Saturday, 6 July 2019

Atlas Shrugged Part II

So we come to Part II of this nonsense, and let me tell you it just gets sillier from here. If you have missed it, my friend and fellow blogger Andrew Cowie has also done a review for this film over on his blog I Choose to Stand and it is well worth reading!

After the first installment of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy bombed fantastically. The idiots Randian heroes who had made this film decided rather than let the free market do the talking as their own philosophy would compel them to do, they were going to double down on their idea and decided the world must learn of the brilliance of their prophet's ideology.

The only problem was that now, after making less than a quarter of their budget back from the first film, the plan of financing it with profits was no longer feasible. The strategy? Hire an all new cast because keeping actors is expensive! Well, there was also a massive debt sale in order to keep the film afloat, and a big investment of personal funds. Apparently this film, when you tally up marketing and everything, cost as much as the first one. If that was the case oh boy did it have problems.

It seems that the other portion of the plan was to stoke the public's expectations by keeping it from being screened by critics pre-release so everyone would have to be surprised and appalled at the same time. This fantastically misleading article from Fox News in 2012 has the producer John Aglialoro stating "The integrity of the critics are going off a cliff...Why should I give them the sword and they are just going to use to decapitate me with?" The article of course blames the 'Liberal Media' for casting the movie down, but as a National Post review of Part I by Peter Foster notes: "Still, if it sinks without trace, its backers should at least be proud that they lost their own money."

Turns out, the film wasn't proud with just losing its own money, it didn't even need to give anyone else the sword to decapitate itself! The film made even less money than the first, and received an even lower rating from critics and audiences alike!

Why might that be you ask?

Well, put simply, this movie sucks. I remember thinking as much seeing the trailer way back in 2012. To start off, the entirely new cast while not completely awful, lacks the dynamism of any of the old characters. You're introduced jarringly to people who are not only older, but have very different voices, looks, and talents. Or really, no talents at all.

For instance, Dagny is now played by Samatha Mathis is actually more dynamic, taking on the role of a woman who is barely keeping her company afloat and almost daily overwhelmed by the pressure. As someone playing this character, I actually found this a decent piece of acting which was a vast improvement from the previous characterization. Now, her acting still isn't good, but that seems more from the material rather than any lack of ability on Mathis's part.

Hank Rearden played by Jason Beghe, now looks older and seems to have taken up chain smoking during the interval from the last film since his gravelly voice is an octave lower than before. He's still terrible. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the court room scene, which was supposed to be a faithful rendition from the books of one of the first great monologues. Instead, it is truncated to a measly two minutes where the judges must painfully spell out their ideology while Rearden brashly tells them how evil they are. It's mind boggling to watch as it makes no sense (its not like it did in the book either) and even cuts the ideas down to the bare bones. The fact that audience looks like they're paid to be there doesn't help.

Now, the translation of the infamous Randian monologues to screen would be hard for even a talented writing and direction team, but here, its cut and dried to absurdity. In the book, the judges at least had to agonize over a decision to let him go, but here they just do it after five seconds of comments? This though, is a weakness in translating a work as long as the Bible (and the Bible is less preachy) to screen. You must truncate what cannot be adapted.

This has to be attempted twice in this movie, and it is painful to watch each time. The second is laid out by tertiary character Francisco d'Anconia (who also looks older), who though he was in the first movie I defy you to point to anything interesting he did. Having also changed actors he has a monologue on why money is not evil during the wedding of Dagny's brother to the series sacrificial lamb Cheryl (don't worry, they shove her in the fridge later). However, despite one more uninspired monologue, he reveals he's been prepping to implode the looters wealth by sabotaging his own mines in South America. In a change from the books, he talks about rock slides and fires, whereas in the books it was enormous explosions in what amounted to an act of terrorism.

None of this is really delivered well, and mostly rolls along by the numbers. It's a stilted conversation where the bad guys make easily objected points, and d'Anconia rolls off rather unconvincing counter points in a very bland performance. He doesn't even look like he's having fun with this, just delivering a speech because he's forced to. Though it's mildly amusing to watch as he's asked to leave but then goes on to speak more at them and the look on Dagny's brother's face is "oh my God he's still talking at me!"

The only semi enjoyable performance in this film is done by Dr. Stadler played by Robert Picardo of Star Trek and Stargate fame. He has a sadly short conversation with Dagny about the super engine discovered in the last film, even for an actor of his caliber he isn't given much to work with here, and its a rather straight adaptation of the novel again.

In terms of plot it rolls on by rote, Dagny and Hank are still trying to find out who made the wonder motor from the first film, the bad guys in government are passing laws which will drag the country to a standstill, and finally, John Galt is abducting the last of the innovators.

However, bad material, acting, boring plot and adaptations aside, the special effects in this movie are terrible. In what is supposed to be a stunning climax and opening with plane chases through mountains, the effects look like they were adapted from a flight simulator in the late 90s!

Perhaps the scene which personifies why this movie is bad in a nutshell comes from the adaptation of the infamous train scene from the book.

To lay some ground work, there is a scene in the book which painstakingly spells out why people, even women and children, who do not support the Objectivist world view deserve to die awful deaths. It is, without a doubt, one of the most evil scenes put to pen by someone who supposedly wanted the best for the world. The scene is portrayed unambiguously as being the result of "evil" choices by people who don't want to take responsibility for things and simply rattle off excuses and platitudes.

The movie however, portrays it somewhat differently.

If you're not interested in watching that, essentially it is all a tragic accident. The workers did their very best to stop the accident, but no one could keep all those people from dying!

If only there was a philosophy which made the trains run without accident!

Coupled with special effects which would look bad in a video game, an overly crowded room filled with clearly just-happy-to-be-there extras, and acting which is fairly bland, this singularly misses the point that the novel was making. The simple premise of the whole scene is that, when men fail to follow their enlightened self interest and give in to group think and appoint those who shirk responsibility, people die. Not only that, but those people deserve to die by bearing the collective guilt of a society which has allowed that to happen in the first place!

In that evil? Of course, and I suspect this is why the tone of the scene is changed so dramatically. Such a point would be repulsive to any casual audience, and they would have no choice but to shun such a production. If the movie were faithful, extolling the reasons why all the men, women and children on that train had to die, not only would the whole scene take something like 30 minutes vs the six it does, but I'm pretty sure people would have walked out of the theater. Indeed it is probably what caused Forrest Whitaker in his famous (and infamous to Objectivists) review to write:
From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” 
This is perhaps, one of the reasons why Part II is not just bad, but offensively bad. From the changed actors and sloppy sets, to the terrible CGI, it not only distorts the ideology it is supposed to represent, but it does so in a way which is disingenuous to the intent of the author. The creators made the conscious decision to dial back the inherent cruelty of the novel and the ideology it supports, and this offends me. Rather than be true to the underlying assumptions of their world view, as this infamous passage states, the creators knowingly step away from that horror and try to portray this ideology as something it isn't.

It is then, no surprise that this film bombed even more spectacularly. To even make Ayn Rand's message palatable, great swathes of it have to be changed. This is something Rand would never have tolerated while she was alive. Even worse, it does nothing to make that message or plot more desirable to casual audiences.

The movie is laugh out loud bad at times, eye rollingly bad at others, and not even overall entertaining like a good bad movie would be. I couldn't take it seriously, largely because it took itself too seriously. The supporting cast manages some good scenes, but the long drawn out discussions of little morals or laws was unengaging and I found myself bored vs accidentally amused more often than not.

Unsurprisingly of course, the film went on to have a sequel.

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