Much to my surprise, the matinee at which I saw “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” drew a pretty sizable crowd, considering that it was a beautiful day and life is short. The intended audience for this film is apparently larger than I thought, and I’ll confess that I suspect I’m not among it. I have not read the arboricidal tome on which it is based, nor anything else by Ayn Rand. Beyond that, there’s the project’s troubled back-story itself.
For the uninitiated: John Aglialoro (who received both producer and co-writer credit), one of the ten richest executives in the country, bought the rights to the book almost two decades ago, envisioning it as a star-studded blockbuster, but when that never came together and his rights were about to lapse he rushed this no-star version into production. Now generally, movies made just to beat a rights deadline don’t turn out all that stellar, but hell, if you find just the right director, you can then replace him two weeks before shooting with the fifth-billed guy from “One Tree Hill,” and who knows, miracles could happen.
So just to nutshell it: rushed into production, directed by an actor, starring no-name actors, and adapted by a non-writer cadre from a novel by a sociopath. What could go wrong?
Actually, here’s a correction: adapted from the first-third of a novel by Rand. Apparently, Aglialoro envisioned his baby as being spread out over three or four films rather than–as any sane person would have envisioned such a long, low-budget, talky and uncinematic niche project–as a basic cable network series. So one could argue that it’s not entirely fair to even assess the film’s story, or lack thereof, since technically we’re really only to the quarter-mark at this point, and perhaps we should withhold judgment until the trilogy or quadrilogy is completed and can be judged in its entirety. On the other hand, the likelihood of Part II being made is about on par with that of the “Remo Williams” adventure being given a reboot.
“Atlas Shrugged” is a difficult film to summarize, partly because it’s hard to follow all the plotlines and relationships and, because it’s all so dull and flaccid, harder still to care.
It’s 2016. Not in the real universe, but in some alternate one where oil has become so scarce that trains have become the prominent form of mass transportation, and everyone is forced to speak in complete, stilted sentences. Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling, who clearly trained for months to shed all excess personality), runs a big railroad company that has just made a deal with a steel company owned by Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler, think Tim Daly, only more jacked and less interesting) who has just invented a new form of steel that is twice as strong but half the weight of ordinary steel, which naturally has many people dubious of it. It’s like the Sweet n’ Low of steel. Rearden is married to a horrible woman with even more horrible friends and relatives, as evidenced by this scene (released, I guess, in hopes of stirring up buzz, if you can believe that), in which Hank is roundly jeered for giving his wife a bracelet made from his new-fangled steel. (“The intention is pure selfishness it seems to me,” one character quips. “ Another man would have given his wife a diamond bracelet if he wanted to give her a gift. For her pleasure, not his.”
Anyway. So Dagny and Hank become friendly and exchange a lot of longing looks as the new railways are installed (seriously, this is a movie about the installation of new railways), and meanwhile some bad guys are trying to stop him, for some reason, and they are played by Michael Lerner and Jon Polito, who I’d like to think spent time between takes fondly reminiscing about their “Barton Fink” days as they get good and drunk to kill the pain of the present. Lerner plays a character named “Wesley Mouch”, and oops, I just spoiled the best thing in the movie. Other villains include Hank’s brother Phillip, whose great sin (again, watch the clip) is mooching money from his brother for a liberal cause, and there’s Dagny’s brother James, who wants to increase profits by––horror of horrors––trading favors with the villainous government, who keeps passing nonsensical laws like ones that prevent anyone from owning more than one company at a time. To which the owners respond by brainstorming for loopholes, lighting up cigars and laughing until their stomachs hurt. No! That’s what you’d think they’d do. But keep in mind, this is the alternate universe, where all laws are strictly obeyed, and the real villain is that damned Evil Government, which just can’t stop shoving its oppressive boot in White Billionaire’s face.
And beyond this, there’s Francisco D’Arconia, a former lover of Dagny’s, who…well, this is where I should perhaps confess that I spent a significant portion of the film having no idea what was going on. Part of the problem is that most of the scenes consist of people chatting in offices and lounges and living rooms, while most of the actual “story” plays out in the form of montages of TV news clips and close-ups of headlines. My favorite: “Ragnar the Pirate strikes again!” (Randophiles, I’ve just got to know: Do we eventually meet Ragnar the Pirate? If not, why not? Why isn’t he the main character? Even I would have ve read an 1,100 page-book about Ragnar the Pirate.).
So D’Arconia does, I think, something oil-related to piss off Dagny and Hank, and then promptly disappears from the movie, as do several other characters after running into a mysterious figure (and by “mysterious” I mean, he always moves in such a way that the camera can’t quite see his face, which is devilishly clever) named John Galt. Even those of you unfamiliar with the book have undoubtedly heard the catch-phrase, “Who is John Galt?” Well, basically, John Galt is a dude whose M.O. is to approach a successful businessman and introduce himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy.” He’s kind of like the Shadow, if the Shadow talked too much. So he approaches these people, and then a screen graphic appears to inform us that they’ve gone missing. Who is he and what’s with all the screen graphics?
Rest assured, Part I does not answer any of this, unless you count the end credits listing of the director himself, Paul Johansson, as playing the role. But there’s the plot for you: railways being replaced, successful businessmen being kidnapped, government sticking it to The Man, and in the course of all this tumult two incredibly bland people falling in love. And yes, there’s a love scene, if you can call it that, but by the time we get there, the movie has already shot its wad on its emotional climax, which is when Dagny and Hank take the inaugural ride on the new railway. Seriously, this is the tear-jerking high point, by far, of the entire one hundred minutes: two people sit, staring blankly forward, riding a train, as the music soars–I’m not making this up.
Does all this sound kind of boring? If so, I must apologize, for in fact, it’s stupifyingly boring, to such a degree that it’s almost fascinating. It’s not merely a matter of not being entertained by it, it’s sitting there wondering who could possibly be entertained by something so limp and lifeless and static, other than the book’s rabid fans who’ve been idly wondering what Dagny Taggart would look like in real life (Answer: Like an icier Cheryl Ladd). Rarely has there been a film where so much is going on, yet so little happens. And yet, at the screening I attended, the film’s conclusion (SPOILER ALERT: “End of Part I”) drew a hearty round of applause. Apparently, the theme of “Atlas Shrugged” still resonates to this day, the theme being (as articulated by Dagny): “What is it with the altruism? It’s not charitable, and it’s not fair!”
Indeed! Totally not fair. Effing altruism. Bringing me to a final note to the producers: If you do manage to get Part II off the ground, a) Good luck with that; and b) you might want to think about trading up in casting for the leads. My suggestions, take ’em or leave ’em…