Many films throughout time have been labors of love. Men and women have struggled and sacrificed to bring stories to the silver screen because they believed they were expressing some fundamental truth about the Human Condition. The drive to bring Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” to life was such a labor of love, but it’s one that should have been aborted before it ever began. I’m not sure if Rand’s colossal right-wing masterwork could ever be translated to motion pictures. I do know there’s plenty of folks out there who could have done better than this. For when it’s “Atlas Shrugged Part I” (2011) vs. “Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike” (2012) vs. Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt?” (2014) in this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown, it’s the cinematic equivalent of starting on the grubby curb, tipping into the filthy gutter, and then plummeting down into a dark, dank and extremely dumb sewer.
For the blessedly uninitiated, Ayn Rand was a conservative author, polemicist and ideologue whose childhood exposure to the evils of Communism led her to forge and champion a philosophy, called Objectivism, which venerated and elevated Capitalism to the status of divine law, though a committed atheist like Rand would hate to see it put that way. She brought her stark philosophy of heroes and villains most completely to life in her 1000+ page jeremiad “Atlas Shrugged”. First published in 1957, it’s virtually become the Newest Testament to a small segment of American political life. This Throwdown will say little about Rand’s ideology because…well, who really gives a flip what I think about politics? What is interesting is to look at a series of films that started out with high ideals and then tumbled backwards through narrative devolution into some of the most hapless propaganda you’ll ever witness.
“Atlas Shrugged Part 1” (2011) begins in the year 2016 when an energy crisis and economic collapse have returned trains to the dominant means of transportation in America. How and why things got so bad is something you’ll just have to ignore because if you start thinking about the myriad things in this trilogy that make no sense, you’ll give yourself a frickin’ aneurysm. Taggart Transcontinental, the most powerful railroad in the nation, is putatively run by the inexplicable James Taggart (Matthew Marsden) but all the real work is done by his unrelenting sister, Dagney (Taylor Schilling). Again, don’t try and ponder what sort of parents would name one child “James” and the other “Dagney.”
Dagney makes a deal with the unflappable industrialist Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) to use his superstrong steel, dubbed “Rearden Metal”, to rebuild her company’s decaying tracks. Meanwhile, political power broker Wesley Mouch (Michael Lerner) is simultaneously scheming to give Taggart Transcontinental exclusive rights to transport the oil brought out of the ground by blustery Colorado magnate Ellis Wyatt (Graham Becker) while attacking Rearden and his new metal through the auspices of the State Science Institute and placing a series of idiotically restrictive rules and regulations on the business community. The rest of the movie is about Dagney and Rearden fighting off her brother’s bizarre incompetence and various Mouch-inspired political assaults to rebuild a rail line to Colorado, all while major figures of power and influence follow the siren temptations of the shadowy John Galt (Paul Johansson) and disappear.
There’s also a subplot about an international playboy named Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) who was once Dagney’s lover and creates an economic crisis by sabotaging his own business. And there’s another subplot about Dagney and Rearden’s search of an experimental motor because they saw a picture of it once. Again, don’t think about it. It leads to the successful construction of Dagney’s new rail line, only to see it all end in ashes as Ellis Wyatt blows up his oil fields and vanishes, telling the world that he’s “on strike.”
There’s more to the story but I’m not going into it because “Atlas Shrugged Part I” is one of the most boring motion pictures it has ever been my misfortune to watch. Some states are having difficulty obtaining the lethal chemicals needed to execute criminals. They could solve that problem by simply forcing the condemned to watch this film until the will to live is driven out of them of by WMD-grade ennui.
It would be hard for anyone to make an exciting story where the most action-packed scenes involve…
LOOKING AT TRAINS!
But director Paul Johansson seems to have been on a quest to put every single viewer of his movie into an irreversible coma. I hate shaky cam with a passion but the visuals here are slow and static to the point of distraction. There’s not one single scene that is staged with any energy or wit. And the performances of the lead actors are so subdued and stoic it’s as if they were doped up on thorazine as soon as they came on the set.
