What I’m about to tell you doesn’t matter. You’ve already made up your minds on what your thoughts are on the film and of Ayn Rand. Conservatives and Christians are so fucking paranoid as to their own personal worldviews that anyone disparaging a product in line with their own ideologies are trashing it solely because they harbor a bias. It can’t possibly be because the final product is actually inferior. You’re not interested in my dimestore second-hand interpretation of the Puritanical Gordon Gekko crackpot movement Ayn Rand hatched called Objectivism, but by virtue of her infusing her novel Atlas Shrugged with it I need to delve somewhat. I know going in, it’s a fruitless endeavor — like Emily Dickinson wrote, “Haters gonna hate.” But regardless of whether you feel that America is a welfare state bleeding the rich to slake the slavering laggard poor, or that no matter if it’s a jackass or an elephant it’s still kicking the faces of the little man in order to support big business, I think we can all agree on one simple beautiful thing: Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a terrible fucking movie.
I’d call it vanilla, but vanilla actually has a flavor. It tastes of beige. For a movie that has been almost forty fucking years in the making, that at one point allegedly had a cast of luminaries attached that would make any studio salivate, that’s based on a novel that seen a renaissance thanks to the backassward ramblings of the Teabaggers and the Fox News ilk, it’s remarkable how bad it actually is. It’s like the dramatization of an SAT math problem, or a first year economics final essay. Only that might actually imply there was drama. No, this film could have been performed by artist’s mannequins, with projections of actor headshots on them and still given the same wooden and emotionless performances. Which is not to disparage the actors — character actors like Michael Lerner, Jon Polito, and Graham Beckel — we’ve seen most of them in quality pictures and know they are capable of being passionate and hilarious. It’s an impressive feat for first time director Paul Johansson, himself an actor (he played Bolt in Soapdish), to force his cast to stifle anything resembling feelings like a new boyfriend with a Sunday morning pew fart. But most of the credit goes to Ayn Rand, who didn’t write characters so much as one-note ciphers there to represent the A’s and B’s of her political ramblings. Still, in the year where Inside Job snagged the Oscar, it takes massive planet-sized balls to release a film where the heroes are corporate giants who just want the nasty government to leave them alone so they can make money. Because as we’ve seen, deregulation has worked so beautifully. Unless you actually wanted to live in that home.
Oddly, Atlas Shrugged is science-fiction. It’s set in an alternative future — 2016 — where exorbitant gas prices and governments turning virtually communist have caused the economy to plummet into chaos. The only viable means of intercontinental transportation is now the railroad. One of the major lines is Taggart Transcontinental, run by James Taggart (Matthew Marsden), a preening fool who lets his Washington cronies manipulate things in order to make profit. Meanwhile, it’s his sister, Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), who has the true vision. She wants to work hard, create a good product, and not let the cronies or the government scheme and plot. Her plan is to rework their major line and keep their biggest client by using a new alloy technology, Reardon Metal, designed by Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler). Reardon is a hardworking and supersuccessful businessman who stands by his product. He works hard, so hard he alienates his rich wife, and her socialite mother and her moocher hangers on who demand handouts. Hard working Henry works hard to make a good product, and Dagny respects that, so she’s excited to be in business and work hard working hard with hard working Henry. Did I mention he works hard? Because that’s kind of key to why we should respect him.
The brunt of the first part of Atlas Shrugged deals with the construction of the rail-line so that Dagny and Hank, working together (and hard), can succeed with their hardwork and superior products in getting fuel transported successfully. The rest of the characters spend their time scheming up moustache twisting ways in which to hinder the two hardworkers. Most of this comes at the hands of the government, who institutes vile McGuffin-like policies which are so atrociously metaphoric, it’s almost laughable. The general thrust is that all the government and unions want to do is force everyone to be on an equal playing field no matter what their abilities and prevent the hard workers from being able to work hard and therefore make more money than the lazy slackers who wouldn’t work as hard. Worse, they want to institute social programs for the destitute and give them the money the hard working wealthy earned. Even more sinister, they use the media and public opinion and falsehoods to damage the reputations of the hardworking.
