir with Al Gore's 'poorly edited PowerPoint presentation masquerading as a film', more widely known as An Inconvenient Truth. And while I'm on the subject: an oscar for this unimaginatively filmed thirty minute lecture spun out to a 90 minute 'film'???!! Give me a break! I know American TV is pretty bad, and that presented with the likes of Fox News Americans need all the facts they can get, but seriously!

Alas! Awards and plaudits from punters I can only assume are so ignorant they don't read newspapers - or understand some very basic facts about our planet - means we're in for more of the same self-righteous cant, as the world suffers a terrible guilt complex about the way our planet's climate is changing. It's as if giving such documentaries the big thumbs up, getting them made, and giving endless awards to them means nobody has to feel bad about their unchanging lifestyles, whether we're talking endless, ridiculously subsidised cheap flights around the globe, leaving increasingly large numbers of energy-consuming big TV's on standby, or taking the kids on a five minute drive to school in a gas-guzzling people carrier. Applaud a message about the environment, no matter how poorly presented it is, and you can hopefully then avoid actually doing anything to avoid the problems the message is warning you about!

The film opens with a funeral for the electrical car

What all these films miss, and particularly Al Gore's self-congratulatory and ultimately hypocritical 'movie', is that Spurlock's film was so popular and entertaining with cinema-going audiences because he took a fairly serious subject and treated it with humour. There was also the frisson of danger that can only be felt when one sees a film-maker putting his health at serious risk in order to make an important point. You felt compelled to stay to the end, if only to see if the guy entertaining you made it through 30 days of junk food with a clean bill of health or a note from the doctor saying 'You have just 3 weeks left to live!' Spurlock, with years of experience at MTV under his belt, knows how to entertain AND inform at the same time. If only the same were true of those who've followed in his footsteps!

Who Killed the Electric Car? is yet another of those 'green' documentaries that has a serious message to impart, but it feels like the law of diminishing returns really has set in with this format, and what should be a simple 30 minute message is yet again stretched out over 90 minutes with so much repetition that one just wants to shout 'Enough already! We get it! The car companies made an environmentally friendly car and then withdrew it and you're upset. Get over it!'

My big problem with the film is not just that it's message is delivered in a manner akin to being hit over the head repeatedly with a sledgehammer, but that the arguments put forward are biased, inconsistent and, frankly, don't appear to bear close examination.

The EV-1 electric car. Looks pretty. Those who leased it liked it. But the car companies recalled them and trashed them.

Let me give you an example: we are repeatedly told that one reason the electric car was 'killed' was the limited mileage available between recharges. It's claimed that the car companies 'deliberately' used the wrong batteries, and it is repeatedly stated that distances of over 140 miles are achievable if the correct batteries are used. One year after this documentary was made electric cars are available again, albeit from a smaller independent manufacturer who the film-makers are promoting via a sticker on the DVD release of their documentary. The independent manufacturer is boasting a mileage of... 40-45 miles (lower on anything less than the top-end model)! Forgive my cynicism, but it seems like it's not just the big car companies 'deliberately' trying to kill a technology by using the wrong batteries!

Admittedly the film is well constructed. Old, jokey silent-film footage of possible prototype electric vehicles, diagrams to explain the basics, a closing 'whodunit' murder summary, and fast editing and jump-cuts attempt to breathe life into a story that is, ultimately, about a handful of people being upset that they had their leased electric cars recalled. The main spokesman and on-screen representative, Chelsea Sexton is young, pretty and charismatic, which is all good. But she actually worked on the design of the vehicle and lost her job when her employer decided to 'kill' the electric car, so she's hardly unbiased! If I were really cynical I could say she's so bitter about losing her job she's managed to motivate a handful of owners into making a mountain out of a molehill, and when the height of outrage in your documentary is the revelation that having recalled all the leased cars they could the manufacturers deliberately destroyed them - well, is this really THAT big a story?!

One of the many talking heads featured in the documenatary.

The film opens with scenes from the 'mock funeral' for the electric car, a last gasp attempt to drum up publicity and media coverage after it has become clear that the car manufacturers are not going to reverse their decision to recall and destroy all the electric cars that have been sold. It then proceeds to tell us the story of the electric car from the beginning, mainly through use of a lot of 'talking heads'. Ostensibly interviewee's from both sides of the argument about whether the electric car was murdered or not, present their cases. However the tone is clear from the start: government and car companies: bad; those who bought electric cars and want them to continue: good. Propounding various collusions and conspiracy theories, the documentary presents a gloomy view of the power of companies, the corruption of government, and the inability of the little man to fight back. All of which seems fairly consistent until the final third act when, for no apparent reason, the direction completely changes tack!

All those doom-and-gloomy interviewee's from the first two thirds of the film suddenly appear to drink from their 'glass half full' beverages and decide the future's rosy after all. It seems we've learnt a lot from the electric car and so the future's rosy! New hybrid vehicles are showing promise, we're told. New companies are looking at manufacturing their own electric cars. This begs the question of why the film kept bringing up the subjects of 'death' and 'murder'. Why have the makers wasted the first hour of our time telling us about a 'dead' friend, only to shout 'He's alive' in the final reel? The film is a mess of incoherence and inconsistencies, and any good work done by giving us the facts about the seemingly real scandal around decisions made by State of California officials, the American government's deliberate intervention against the public interest, and the collusion of the bigger car manufacturers are, for me at least, completely undone by this sudden reversal of opinions about what exactly the current state of play is.

Chelsea Sexton helped design the electric car. She's upset she was 'let go'.

Given how much the basic material has been stretched out for the main feature, it's somewhat surprising to find that amongst the extra's are a whole bunch of Deleted Scenes. In reality these turn out to be simple talking head quotes that aren't directly relevant, stripped out from the interviews that have been included in the film. There's a dreadfully dull music video and an extra short documentary Jump-Starting the Future which is really just more of the same. Not too shabby, but not too essential either.

As with any of these 'green' documentaries, this one is worth a viewing, if only to find out what arguments the slightly loopy, and incredibly po-faced proponents are putting forward to convince the general populace that a grave injustice has been committed. The documentary itself is well constructed, beautifully edited, and has moments of clever inspiration. It's entertaining enough given the seriousness of its subject, but once you get past the flash and the gloss there really isn't much here that couldn't have been covered in a five minute news report. Certainly it's not the sort of film you're ever going to want to sit through a second time. Check it out, but perhaps help the environment by ripping a copy off the internet instead of actually buying it!

Another rather weird 'talking head' makes the case for the defence of keeping the electric car. Using such caricatures helps convince the mainstream how exactly?


Free Junk Car Removal said...

haven't seen this yet...let me check the trailer.

The Clunker Junker said...

I remember seeing this when it came out. Who would have thunk just a few short years later electric cars and "electric fueling stations" would be unveiling themselves.