At least the first of this tripartite adaptation looks like a legitimate Hollywood production. The same cannot be said for “Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike” (2012). From the initial image to the final fade to black, you can tell the budget was slashed for this sequel. At its best, it looks like a made-for-basic-cable flick. At its worst, it has special effects that the early seasons of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would have been ashamed of.
The cheap look of it all is exaggerated by the fact that “The Strike” has an entirely new and largely inferior cast. Yes, that’s correct. It doesn’t just have a couple of new screenwriters and a new director. Every role is being played by a different actor. Samantha Mathis steps into shoes of Dagney and while Taylor Schilling was an adequately sexy and strong woman of industry, Mathis looks like a harried and hippy housewife. Imagine if Harrison Ford had been replaced in “The Empire Strikes Back” by Danny DeVito. Jason Beghe takes over as Henry Rearden and replaces Grant Bowler’s arrogant master of the universe with a block of wood. The only new actor in whole mess who does a better job is Esai Morales as D’Anconia, though that’s more than offset by the character losing all nuance and subtlety to become John the Baptist for Galt/Rand’s political dogma.
All I can say in favor of “The Strike” is that it is nowhere near as boring as its predecessor. Not only does stuff actually happen in the story but the filmmaking is far more energetic and imaginative. If you could combine the production values and cast of “Part I” with the dynamism and direction of “Part II”, you’d have a movie that was merely bad and not pound-a-nail-through-your-forehead awful.
The plot centers largely on Rearden’s continuing struggle against a government who orders him to run his business in irrational ways. Dagney is reduced to recruiting a scientist to get that experimental motor working and, through one of the most insulting coincidences in cinema history, being led onto the trail of John Galt and chasing him into a hidden valley where he and all the other missing businessmen have taken refuge from a world that doesn’t appreciate how awesome they all are. There’s more to it than that, of course, but while it proceeds with more vigor, it’s so ham handed and cartoonish you’d be better off reading the 1000+ page novel than watching “The Strike.”
This magnum dope-us trudges on with “Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt?” If “Part I” was life-suckingly dull and “The Strike” was pitifully shallow and stupid, “Who is John Galt” finally crosses the line from bad to so-bad-it’s-good. It tells its tale in the most hilariously inept way you could imagine, with another new director and brand new cast, and goes from just failing to convince viewers of its message to genuinely becoming an argument against the very message it is trying to convey. It gives up all of its metaphorical pretensions and settles into being a bad soap opera, interspersed with brief asides that try to jackhammer its ideological agenda into the viewer’s brain, until it all finally ends with a scene that honest to goodness looks like the cast threw away the script and starting playing a game of “Cops and Robbers.” I will admit I have seen movies worse than this. I can’t think of one where its story was so poorly told.
Finding herself in the secret hideaway of John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), our heroine Dagney (Laura Regan) spends some time amongst the rich and powerful who got sick and tired of everyone else refusing to genuflect before their greatness and let them do whatever the heck they wanted. She learns of their worldview where each man pursues his own selfish interest with indifference to all others and this is the one microscopic credit I will give to “Who is John Galt.” The third film finally drops all pretense and plainly advocates for the explicitly anti-Christian credo of “I got mine. Screw everybody else.” Most Capitalists at least contend that letting individuals pursue their own self-interest ultimately redounds to the general benefit of all. The “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy goes a good bit beyond that. It argues that you should pursue your own selfish goals even if it means the rest of the world goes to Hell. This final movie openly endorses the principle that some people in the world are just better than the rest of us and these supermen should be free to do as they wish, while their inferiors must be content to live off whatever crumbs fall from the mouths of these giants. There’s a name for that kind of civilization. It isn’t Capitalism. It’s feudalism.