It’s the basic argument “Why should I give up tax money so some lazy shiftless S.O.B. or B. can not work and suckle on the government’s teat, consarnit?!” Rand also believes in a “laissez-faire” approach to government and business regulation. Her theory is that the government shouldn’t stop people from making money. That social equalization and policy reform discourages the best and the brightest from being bright and earning as much as they could. This is done mostly in the form of John Galt (Paul Johansson), who lurks about like one part Lamont Cranston and one part Rorschach, popping up in the shadows in fedora and trenchcoat and causing the most brilliant minds to suddenly disappear. We know this mostly because we get Jack Bauer subtitles telling us the name of the brainiac and the date of their disappearance. Also, because everyone keeps asking “Who Is John Galt?” At pretty much every opportunity.
Are there people who mooch off welfare and take advantage of the systems put in place to help the less fortunate? Of course there are. But Objectivism is just the other half of the problem. Unchecked corporations would get to decide what merits fair pay or fair hires, or even what amounts to a decent employee. Are some going to do it right? You’re damn right. But there are many many more who won’t. I know this, because even with regulations in place, most corporate entities do everything in their power to stifle middle management while building golden parachutes for the upper echelons. I know many conservatives made to embrace Ayn Rand with the fervor of an Oprah Book Club. Which may have prompted them to assist in the housing market crash. Funny, there’s a whole plot point in there where somewhat sinister rich Mexican playboy Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) essentially dupes his investors into investing a product that doesn’t exist and makes money off their finances on something that is essentially worthless. Guess they skimmed that part.
But honestly, I’m not an economist. I’m not a political scientist. There are plenty of people who can tell you why Ayn Rand is out of her fucking mind way more eloquently and expertly than I. And I know there are plenty of you Sith-like conservative ghouls lurking the taint of Pajiba, because I smelled you when I wrote the Soul Surfer review. I’m not equipped to debate the finer points of fucked-up social policy with you fine people.
What I am is a professional film critic. And this is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad fucking movie. Even taking the fucking ridiculous Objectivism out of the plot, it’s just a bad story. It’s structured like a 1970’s training video for joining AVON. The characters are solely there to demonstrate tenets of Rand’s philosophy. Dagny Taggart is not a strong female character, she’s barely a character at all. Sure, she works hard, and against men who would try to supplicate her, but she’s also slept with or plans to sleep with every major male character who’s powerful and hardworking. I’d imagine she comes off as stronger in the novel, but in this film, she’s like the vagina-ed equivalent of Don Draper. But the film manages to fuck up everyone else too in smack you in the face obvious ways.
When Reardon comes home from another late night at the office, he finds his wife entertaining guests. He gives her a bracelet made from the first pressing of Reardon Metal. She scowls at it like he laid a fresh turd on the table. The guests then scold him for not giving her diamonds and for being tacky. One guest in particular chases him into his study to tell him how garish the gift is. Then in the next breath, he demands money for a social organization so that he can more or less give money to people who don’t want to work. When Reardon agrees, he insists on the donation being wired, so they don’t have to be associated with his name. It’s appropriate that this film was released near Easter, because if you’re going to cram that much hamfist down an audiences throat, you want to at least be culinarily seasonal. Give it to L. Ron Hubbard, at least when he was cramming his wacky pseudo-religion down people’s throats in literary form, he had the common decency to include gunfights. The climactic moment in Atlas Shrugged: Part I comes with a CGI train shooting down sparkling steel tracks cut in the glorious American landscape vistas. Overcome with victory, the two leads hug. Nobody puts Dagny in the corner.
To make way for the proposed trilogy, Atlas Shrugged: Part I comes crashing to an abrupt halt at just shy of two hours. Being made so cheaply, for almost $15 million with absolutely zero advertising — unless Glenn Beck was planning on doing a tie-in — I don’t know if they’ll still bother with the follow-ups. But the pacing was glacial, humping from dry tenet demonstration to fiercely bland scenes where every is cast in a Kansas-bleak pall and the characters spend most of their time staring off into the lens of the camera and speaking over their shoulder. It’s almost like Paul Johansson did a literal translation to the screen, because it felt like I was staring at black and white prose scrolling by for two hours rather than an actually entertaining and interesting imagery. But as I said, I know very little of Rand, and from what I gathered from the production, I’m not missing much.