Regular ARCHNblog commenter Laj Ogunshola delivers his verdict on the new Atlas Shrugged movie.
Atlas Shrugged Pt. 1 is, first and foremost, a movie made for fans of the novel. I tried to imagine how I would put together a coherent narrative of the events I saw on the movie-screen without some familiarity with the source material and I could not for the life of me. Apart from dates and times, which often appeared after this or that major event, usually the disappearance of some executive, there is little help putting together the movie’s events from the screen itself. Character development is a foregone luxury in this movie, which is problematic in part because much of the core of Rand’s novel is introspective and deals with philosophical ideas.
Given the popularity of source novel for the movie’s script, I think this tactic was probably best for commercial reasons given the limited budget – after all, there are enough fans out there to enjoy the movie and at the screening I attended, there was a wide age range of people with a significant number of older folk (there is a significant libertarian population where I live). Most people, including many movie reviewers, have filled in the gaps themselves.
The movie is probably the most rushed movie that I have seen in recent memory and the corner cutting to fit the budget shows. It was overly scored in many places and lines like “This is the consequence of your policies”, “I’m cultivating a society that honors individual achievement” and others containing the word “premise” are all over the place in the movie’s dialogue. One of the opening scenes had two sets of dialogue running over each other and I wondered which I was supposed to be following. While there are some nice panoramic screenshots, some are superfluous (I’m thinking especially of a shot of the forest without the train while the train is running during its most critical test). There might be more to this than meets the eye and I would figure out if I was willing to part with more money to see the movie again, but I’ll pass.
Into the group I call “fans” for which this move was made, I would place two people: hardcore Objectivists and people who find a fountain of inspiration in Randian individualism and economics as exemplified by the novel (I’m thinking primarily of some libertarians). The movie makes no serious compromises with Ayn Rand’s philosophical vision and the world which Dagny Taggert, Hank Rearden, and John Galt inhabit, while ridiculous to most human beings who deal with everyday failure and personal limitations, is presented in its purest form to date. This will please many Objectivists and may turn off many people who are looking for entertainment. Libertarians will generally find much to laud in the anti-government stance of the movie.
There is a lot of Objectivist/libertarian Superman porn (no, I’m not referring to the PG-13 sex) on display here, and I think people who haven’t dealt extensively with Objectivists will miss this. Not often do Objectivist values get portrayed without dilution on screen and despite the limited budget and consequently compromised production values, this is the purest portrayal of Objectivism on the movie screen to date, even worse than the Fountainhead movie. Here is a short list of things that would excite anyone who expected a compromised version of the novel: businessmen telling off government officials without compromise, Rearden declaring he loves making money out loud, seeing the Objectivist heroes win rhetorical debates with incompetent villains on the basis of simple logic, and watching incompetent businessmen utilize the government as if that was their exclusive means of making money. In other words, there is no serious attempt to dumb down or revise Ayn Rand for the masses, though I can’t remember the word “Reason” being used in the movie (that might have been the compromise). The movie takes ideas as seriously as Rand does, which is more than most people do, but not seriously enough to realize that ideas need to be tested and criticized seriously to appreciate their limitations.
Heroes in this movie deal with conflicts, both external and internal, but not with struggle or growth. Because Dagny and Hank are so certain that their plans will succeed, there is really no drama surrounding the climactic event in the movie.
Lots of the action in Rand’s novels takes place in introspection and is not adequately conveyed , the most prominent example being Rearden’s conflict between supporting his family and being true to his selfish values. Yes, you know there is something wrong, but you don’t feel that Hank is burdened by it, something that comes across more clearly as Rand voices his thoughts in the novel. For a philosophy grounded so strongly in free will, the movie presents no one with difficult choices – people aren’t choosing so much as they are being puppets on the grand Objectivist philosophical stage.
What I think might make the movie work for some people who are not serious fans of Ayn Rand is that you know that the actors are trying to make something compelling, and that helps you overlook some of the technical flaws. Taylor Schilling (as Dagny Taggart) and Grant Bowler (as Hank Rearden) do decent work infusing life into the cardboard characters they have been given. In many other movies with problems like those found in Atlas Shrugged Pt. 1, the actors mail it in, but it is definitely not the case here and I believe that is what saves the movie from being as bad as it could be.
Finally, the movie holds out some hope that some of the details missing in part one will be satisfactorily resolved in a sequel. As a critic of Objectivism and its bombastic adherents bereft of significant achievements, I would bet the under on satisfactory resolution, but I think the hope for such resolution is part of the reason why people show more sympathy towards the movie than it might deserve on pure merit alone. There is a semblance of a decent story here and I think Rand’s plot comes through even when the production fails. Rand was good at plots, even if the characters she created were philosophical puppets. Moreover, there are some mysteries - affairs, sex, disappearances – which you might just want to see solved.
So what’s my overall verdict? I did watch the movie from beginning to end, and I did laugh at some of the jokes (and some of the camp too). So my personal view is mildly favorable. The positive Objectivist response to the movie will be driven primarily by its lack of compromise, but as a technical achievement, the less said of the movie, the better. I believe that this movie will also encourage efforts at developing a theatre version of the novel. The producers of this movie have cleared the way, and now others will be measured by this achievement.
As an entertainment experience, I didn’t feel moved by anything, to be frank. I watched Hanna two days before and ran through the gamut of emotions for a movie that was to some degree as cartoonish as Atlas, though far better done. Atlas Shrugged, I experienced a little intellectually, enjoyed some of its humor, but felt next to nothing for anyone on the screen, even after Dagny’s final scream. I might get my girlfriend to watch it at some point to get the viewpoint of someone who hasn’t read the book, but don’t hold your breath on this one. There is some contemporary relevance which might help the movie’s cause but my guess is if you can’t read/like the book, don’t expect to get much out of the movie. Anyone who wants to wait for this movie to come out on Netflix or TV will likely get a superior experience watching this in the comfort of their living room.
By the way, the movie’s producers want you to know this:
“This movie was created with the permission but not the promotion of the Estate of Ayn Rand.”
Also, regular commenter Michael Prescott gives the movie a thumbs-up in comments.