(Hi. Skip to the last paragraph if you're pressed for time.)
Most adults have had the experience of sitting through a live performance by small children wherein the low entertainment value is offset by the fact that among the performers is one's child (or grandchild, etc.) What would otherwise be excruciating is kinda cute because, well, look at little Billy! That's our boy. Now imagine that you have been dropped into a random grade school full of strangers and you must sit through the same Christmas play. None of the children are yours. It is two hours long. And it consists of children reading excerpts from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and instructional manuals from various home appliances. You've just watched Atlas Shrugged, and it didn't even cost you $9.
In fairness it did not cost me $9 either. For the first time in my 32 years I sneaked into a movie without paying, as it was clearly in my rational self-interest to do so. To financially reward the people who made this…thing…smacked a little too much of altruism. It turns out I paid precisely the right amount for this rush job of a film, the production quality of which falls somewhere between an infomercial and the pilot episode of an original series on the SyFy Network. This film was made in just a few months for very little money in 2010 after 40 years of "development hell" because the film rights were about to lapse; the owner wanted to get something from his investment before it was too late. Believe me (and every other reviewer), it shows. Nearly the entire film consists of two actors standing or sitting in a room talking to each other filmed in basic Shot-Reverse Shot or, even worse, a single camera at a totally flat angle. Director Paul Johansson's lack of directorial experience – which consists of a few episodes of a TV show called "One Tree Hill" – is painfully apparent and totally inexcusable.
I emphasize this because I intend to review the film, not Ms. Rand's philosophy. I'm afraid the Randroids pelting the internet with love for a film they probably haven't seen – note Rotten Tomatoes' 10% critics rating compared to an 86% "user" rating – are unable to make this not-so-fine distinction, as if admitting that the film is shit would discredit their idol (They are also attempting to claim that the film is being "suppressed", which I suppose is true in the same way that the distribution of Baby Geniuses 2 was "suppressed"). In most instances – The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lord of the Rings, etc. – hardcore fans of written work are brutal on film adaptations thereof, more than eager to disparage the movie and catalogue the ways in which it fell short of the original artist's vision. Not so with Atlas, apparently. If I loved a novel like Objectivists love Atlas Shrugged I would be mortified to see such a shitshow released on the big screen bearing the same name. But if I loved a novel as horrendously written as Atlas Shrugged I very well might like movies this bad. More to the point, if I adhered to a cult-like philosophical movement that simultaneously celebrates the individual and tolerates absolutely no criticism of The Way and The Great Leader, I would follow all of the other lemmings off the cliff and applaud this film too.
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I must address one common yet undeserved reviewer criticism: poor acting. I contend that these actors did as well as anyone could expect given the limitations of the source material; large portions of dialogue are lifted verbatim from the novel. Rand is to realistic dialogue between compelling characters what the Battle of the Somme was to military strategy. I'd like to see an actor who can perform well while delivering lines like "I know the metal will work; I studied engineering in college." Honestly, a few of the actors – Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt) and Edi Gathegi (the guy who was "Big Love" on House, here playing Eddie Willers) – were quite good. Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins couldn't have made this work. Acting was not the problem.
The director is. It is his responsibility to overcome the limitations of the source material, and in this case the limitations are legion. He must realize that Dagny Taggart (a transparent stand-in for Rand, of course, played here by a gorgeous blonde irrespective of the fact that Rand looked like Joe Pesci) has the sex appeal of a burning orphanage. He must realize that the Taggart-Rearden "romance" is only romantic inasmuch as Rearden does not forcibly rape her or throw acid in her face upon what their lawyers deem satisfactory completion of coitus. He must realize that a story set in the future emphasizing the crucial role of trains in the economy is patently ridiculous. He must realize that endless dialogue about motors and the forging of metal and the minutiae of running a railroad are incomprehensibly boring. And the director must do something about all of these flaws – perhaps deviate from the source material enough to make the characters do and say something that an actual human might consider saying or doing. Thus at their cores the film and novel share a fundamental flaw: they are incredibly, soul-crushingly, and unprecedentedly boring.
