Atlas Shrugged, part 1
Film review by: Witney Seibold
I’ve not read Ayn Rand’s famed polemical tome Atlas Shrugged, so I cannot speak to the literary fealty of Paul Johansson’s film adaptation, nor can I speak of its purity of the objectivist vision, but I do get the feeling that the book couldn’t possibly be as clumsily constructed or as deathly dull as this film, nor could it have been as thuddingly preachy and so lacking in incident. If it does wholly represent any kind of political philosophy at all, it does so poorly, as it has failed at being at all intriguing, emotionally engaging, or even the least bit interesting.
I shall elucidate. We are assured in snippets of dialogue that all of the characters are fierce intellects, and strong representations of self-efficient humanity, but the film does nothing to reinforce these postulations. All of the characters are blank-faced ciphers, who declaratively and flatly recite their lines, rather than having any kind of natural human discussions. They don’t seem to have any emotions. They are all very wealthy, and each one is some master of industry, but they don’t think to use their wealth on anything other than dull parties that look like the inside of a SkyMall catalogue blew up; these people are rich, but they’re not very intellectual or even very smart.
What’s more, the film was clearly shot on a low budget, and the interior settings seem to all take place on one of four soundstages, making for a frustrating lack of visual variety. In one scene, two men in suits are discussing what they’re going to do about a big business deal. The next scene shows a high-powered young woman making her own deals. A third will be back in the previous office with two new people reciting similar dialogue. After a while, you get the feeling that the film is spinning its wheels. You keep expecting something dramatic to happen in this world of high-powered business: Surely, you feel, the film can’t be just about the business dealings and avoidance of government regulations. Surely there will be a death, or an extra-marital affair, or some sort of invading force to shake up this world. But no, there is nothing to really get any sort of drama stirring. There is just one dry case of number crunching after another. It’s like a thriller written by accountants. To be fair, there is an extra-marital affair, but it doesn’t happen until late in the film, and the characters have so little chemistry, it’s about as passionate and erotic as putting your Ken on top of your Barbie.
The film takes place at the end of 2016, when oil will have run out, and the only way to travel about is trains, putting rails at the forefront of the country’s economy. A “plucky” entrepreneur named Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling, who unfortunately evokes the empty-faced placidity of January Jones) is in charge of the country’s largest train company. She dresses in power suits, and has a globe in her office. We are also following the story of Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler), who owns Rearden steel, and who has just bought some kind of new supersteel especially good for railroads; in one particularly hilarious scene, a would-be naysayer (played by Armin Shimerman) is badgered into accepting that “my steel is good.” Henry is a champion of industry, and is having trouble convincing people that his new supersteel could work wonders for the country. These two titans will eventually merge, and complete their dream of building a train line across Colorado.
And that’s pretty much the entire story. The only thing really standing in the way of our two heroes are some antitrust laws, enacted off camera by some wicked, wicked government, and worker’s unions, who would dismantle bug business. There are also other jealous entrepreneurs who exploit said laws to take down Dagny and Henry. There are some interesting side plots that threaten to become interesting, but sadly, noe of them find a foothold. For instance, there is a mysterious shrouded character named John Galt (director Johansson) floating around the periphery, quietly spiriting high-powered businessmen off to lands unknown. Are they being killed? Kidnapped? Enlisted to create a utopia of laissez-faire capitalism off the grid, and safe from the wicked interruptions from a wicked New Deal? Thre is some talk of a new super engine (whose inventor’s company had to close after they started paying their workers a decent wage), but we never see who built it or what it will be used for, despite a rushed roadtrip near the film’s end. There’s also mention of a character named Ragnar the Pirate, whose name invokes a much more interesting story than anything we see in “Atlas Shrugged, part 1.”
Maybe it’s just my personal politics on this point, but I fear I had trouble sympathizing with these bland, ultra-rich white people, whose only problems seem to be that perfectly reasonable antitrust laws, and very human worker’s unions, prevented them from making their huge companies even huger. It’s like the film is asking us to root for the overdog. It’s a Carrot Top movie, about a young buck that shakes up the stuffy world of the high-powered stuffed shirts, only without the Carrot Top, and without the shaking up. It’s about stuffed shirts that celebrate their stuffing.
I understand a little bit about objectivism, the much-praised and much-lambasted up-with-self philosophy behind all of Rand’s writing; evidently, people can only be good people if they assert their personal strength, and the best way to show they are strong, is by making money. Any government aid to help you will only cripple your potential, and any laws designed to impinge your abilities to make billions in your company are to be feared and hated. And, as a polemic, I suppose “Atlas Shrugged, part 1” does its job in declaring all of these, and putting its philosophies in the mouths of its characters.
But all of its philosophies are irrelevant, as the film is not the least bit engaging or intelligent. It’s a trite slog through dubious ideas into a narrative that flows without lift, pitch or yaw. Is there a way to make the objectivist philosophy interesting? Perhaps. But this film is not the one to do it. I assume some of my doubts will be put to rest in the planned second and third parts, but I have no reason to return to them.