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Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car? is an effective and entertaining techno-hagiography for a line of small, easily chargeable battery-powered automobiles that emerged briefly during the 1990s but quickly disappeared, sparking an inevitable wave of conspiracy theories. The electric car — specifically General Motors' 1996 EV1 technology — was greeted enthusiastically by a select few, celebrities in particular, in its California pilot market and hailed as a clean, quiet alternative to the heavy footprint left by gas-powered vehicles running on the internal combustion engine. Politicians and bureaucrats seized on the new cars' potential with aggressive regulations mandating production of emission-free vehicles; automakers balked at non-market-related quotas and sensed fragile enthusiasm among consumers; the few consumers aware of the EV1 were under-educated and reluctant to embrace an expensive new technology with (possibly temporary) limitations. Those factors alone may have been enough to spell the end for this revolutionary twist on personal transportation — since replaced by hybrids and the promise of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — but how integral were the George W. Bush White House and the sinister oil companies in switching off the power on this enlightened new era? Or were selfish, incurious consumers to blame? Or were the car companies playing a PR shell game that got out of control? As GM recalled, disabled, and destroyed the remnants of EV1 program, director Chris Paine chronicles the short history of the EV1 and passes judgment on a wide coalition of culprits in its demise. Paine primarily interviews acolytes of EV technology: former employees of GM's EV division, Hollywood figures like Mel Gibson, Alexandra Paul and Peter Horton (Martin Sheen, no closet progressive, narrates) and other EV owners-turned-activists; and California politicians and policy advocates, including the auto industry's bête noire, Ralph Nader. A few auto industry insiders attempt to present corporate counter-arguments, but these are either vague, half-hearted, supplemented by shifty cutaways, or immediately dismissed. Presenting a contemporary controversy as if there is no good faith debate (free market philosophy is only alluded to, but never by a true believer) may cheer the like-minded, but is unlikely to persuade skeptics, leaving Who Killed the Electric Car? as a well-produced and provocative primer on the pros of electric car technology, but leaves too many questions answered only by unconvincing speculation and the hint of contradictory conspiracies. Yet, for its sleek doomsday bluster and preoccupation with assigning guilt, Who Killed the Electric Car? has a remarkably upbeat ending, puncturing its own bubble of indignation by championing current hybrid models as a happy transitional medium from fossil fueling to plug-in battery-powered vehicles, suggesting that the progressive bugbears of patience and market confidence are ultimately more powerful and likely factors than compulsory legislation or corporate malfeasance. Sony's DVD release offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include 12 deleted scenes, the featurette "Jump-Starting the Future," and Meeky Rosie's music video "Forever." Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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