Incompetence overpowers ideology in awful, final episode of 'Atlas Shrugged' trilogy
Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? Atlas Distribution Company
Director: James Manera
Screenplay: James Manera, Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Starring: Laura Regan, Kristoffer Polaha, Peter Mackenzie, Greg Germann, Larry Cedar, Joaquim de Almeida, Stephen Tobolowsky and Mark Moses
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes
September 12, 2014
Ø (Zero stars)
After lurking in the shadows for the length of two movies, his name often muttered but his face never seen, John Galt finally emerges in the flesh in Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?, the third and final entry in the low-budget trilogy.
He appears out of the clear blue sky as a savior, seemingly stepping out of a dandruff shampoo commercial to offer his hand to our heroine Dagny Taggart, his perfectly coiffed hair sparkling in the morning sunlight, his crushed-velvet voice offering authority and calm reassurance. The film's titular hero is as vanilla as humanly possible, from actor Kristoffer Polaha's generic, model good looks to his superficial brand of gravitas. It's as if the filmmakers tried too hard to find an ideal specimen for their enigmatic hero, and wound up with the very epitome of familiar, dull, All-American maleness instead. This John Galt hardly comes across as anyone who might lead a revolution. He's more like someone who might be able to sell a pair of Wrangler jeans.
When we first see him, he's rescuing Dagny (Laura Regan) after she crash-lands into his secret valley compound known as Galt's Gulch. This is where all of America's self-proclaimed best and brightest have gone - chosen and recruited by Galt himself over the course of many years - to create a veritable utopia of rational self-interest. (That this film fails to realize the absurdity of any idea of a utopia, regardless of philosophy, is emblematic of its laughable self-seriousness. But that's a whole other matter.) Galt and the other inhabitants of this secret community, on strike from a society of oppressive over-regulation and bureaucracy, explain to Dagny, in a series of didactic and simplistic little speeches, exactly what their movement (and Ayn Rand's philosophy) is all about.
Galt gives Dagny a full tour of the valley - cheerfully traversing the picturesque hillside as if he's about to tell you about the side effects of your allergy medication - and offers her the chance to stay for one month to see how she likes it, in hopes of changing her mind and making her stay a permanent one.
Despite her ongoing worries about the state of her precious Taggart Transcontinental - especially in light of the fact that she was declared dead once the wreckage of her plane was discovered - she agrees to the temporary stay. Galt repeatedly espouses his personal oath about living only for the sake of oneself, and not for others. Dagny seems to fundamentally agree with it, but her preferred method of fighting the system is at odds with that of Galt and his acolytes.
Apparently, tedious theorizing about economic policy sows the seeds of wild passion for John and Dagny, which leads to one of the more hilarious sex scenes I've ever witnessed. Their eyes meet at a railroad station. He strides after her with the confidence of a man starring in a commercial for erectile dysfunction tablets, while she finds a nearby office and awkwardly, dispassionately clears off the top of the desk in anticipation of his arrival. Finally they embrace, and director James Manera subjects us to a sequence of close-ups of lips and shoulders, complete with fauxrotic music, a wind machine and the soft glow of a bad soap opera. It should be said: Given Galt's declared position of living only in the service of oneself, we can assume his sexual practices follow suit, and that he's not exactly the most thoughtful, generous lover. (Poor Dagny.) Given his ideals, he'd be better off going solo, yes?
The sex scene concludes with - I kid you not - a scene in which a Taggart Transcontinental train goes through a tunnel, and I honestly do not believe Manera picks up on the metaphor. If he does, good for him - but it still makes for a clumsy attempt at visual innuendo. The movie demonstrates no sense of humor elsewhere, so I can't very well give it the benefit of the doubt here. In any case, the final shot of North by Northwest is shaking its head in disapproval.
The rest of the film is just as inept, in every way you could imagine. Subjectivity is a fact of art, but there is a limit, and Who is John Galt? extends far beyond that limit. The audience I sat with applauded when the closing credits rolled - evidence both that they approved of its message (in advance), and that they have little to no appreciation for filmmaking, acting, writing, production values, cinematography or basic storytelling. That there were several claps after Galt's infamous speech (70 uninterrupted pages in the novel, cut to four boring minutes in the movie) makes that all too clear.
Hearing the film's logic, and all of its built-in (and unacknowledged) contradictions spoken aloud, and in earnest, is borderline surreal; that the story is either unwilling or unable to follow that logic through to its natural conclusions is astonishing. Manera somehow pulls off the task of simplifying Rand's philosophy to such a degree as to nakedly expose all of its inherent flaws and irrationalities.
But that ultimately doesn't really matter. Because whether you agree with the movie's argument or not, it is an argument poorly made. And it is a film cheaply made - a film that goes back and forth between looking like amateur video and looking like cheesy soap-opera footage. It is a film starring a bunch of actors who needed the work, the cast having been completely overhauled once again. It is a film that seemingly does not care how it expresses itself. If Tommy Wiseau were behind the camera, it would hardly make a difference.
It would be a lot more interesting to analyze the film's political philosophy, or critique it as a piece of agitprop, or discuss the irony in the fact that a film about self-reliance was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign. But it's simply not worth it - the sheer cheapness and ineptitude of the filmmaking itself overpowers whatever the film might be trying to say.