Chris Paine's Who Killed The Electric Car? is a real eye opener for those of us who weren't living in California for the last decade or so. Sure, we are all aware (some of us more than others) of the threat of global warning and most of us know about the smog problems that have been hitting California pretty hard for the last twenty years or so but not everyone knew that at one point both the state government and the larger automobile manufacturers looked like they were going to do something about it – and even less of us know how it turned out. That's where Paine's film comes in, and by basing the premise as a sort of 'whodunnit' murder mystery complete with an explanation at the end, he's made a film that is not only educational but actually entertaining as well.
We start by learning that electric cars have actually been around as long as gasoline powered cars – Phyllis Diller shows up and talks about how she remembers them from her childhood. A brief history of how engines and oil took off and left the electric car in the dust is up next and from there we hear of the threat of global warming and the effects that millions of gasoline powered engines have had and continue to have on the environment. At this point we're introduced to the victims – electric cars manufactured by GM (by way of their Saturn line), Ford, Honda and Toyota. These seemed to have been only available in California and were never available to buy, only to lease, but with celebrity spokespeople like Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks behind them and millions of dollars of advertising (odd advertising but advertising none the less) poured into the launch it seemed like a sure thing. The state of California originally pressured the manufacturers to slowly but surely increase production and it looked like America was taking the first small steps towards a more environmentally friendly world.
Shortly after the launch, however, the cars were taken back and more of them were destroyed. GM crushed theirs and Honda sent theirs into shredders. Despite protests from owners and a waiting list to get into the drivers seat, the mass production of the electric car was stopped dead in its tracks. Paine then interviews those on both sides of the controversy, from a woman who worked as a designed for Saturn to owners of the cars to big wigs at GM to those who worked for the state government. He talks about the influence the oil companies had in lobbying to get negative press out about the cars and hints that the current administration on a federal level might be playing to the oil companies interests. The limitations of the electric car are addressed – they were very expensive at launch and couldn't go as far as some people would have wanted them to without recharging – but those who owned the cars seemed to have loved them. The answer to the question posed by the title of Paine's film is considerably more complex than you might think as it really wasn't one party in particular that did it all in but a lot of unusual and rather suspicious circumstances coming from various parties involved in the launch.
The whole thing is very interesting even if there's a bit of a slant to the film. At times it feels like more of an activism piece than a straight forward documentary but even with that said, there's a lot to learn here and the film presents it in an interesting and entertaining matter. We get to know the people who owned these cars and share in their disbelief when GM flat out refuses to sell them back to them. When the cars are destroyed it's genuinely sad and you know enough to understand why these cars were more than just vehicles to those who drove them and believed in them. Paines also does a very good job of explaining the history of the projects from a few different viewpoints so that we get a grip on what was good and what could have been improved upon for the project. It's all quite enlightening and rather frustrating at the same time as he makes a very good case for the technology. Oil based cars do increase our dependence on foreign nations who in turn profit off of our addiction and the emissions do have horrible and long lasting effects on the environment. The fact that the EV1 and comparable vehicles weren't given the fair shake that they deserved is grating and the fact that typical corporate greed deemed them obsolete before they were even born is even more irritating. Paines makes a point that no one single party can be pointed at and called 'murderer' but seeing who did what and wondering why they did it will at least make you wonder and make you think.
The quality of the 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen picture on this DVD varies depending on the clip and some of the archival material is a little rough around the edges but otherwise the movie looks fine. Color reproduction is strong, there's plenty of detail throughout and while there is some mild shimmering present in a few scenes it's never overpowering and it really doesn't take much away from the experience.
The movie comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix but it really could have been stereo and no one would have likely noticed. The only time that the surrounds are really used in for the music and the odd foley effect. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. As with the video quality, the archival snippets don't fare quite as well but it really isn't a big deal at all. There's nothing to complain about here. There are no alternate language dubs but there are optional French subtitles and an English closed captioning option provided.
There are two main supplements here: a selection of twelve deleted scenes and a featurette entitled Jump Starting The Future. The deleted scenes were taken out mainly for pacing but some of these are quite interesting to watch as they fill in a few blanks here and there. You've got the option to watch them individually or by way of a handy 'play all' option. Jump Starting The Future is a short documentary that examines what has become of other electric cars and where the technology is being used today. While the mass manufacturing of electric cars was stopped as covered in the feature, there is a sort of grass roots movement out there that continues to experiment with the technology as well as with other alternative fuel vehicles.
Rounding out the extra features are trailers for other Sony Classics releases, a music video, animated menus and chapter stops for the feature.
Who Killed The Electric Car? is a surprisingly interesting and eye opening examination of how a viable alternative energy source was squashed before it had a chance to grow. It might be a little slanted and there are avenues that could have been explored in a little more depth but none of that changes the facts, which are well presented here. Sony's presentation is nice and while a commentary would have been welcome the extras do add some value. Despite the rather high MSRP, the disc comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.