Even though Galt and his kind are portrayed as the bestest thing since sliced bread, Dagney stubbornly decides to return to the outside world. She finds things falling apart as a consequence of all the “great men” like John Galt not being around to solve everyone’s problems for them. Dagney tries to keep things running, despite the increasingly insane and tyrannical actions of the government and its head of state (Peter Mackenzie). Eventually, Galt takes over the airwaves during a speech by the head of state and expounds his/Rand’s views of the world and how it should be run. In the least shocking plot development since Mankind first started telling stories while mammoth meat cooked over the campfire, the public totally falls in love with Galt and his philosophy. The government demands that Dagney lead them to Galt. She refuses but then simply looks up John Galt’s address on her computer (there’s that not thinking about this kind of stuff again) and goes to visit him. Government agents follow her and take Galt into custody. He refuses to make any deal and the bad guys, who by this point might as well be twirling their handlebar mustaches while tying pretty girls to railroad tracks, take Galt to the State Science Institute and start torturing him until he agrees to cooperate. That’s when Dagney, D’Anconia (Joaquim de Almeida), Ragnar the Pirate (Eric Allan Kramer) and Rearden (Rob Morrow. Yes, the guy from Northern Exposure) break into the Institute to free Galt and they all live happily ever after.
And no, I’m not going to explain Ragnar the Pirate.
“Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II” were failures. “Part III” is an outright fiasco. The third cast is the worst yet. The repetitive music that swells up on the soundtrack is enough to make you want to grab a rifle and climb into the nearest clock tower. If the budget for “The Strike” was cut to the bone, the budget for “Who is John Galt” went digging into the marrow. The political arguments it advances are so childishly conceived and presented they make the first two films look like the work of Machiavelli. This is the sort of motion picture that is so embarrassingly awful, it leaves you feeling a little sorry for the people who made it.
What unites them all is an inability to present any character that even vaguely resembles a real person. The villains are a joke with their motivations chaotically switching to whatever makes them look the worst for that particular moment. Sometimes they’re greedy. Sometimes they’re stupid. Sometimes they’re cowardly. Sometimes they’re corrupt. Sometimes they’re fanatically idealistic. Sometimes they’ll switch from one to the other in mid scene. The bad guys don’t have a single redeeming feature, which is matched by the near-flawlessness of Rand’s heroes. The only time the good guys aren’t perfect is when they’re just too good for their own good. Even Dagney’s slow acceptance of Galt’s ideas is because she’s such a gosh darned determined woman who won’t ever back down from a fight. And none of Rand’s heroes ever disagree with each other. It’s like they’re a hive mind with only one opinion on any subject. There’s more depth to Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner than there is with anyone in these sorry excuses for entertainment.
And so, this KIMT Weekend Throwdown is a three-way loss. All of these movies suck. No one should ever watch any of them ever again.
As for Ayn Rand’s ideology and its many adamant critics? The “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy is such utter dreck that no one can possibly use it to fairly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Objectivism. However, I will leave you with this quote from writer John Rogers on Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien.
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Atlas Shrugged Part I (2011)
Written by Brian Patrick O’Toole and John Aglialoro.
Directed by Paul Johansson.
Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Edi Gathegi, Jsu Garcia, Graham Beckel, Jon Polito, Patrick Fischler, Rebecca Wisocky, Michael Lerner, Neill Barry, Christina Pickles, Armin Shimmerman, Navid Negahban and Paul Johansson.
Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike (2012)
Written by Brian Patrick O’Toole, Duke Sandefur and Duncan Scott.
Directed by John Putch.
Starring Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe, Esai Morales, Patrick Fabian, Kim Rhodes, Richard T. Jones, D.B. Sweeney, Paul McCrane, John Rubinstein, Robert Picardo, Ray Wise, Ayre Gross, Rex Linn, Larisa Oleynik and Diedrich Bader.
Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? (2014)
Written by James Manera, Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro.
Directed by James Manera.
Starring Kristoffer Polaha, Laura Regan, Peter Mackenzie, Greg Germann, Larry Cedar, Joaquim de Almeida, Jen Nikolaisen, Rob Morrow, Eric Allan Kramer, Louis Herthum, Dominic Daniel, Tony Denison, Neil Dickson, Mark Moses, Lew Temple and Stephen Tobolowsky.