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The director's solution was to spice up the endless drudgery of scenes of two characters sitting in chairs talking about steel, legislative politicking, or trains by…showing montage scenes of railroad track being laid. Seriously.
Johansson shares Rand's appreciation for subtlety as well, as if the audience would not be able to identify the Bad Guy if not accompanied by villainous music, played by a physically repulsive actor, and spouting cartoonishly evil dialogue like "A federal tax! Will be applied to Colorado! To equalize the nation's economy!" (Also, what?) The politicians/lobbyists/etc are monstrously evil caricatures of every cheap stock villain in the Hollywood thriller universe: the fat, greedy lobbyist; the vain politician; the slimy, quasi-criminal union boss; the incompetent bureaucrat. With decent writing and acting, an audience can be told that the Heroes are Good without parading them around in halos or that the Villains are Bad without making them strum their fingers together and laugh evilly in the manner of robbers in a low budget Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
Counter-intuitively, then, the problem with this adaptation is that the film is very faithful to the novel, and the novel is probably the most poorly written work ever to be considered important. Ayn Rand may be your favorite philosopher, but she is an appalling writer. Her novels call into question whether she ever met another human being let alone spoke with one. With absolutely no understanding of how narrative, plot, character development, or exposition work, Rand produces fiction that sounds like it was written in Urdu and translated into English with the least reliable free online translator available. The few pleasant libertarian-objectivist types I have known over the years have admitted in candid moments that her fiction, while containing themes and ideas they found life-changing, borders on unreadable. How could a film be better? Thousand-page collections of obtuse, solipsistic monologues do not a good movie make.
Let me describe one key scene from the film's final act wherein Rearden and Taggart are attempting to track down the inventor of a revolutionary electric motor. Johansson handles this "quest" portion of the story with a hacky montage, essentially turning the last 15 minutes into an episode of Scooby Doo. After a series of events leads them to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Company factory (where blueprints for the amazing engine are hidden in a secret passageway…Velma and Shaggy had to move a bookcase to find it) the two pore over the diagrams. Then, in detailed, technical dialogue right out of a User's Manual, the characters listlessly trade lines describing how the motor works. As they walk around the factory Taggart wonders aloud what could have happened to TCMC. Rearden notes that they "flattened their wage scale, paying each according to his needs and not his ability" which quite naturally, Taggart responds, led to "the managers and more skilled workers leaving." Yes, Hank agrees, "and the ones who remained behind couldn't run the place."
Remember, these two just fucked. They are supposed to have great passion for one another. And in the span of 90 seconds they have read us an engineering blueprint and part of a fundraising pamphlet from the Von Mises Institute. This scene captures everything that makes this movie an insufferable experience of unpleasant length.
Battlefield: Earth is still my favorite film in the "so unbelievably bad you have to see it to believe it" genre, and it shares many similarities with Atlas. Both are cynical efforts to extract money from the wallets of blindly devoted followers of a patently silly belief system / cult of personality. Battlefield: Earth was made with the confidence that Scientologists would pay to see it no matter how bad it was, and I am afraid that the same motives underlie the decision to rush this sloppy, amateurish version of Atlas Shrugged into theaters. It ends with the disappeared Ellis Wyatt announcing in voiceover that the has gone Galt, emphatically stating "DON'T try to find me…I am ON STRIKE!" which caused the theater to erupt in an impromptu round of applause. The small crowd of office managers and dentists and petty bureaucrats so enjoyed identifying with the great Producer for two hours before heading home and preparing for another big day of running Northeast Georgia's fourth largest supplier of plumbing fixtures or filling out forms in the Office of Administrative Technicalities at the (public) University. And the cynical bastards who made this sad excuse for a film knew that no matter how much it sucked, society's frustrated, impotent petit bourgeoisie – lawyers, secretaries, cubicle dwellers, engineers, and assorted other educated, angry white people – would gladly hand over the price of admission for that brief thrill of feeling like society would give two flying shits if any of them joined Mr. Wyatt "on strike."
Atlas Shrugged: Part I is as good as anyone could expect a film based on the fiction of Ayn Rand to be. Shit begets shit.