Thursday, 4 July 2019

Atlas Shrugged Part I

Years and years ago, my teen self made a monumental mistake. I discovered a supposedly great work of fiction which, according to some people I knew, would change my life. To their credit, they weren't wrong. However, the book I read Atlas Shrugged did not change my life for the better. Instead, it left me knowing what true evil felt like. The magnum opus of philosopher madwoman (and Superman arch nemesis)  Ayn Rand, it was written explicitly to solidify her economic, philosophical and political codes. Essentially, this is the Bible of the weird philosophy of Objectivism.

This strange little philosophy has had a disproportionate effect on world economics and thinking, especially in the United States of America. It has influenced politicians, philosophers, gurus, and most significantly, the head of the United States Federal Reserve who oversaw the disastrous policies leading to the 2008 Financial Crisis. Some would say that isn't a coincidence. Reading its long drawn out piece was misery personified.

Imagine then, to my chagrin, discovering way back in 2015, that after years of simmering in development hell some fanatic acolyte far sighted visionary John Aglialoro, had finally decided to bring Ayn Rand's creation to the screen.

God Help Us

Now, for a quick cliff notes version of Objectivism. Essentially it is be selfish for selfishness sake. To use the fancier terms, pursue your own enlightened self interest (rational egoism) and that laissez-faire capitalism is the only system which can allow you to pursue this. There's more boring 'metaphysical' stuff about how true reality can be expressed through art or human will, but its dull as watching paint dry so Rand wrote a book. Atlas Shrugged is intended to showcase how this life is to be lived. For a normal, sane person, it's pretty awful stuff.

Unsurprisingly, it has largely been roundly rejected by the civilized world and people at large, but, also unsurprisingly, rich right leaning white people tend to love it overwhelmingly.

Discussion over a movie adaptation has been in the works for decades, near since Rand first wrote it. However, while she was alive Rand was uncompromising with her vision and always demanded strict control over any script, something no producer or Hollywood exec was going to give her. Even after she died Objectivists still hoarded the story lest its purity be 'spoiled' by Hollywood elites. Eventually Aglialoro bought the rights, but numerous conflicts with writers and executives stalled the film from going anywhere. In the 2000s, there was talk of a two part series directed by Vadim Perelman, with people like Angelina Jolie apparently being considered to star. Finally, with the rights running out, in 2011 Aglialoro basically poured 20 million into this new film trilogy so he wouldn't lose them.

So what is there to say about this film?

Well, it hurt me deeply. Not from any philosophical or moral perspective, but just from how bloody boring it is. Set in 2016 (can't imagine why)  vs the 1950s 'timeless' feel of the novel, it is explicitly in the backdrop of predicting a national collapse brought about by things like the Occupy Movement and government interference. The movie actually does a reasonably creditable job of laying out justification for the railroads taking over, oil prices soaring and numerous accidents and shortages grounding the airlines. Into this gap comes Taggart Transcontinental, seeking to make a profit off the national emergency. It is run by the nepotistic and crooked James Taggart, who seeks influence and 'pull' in Washington. His sister, Dagny, is trying to run the railroad well and turn a profit. Meanwhile, Hank Rearden is working to patent and sell his miraculous Rearden metal, which is supposed to revolutionize how the modern world work. These two titans of industry seek to combine their formidable minds to try and improve the world. All the while, a mysterious man, John Galt, is going around collecting the movers and the shakers of the world, causing them to disappear one by one.

Now some of this may sound exciting, but by and large it is really just scenes of people standing around talking. Talking business, talking parts, talking philosophy. It's really dull. Mediocre might be the best word for it. The main point the film wants you to take away is that everything bad is caused by government regulation. Big government BAD, capitalist genius GOOD.

I honestly can't think of a single memorable scene save the opening. Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) is flat, and really comes off as a stiff and humorless asshole unless he's talking to Dagny. Everything has to be done his way, and God help you if you disagree with that. For instance, let's talk about a scene late in the film where he's showing off the amazing engine he's found. This is supposed to be a big thing, but he manages the same slightly dull and bored delivery of it that he manages everything else.

Dagny (Taylor Schilling) is at least mildly interesting, but she still talks as though all she's good for is delivering line after line of exposition. She just seems to lack a certain energy, a vivaciousness that even in the novel she actually displayed. There's just no action to her. When she first meets Elias Wyatt, she comes off as passive, incompetent, and utterly powerless, while in the novel she skillfully talked around him, promising the transportation he needs and refuses to make excuses. Hell, when he leaves, her amazing line when being asked if something is wrong is an odd "I don't know" statement. In the final moments of the film she actually manages a good 'NOOOO' moment, but maybe that's because she realized they might actually ask her to be in the sequel to this garbage.

You also have Francisco d'Anconia (Jsu Garcia), Dagny's childhood friend and leader of the d'Anconia Copper Company. He is supposed to be one of Dany's love interests, but the two don't really have much in the way of chemistry. Dagny is also disappointed that he has become something of a playboy, they have the usual bland conversation and mostly appear to have rods up their butts. His only role is to tell Dagny he's selling worthless shares in his company to people, costing them millions.

Honestly the only person who seems to be enjoying themselves at all in the film is Elias Wyatt (Grant Beckel). He's hammy and amazingly entertaining in every scene he's in. He's the personification of a stereotypical over the top Texas oil baron from media. He's probably the only genuinely interesting man in the movie. Lilian Rearden (Rebecca Wisocky) is a study in contrast, playing an aloof and eternally mistreated house wife. In both movie and book we're supposed to think she's a manipulative shrew, but she honestly comes off as a neglected house wife who, from her husband being uninterested in her pursuits or pleasures (literally bad in bed with her, rolling off of her when he finishes) seems to be just catty because she's neglected. It's hard not to sympathize or root for her.

To the movies credit, it does adapt some shot for shot scenes of the novel very faithfully. In the beginning there's actually a well done scene where they take a portion of the novel where Rearden presents his wife with the first poured cast of his new Rearden metal, and the lines and direction are actually spot on. That was interesting to watch I will admit, and there's a few good scenes like that in the film.

The ending is actually quite competently done. An overarching monologue creeping into the reveal that Elias Wyatt has fled, and set his oil fields on fire in retaliation at the world.

However, unless you're a dyed in the wool objectivist you most likely don't care. The dialogue is just as wooden and stilted as it is in the novel. It isn't overly interesting to watch, and really really drags at time. Talking about construction time tables, business ventures, markets, it's dull, just dull.

Visually, it is nothing impressive to look at. The CGI is bland, especially for the early 2010s, and overall its visuals are merely adequately put together. There are some interesting shots of the trains running on the John Galt line, and it was clear the movie makers agonized how to make a train running seem suitably epic, but it just isn't interesting. What's worse is that this is arguably the visual high point of the trilogy.

Somehow, it manages to get worse from here folks!


  1. I cannot wait for Part 2, haha! Reviewing these films was hell.

    1. In this case we can truly say we suffered for our work.