A silly disaster movie released in 2004 was probably the single worst thing to happen to the global warming campaign in America. Yes, movies have more power than any one dissenting member of the Right (though perhaps not all of them together), and that fictional movie, The Day After Tomorrow, did an amazing job of getting the global warming debate into the minds of the people. Unfortunately, the subject was accepted as such a joke from its depiction in the movie, more harm was probably done than good.
In theaters right now, however, is the single best thing to happen to the cause. Yes, another movie, a documentary called An Inconvenient Truth. Not since the summer of 2004, when The Day After Tomorrow was in theaters, has the subject of global warming been given so much attention and sparked so much discussion. Luckily for the campaign, this time a film presents the topic seriously. Why do so many Americans get their information from, or at least because of, movies? I would suggest it has more to do with the news media than Hollywood, but that is a debate for another time.
On the heels of An Inconvenient Truth is another new documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? It only touches on the threat of global warming for a minute or two -- enough to show its side on the issue, of course -- but it presents a subject directly linked to it, and therefore it provides an interesting footnote to the much better An Inconvenient Truth.
The problem is, Who Killed the Electric Car?, which tells of the short history of General Motors' EV1 electric automobile, is almost as hokey as The Day After Tomorrow. While it doesn't exaggerate theories and beg for a suspension of disbelief too ludicrous to accept -- it doesn't feature Jake Gyllenhaal running from cold, for instance -- it does have a pretty inappropriate tone of its own.
The documentary opens with a funeral for the EV1. This funeral was not staged just for the film, it actually happened, and so part of the problem is the subject matter itself being a bit too goofy. Other unintended silliness comes from the former EV1 drivers (they weren't owners because GM only leased and loaned the cars) interviewed for the film. Mel Gibson appears wide-eyed, sporting some distracting facial hair. Actress Colette Divine and her partner, actress J. Karen Thomas, are so overly excitable they come off as obnoxious. Phyllis Diller, who has nothing to do with the EV1, is simply exploited for being an old, funny lady who can talk about electric cars made in the early days of the automobile -- although she doesn't supply the funny part.
Including the funeral is important to the film because Who Killed the Electric Car? is modeled a bit like a murder mystery, complete with suspects. It uses a device apparently ripped-off from The Corporation, which creatively treats its subject like a person, administering a personality test on corporations as a whole and diagnosing them as psychopaths. While that film used different parts of the test as chapter breaks in the film, Who Killed the Electric Car? similarly is broken up into sections for each of the people and factors blamed for the death of the EV1, and its subsequent demolition (there is at least one left, at the Smithsonian Institute, although they just removed the car from public display and put it in a storage garage, presumably forever).
It may be true that the topic of Who Killed the Electric Car? is not as grave as that of An Inconvenient Truth, but the film would have benefited from taking itself a little more seriously. Certainly some of the people interviewed are passionate about the EV1 and the idea of a completely battery-powered vehicle in general; you can tell by their enthusiastic participation that they don't think the car is a joke. Many of the former EV1 drivers, including Baywatch star Alexandra Paul, went so far as to protest GM's disposal of the cars with picket lines and physical obstructions of car-carrier trucks. Paul is even shown in the film being arrested for the cause. So why does the film leave its audience with the impression that the EV1 was as inconsequential a flop as that car from Tucker?
Fortunately beneath the impression and bad aftertaste of Who Killed the Electric Car? is a lot of information about corporate and government practices regarding transportation and about renewable energy. The film's viewers just need to think about the subject matter more than they feel about it, a difficult task for most passive moviegoers, but not an impossible one. When watched soon after An Inconvenient Truth (it shouldn't be seen before or instead of it), Who Killed the Electric Car? benefits from the overflow of ideas, and its topics take precedence in the mind of the viewer over its tone.
If there is one human interest element to Who Killed the Electric Car? that does work in spite of the film's misdirection of anything that isn't exposition or fact, it is the film's spotlight on Chelsea Sexton. Sexton, a former employee of GM who leased and marketed the EV1 throughout its existence, is the heart and soul of the film. She might even be considered the EV1's widow, in relation to the film's depiction of the car as a murdered character. Either way, Who Killed the Electric Car? is Sexton's story as much as it is the car's, and it follows her through the film with far more respect than it does the EV1.
Who Killed the Electric Car? was executive produced by Dean Devlin, once the writing and producing partner of blockbuster filmmaker Roland Emmerich, who incidentally enough wrote and directed The Day After Tomorrow. Between the two of them treating global warming and energy efficiency as such light, fun topics, you'd think they were looking forward to the coming destruction of the world. These are the guys who made Independence Day and Godzilla, after all. Yet we probably can't accuse either of them of killing the cause. For The Day After Tomorrow the studio is likely the bigger culprit, and for this film it is entirely the fault of Chris Paine.
It seems obvious that Paine, the director of Who Killed the Electric Car? and a former EV1 driver, himself, wanted his film to be clever over communicative, and because of this he nearly murdered his own movie. But it transcends its own awful construction by being a documentary, further supporting the idea that docs needn't be well made to be worthwhile.