There is no lack of fervor in objectivist writer Ayn Rand's
novels, nor the Tea Party movement that has taken the notion of "Going Galt," as per the parlance of Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged
, as part of their rallying cry against big government and what they perceive as the socialization of America. And what better way to tap into that passion and fervor than with a film adaptation of that novel, itself about a government crackdown on the industrial elite, and an overall push toward mediocrity for the sake of a welfare state?
It's ironic then that Atlas Shrugged: Part I
, the first of a possible--though maybe not probable--trilogy based on Rand's novel, is such a colossal bore. This is a didactic and passionless endeavor that might as well just be called "White people in suits stand around in well-decorated board rooms and are unhappy." The actors spout Rand's ethos in expressionless monotone, like computer-generated human simulacra. Except they're real actors, and ostensibly, this movie is supposed to galvanize the current tea partiers into a kind of frothing excitement. Instead, Rand's message hangs limp on the screen, inspiring no reaction beyond a casual, dismissive shrug.
The year is 2016, and after a quick and dirty news reel to explain how conflicts in the Middle East have sent America into socialist disrepair, we meet Dagny Taggart. She holds an executive position at a major railroad company on the verge of ruin, thanks to the stewardship of her inept brother and his cronies in Washington, who are working hard to rein in successful corporations by enacting laws that prevent things like people owning more than one company, and regulating the output of major industries to make sure everyone is delivering a balanced amount of product, regardless as to whether it's any good or not. Most affected by this regulation gone amok is Henry Rearden, the visionary owner of a steel company that has developed a new product so strong that it threatens to unbalance the delicate ecosystem of inferiority the government has worked so hard to cultivate.
Taggart needs Rearden's steel to upgrade her rail lines, and Rearden needs Taggart's business to fight off the tendrils of government oversight. What's left for these two crazy kids to do but band together and fight the "stupid
altruistic urges"--actual line of dialogue, by the way--of those fools in Washington. But it's not so easy. Senators and lobbyists conspire against their drive for success, and somewhere in the background, important champions of industry are disappearing, possibly due to a shadowy figure who is probably this John Galt everyone keeps asking about.
Whether you agree with Rand's overly simplistic politics or not, there's no denying that Atlas Shrugged has a story, one that is even of some merit from a narrative standpoint. The problem is that director Paul Johansson
--who was previously best known for his role on One Tree Hill
and involvement in scenes like this
--has zero interest in working beyond Rand's broadest stereotypes. Everyone in this movie is either a brilliant strategist and tent pole capitalist who is being needlessly oppressed, or a scheming socialist that can't stand to see free market-minded people be right all the time.
Johansson treats his actors like cardboard standees. The vast bulk of this movie is people standing stiff-shouldered in fancy board rooms, even fancier mansions, and the fanciest parties, staring blankly at one another as they purport to feel human emotions like rage and contempt and greed and possibly but probably not love. Nothing is done with the camera. It's shot after shot of people in fancy rooms standing around, and occasionally sitting. They are periodically broken up by helicopter shots of the great Colorado hills and mountains that feel like the opening to a Coors commercial. All that's missing is Sam Elliott's
The movie is well-stocked with able, somewhat recognizable character actors playing these parts, but none of them seem able to transcend the leaden dialogue and Johansson's ham-fisted direction. Taylor Schilling
and Grant Bowler
, as Taggart and Rearden in particular, seem less hired for their acting talents and more for their ability to look like Fox News anchors.
The movie is done no favors by the script's slavish adherence to Rand's
even then-antiquated notion of rail-travel as the future of American
industry. This is a decades-old book, but even at the time of its publishing, air travel most certainly was coming up as America's transportation future. Atlas Shrugged's
concept of railroads as America's beacon of hope wasn't completely anachronistic back in 1957, but now feels almost precious in its absurdity. Granted, high-speed rails are something certainly worth championing. In fact, I do believe President Obama and Vice President Biden made that a big part of their transportation platform. Funny, that.
The great irony of Atlas Shrugged: Part I
is that it's the very kind of thing that Rand would have railed against. It's pure mediocrity, the sort of movie that, if there were a superior rival Atlas Shrugged
adaptation running alongside this one, the government of this world would step in and take it down a peg, to make sure Johansson's film got a "fair shake."
The movie's message, spoken in such plain and obtuse fashion as it is, will undoubtedly resonate with its intended audience. Still, it would be tragic if that audience chose to settle for this lackluster dreck and didn't demand something better next time around. Then again, who knows if those proposed sequels will ever even make it into production? By the time this movie stumbles into its hilariously maladroit final shot, you half expect the final title card to read, "Watch for the Next Adventure of Dagny Taggart! Atlas Shrugged: Dagny Taggart Against the World Crime League!