On the evidence of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the long-awaited and probably quickly forgotten partial adaptation of Ayn Rand’s behemoth novel, objectivists have no balls. I don’t mean the objectivists on the screen; I mean the ones behind the camera. In the movie, heroine Dagny Taggart defects from her family’s railroad line to forge her own, in cahoots with the prosperous metal-slinger Hank Rearden. She takes a huge risk, and what could’ve been an epic folly pays off. If you want the cinematic equivalent of what Dagny does, look at Avatar. This movie, however, feels bargain-bin all the way. The $20 million budget being bandied about for the film largely refers to about eighteen years of pre-production costs; what was left over couldn’t buy nearly as lavish a folly as what Rand’s opus deserves.
At one point, Angelina Jolie was rumored to be circling the role of Dagny. Toss in Brad Pitt as Hank, add some broth and a potato, and baby, you got a stew going. The movie couldn’t afford them, or seemingly anyone else of note (Taylor Schilling? Grant Bowler?), though it did amuse me to see former Barton Fink co-stars Michael Lerner and Jon Polito batting a few scenes back and forth here. Talking of the Coen brothers, Atlas Shrugged needed an almost indecently excessive echo-chamber look, like The Hudsucker Proxy on steroids, if the human brain can imagine such a thing. What we get is an assortment of scenes in very bland offices, cleverly lighted to conceal how small they are. I realize this isn’t The Fountainhead, Rand’s other biggie, which was devoted to architectural integrity — but Christ, even the home of oil magnate Ellis Wyatt looks like a bed-and-breakfast.
It isn’t really my job to drone on here about Rand, her philosophy, or its recent resurgence among certain citizens obsessed with viewing birth certificates. Nor can I offer much insight on the novel, which amused me for a couple of weeks at the laundromat before I dumped it for Joe Hill. It’s not you, Ayn, it’s me. Honest. From what I did read, Rand’s fiction has conviction and a certain flair for world-building, neither of which shows up in the movie. What you have here is an hour and a half of set-up; even Peter Jackson got three hours to introduce viewers to Middle-Earth. Captains of industry keep disappearing, visited in the shadows by a fedora-wearing man. Who is this man? “Who is John Galt?” people keep asking, seemingly apropos of nothing. Is this man John Galt? Well, if you’re familiar with the story you know the answer, but God help the randomly curious moviegoer whose maiden voyage with Dagny and Hank this is.
The weirdly resentful tone (“People can only own one company!“, a character spits in response to a repressive government edict, probably finding little empathy among viewers who own a grand total of no companies) is easily dismissible. Atlas Shrugged is essentially a sci-fi fantasy, rubbing awestruck elbows with high rollers and players. When you get right down to it, the story says, Don’t be a player hater. In the movie’s universe, player haters care about such emasculating things as fairness and public safety. They don’t trust big companies to have the public’s best interest at heart. Ayn Rand says, in effect, “Screw the public.” All that’s true and good and beautiful is the entrepreneurial brilliance of the elite — we few, we happy few, we band of sociopaths.
None of this would matter if the movie bucked every possible odd and emerged as a great film. Alas, it is not, and its underlying worldview has little to do with its failure. The dialogue reduces the English language to the sound of heavy objects tumbling downstairs (my favorite: “That metal is completely untested! The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities is highly skeptical!”), the leads have negative charisma (Taylor Schilling must’ve been cast as Dagny due to her passing resemblance to a young Ayn Rand but emotes more like the present-day Ayn Rand, dead since 1982¹), and actor-turned-director Paul Johansson makes no creative spatial use of the wide frame — this could’ve, and by all rights should’ve, been a TV miniseries. The saddest part is the concluding title card, which reads “End of Part 1.” Wishful thinking, that: Part 1 has faced such critical pounding and ticket-buyer indifference that producer John Aglialoro has now publicly questioned whether the projected parts 2 and 3 are feasible. See what I mean? What would Dagny say about that? What would Ayn Rand say? Objectivists are pussies.
¹ Rand also spent the last eight years of her life on Social Security. So much for “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”