Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2011


'Atlas Shrugged: Part I' won't do Ayn Rand's reputation any favors

Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Rocky Mountain Pictures
Director: Paul Johansson
Screenplay: John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Graham Beckel, Edi Gathegi, Rebecca Wisocky, Jon Polito and Michael Lerner
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
(out of four)

Look, I don't want to get into a debate here. I had a friend who made that mistake once. He wrote an innocent satirical piece attacking Objectivism, tongue firmly planted in cheek, and incurred the wrath of a legion of die-hard fans. So please, Randians, hold your fire.

Yes, the philosophical apparatus behind Atlas Shrugged: Part I is adolescent and simplistic, but really, that's beside the point. I could and would still be able to admire a filmed version of Ayn Rand's manifesto novel if it were pulled off with any semblance of skill, nuance or vision. Instead, we get a barely professional shell of a movie - hurried into production so the rights wouldn't run out (always a good sign) - that has no business at the multiplex, fraternizing with actual movies.

I would hope Rand fans would be as dissatisfied with this movie as, say, Philip K. Dick fans have been with most adaptations of his work, but that remains to be seen. Regardless of ideology, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is an outright failure on its cinematic qualities alone. What the film lacks in dramatic intrigue, it makes up for in cheap didacticism. What it lacks in structure, it makes up for in tedium. And hey, the actors may be terrible, but at least the shadowy, romantic lighting emphasizes their good looks - you know, in that "I just stepped out of a jewelry commercial" kind of way.

The incompetence is apparent from the start. Be it due to a lack of resources and/or a lack of creativity on the part of director Paul Johansson and his writers, the film's entire idea for establishing its dystopian futuristic setting is . . . drumroll, please . . . an opening montage of stock news footage demonstrating that the world of 2016 is in a state of deep recession and social turmoil.

This is, of course, the kind of thing you're meant to see in the trailer for the movie - not the movie itself. Any self-respecting movie should have something more to give us than that. Any first-semester film student can slap together a news montage.

But nevermind. Surely things will get better once we get to know our heroes - visionaries like Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) and Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), society's noble movers (and yes, dare I say, shakers) whose efforts are unjustly thwarted at every turn by a government that wants to undercut their vision, or the leeches who prey on the achievements of these most important of individuals.

Dagny is an executive at Taggart Transcontinental. She's the brains of the outfit, while her short-sighted, two-faced brother James (Matthew Marsden) is the CEO - and a lout who has allowed the company to teeter on the brink of ruin. Rearden, meanwhile, has developed a new alloy that's cheaper and stronger than traditional metals, but is facing resistance from both government and the steel industry. Or to put it more succinctly, The Man is keeping Hank down.

Visionary that she is, Dagny jumps into bed with Hank (I mean that figuratively, folks) on a potentially lucrative business arrangement that could save her company and revitalize the entire railway industry. (After which she jumps into bed with Hank again, this time in the biblical sense.)

Lurking in the background of this future America is a man / figure / idea named John Galt. The question is often asked: "Who is John Galt?" Those familiar with the novel are, of course, well aware of the answer to that question; but the characters in the film regard the query with almost apathetic consternation - as if "John Galt" is some old, half-forgotten rumor. They haven't the slightest clue that this same John Galt (who in the film appears only as a mysterious figure forever shrouded in shadow) is responsible for the sudden and unexplained disappearances of society's best and brightest. (No longer will they hold the weight of the world on their shoulders in an unappreciative world that persists in holding them back.) (Atlas is shrugging, you see.) (Pssst! That's a metaphor!)

Galt's role in the story will broaden in Parts II and III, should they ever get off the ground. And if you're feeling lost or confused by any of what's going on, don't worry - I'm sure the next two films will feature a helpful montage or two to tidily set everything up.

But you know what? What bothers me most about Atlas Shrugged: Part I isn't its ideology, or its performances, or even its poor filmmaking. No, what bothers me most is that it can't even understand how to grasp its own material. By which I mean, there is not a whiff of satire in this film. No irony (at least not the intentional kind), no wit, no angle. But that is what this story, to a large extent, is - a satire. No piece of futuristic social commentary can avoid that, and Atlas Shrugged is no different. Yet this adaptation somehow manages to ignore that fact altogether, offering instead a solemn, straight-faced series of expository statements and thinly-veiled lectures. Because heaven forbid we get any actual entertainment out of this tripe.

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