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Atlas Shurgged: Part I
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART I (2011)

Starring: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Graham Beckell, Michael Lerner, Jsu Garcia

Written By: John Aglialoro, Brian Patrick O'Toole, Ayn Rand (novel) Directed By: Paul Johansson

The Short Version

Are you familiar with the work of Ayn Rand?  If not, prepare to get lost.

The original director was replaced by one of the actors nine days before filming, and wow, does it ever show.

For a movie about pissed off people, most of the cast sure seems to be asleep here.

Wouldn’t it have been easier just to film a political rally and be done with it?

A politically charged novel gets beaten to dull death in a movie that’s not up to the challenge of its source material.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

WHATEVER YOU CAN GET AT A ROADSIDE STAND.

Direct from the farmer, with no gosh-danged guv’mint inspectors or tax men to tell him how to make cheese or to take any of his money!  (Did my eyes just roll?  Sorry.)


Pairs Well With...

MOONSHINE.

It has to be Moonshine!  The dang guv’mint taxes the crap out of all the other liquor there is!  (Did my eyes just roll?  Sorry.)

“Who is John Galt?”


Do you have any idea what that question means?

I don’t mean just superficially, either.  You get a tiny point if you can trace the line to its source material without cheating, but unless you’re also prepared to enter into a deep political discussion involving at least ten solid minutes worth of formalized debate points, then you are woefully unprepared to watch Atlas Shrugged: Part I.

Our story is derived from the first third of Ayn Rand’s novel, “Atlas Shrugged.”  The economy is floundering, due in large part to soaring oil prices that have driven the price of gas in the Unites States to nearly $40 a gallon.  This, in turn, has essentially ruined air travel as a form of mass transportation, and the only economical way of moving goods across the country anymore is rail transport.  As an executive for a prominent railroad company, one would think that Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling, Dark Matter) should be sitting pretty, but she’s not.  She needs to improve her rail lines to meet the demands of her reluctant client, oil powerhouse Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel, LA Confidential), and regular steel just isn’t going to cut it.  As it so happens, metal magnate Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler, Killer Elite) can provide her with rails made from a new alloy that’s cheaper than steel but ten times as strong.  However, their attempts to come together for a mutually profitable arrangement are thwarted at every turn, first by the government, then by Dagny’s own family.  Further intrigue is added to the pot when successful businesspeople from all over the country start disappearing, and with each disappearance, more people start to whisper the enigmatic question: “Who is John Galt?”

If Dagny and Rearden have any hope of keeping their businesses afloat, they’re going to have to find out…

Whatever it may want to call itself, Atlas Shrugged: Part I isn’t really a movie in the “go out and watch an entertaining story” sense.  Instead, even more so than its source material (which is saying something), Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a political lecture.  Notice that I did not say “debate.”  I said “lecture.”  The word “debate” implies that dissenting viewpoints are welcome at the table for meaningful comparison, whereas “lecture” only requires one side to be given any meaningful time, and any dissenting viewpoints that are present can be guaranteed less “equal time” than “vicious lampooning.”  Generally, even the most shameless political filmmakers have at least one eye toward gaining additional adherents to their championed causes; indeed, this is usually the whole point of the exercise.  Not so for Atlas Shrugged: Part I.  This is not a film designed to win over hearts and minds for a cause.  This is a film designed solely to preach to the choir.

It’s a very select choir.

Being quite familiar with the works of Ayn Rand, I was reasonably prepared for this when I went to see Atlas Shrugged: Part I in the theatre (where it lasted all of a single week, by the way; it opened on one Friday and was completely gone on the next).  Nevertheless, despite the minimal advertising that the film received, I was rather surprised to see just how very little interest it generated outside of its target clique.  I was literally the only person in the theatre not dressed in either a suit or high end golf attire (I was, in fact, wearing a Wayne Gretzky hockey jersey, if I remember correctly), and based on these and other highly visible cues, including the vehicles these people returned to afterward, I’d say the median income of the room was at least six figures.  They even golf clapped at the end.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the target audience for Atlas Shrugged: Part I and its political message is the demographic referred to as “affluent conservatives.”  (Go ahead and add “White” to that, if you want.)

That message is generally referred to as “Objectivism,” a philosophy created by author Ayn Rand and evangelized in all of her novels, including “Atlas Shrugged.”  Rand is a person for whom the term “right wing reactionary” could have been invented, for as a Russian who escaped freshly minted Bolshevism (you call it Communism, even though it isn’t), she reacted by going exactly the opposite direction, shunning all forms of collectivism or state interference in individual enterprise, and then taking things a step further by dismissing the notion that any good can come of altruistic behavior, either.  Her ideas have major traction with the conservative crowd (as long as they stick their fingers in their ears and go “la-la-la” about her adamant atheism) and with some Libertarians (though many really think of her as a nut job), and the reactionary rise of the “Tea Party” – along with the looming expiration date of the purchased film rights to the novel – ultimately led to Atlas Shrugged: Part I finally leaving Development Hell and getting off the ground.

Unfortunately, it left Development Hell only to find itself in a different kind of Hell.

Just nine days before filming was set to start, the film lost (or fired) its original director.  He was quickly replaced by one of the actors, who on the plus side actually had more directorial experience than the first guy.  On the minus side, it was all television stuff.  Uh-oh.

Meanwhile, after decades of rumor mills attaching everyone from Farrah Fawcett way back when to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in more recent years (as if even one of them would have worked on this budget) to the movie, two leads were finally found in the form of… television actors, one of whom had a very thin resume.  Uh-oh.

And did you notice the part about this movie only being based on the first third of the book, in a move that rather hopes that this movie would make enough money to allow sufficient budget to film the rest of the story?  Uh-oh.

So after all of this “uh-oh,” what does the audience get? 

The audience gets far less than it deserves.

The audience gets an extremely poorly written film.  “Atlas Shrugged” is at its heart a political statement, and though Ayn Rand's intent was to write something that acted like a novel, what she wrote was a tract.  Screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, seem to have alsslo forgotten that what they were being tasked with writing was in fact a screenplay and not a political rally, so they do nothing to make it appeal to normal human beings.  The script is drier than Death Valley in a drought, and the dialogue is so utterly contrived that even if you completely buy into the film’s message, it’s still painful to listen to.  (And if you didn’t know the message beforehand, the writers don’t care very much about your plight and expect you to just catch up, assuming you’re worthy enough.)  These characters don’t have conversations; they trade lines from a manifesto.  Even academics don’t talk like this.  Haven’t these writers ever held a normal human conversation before?  I have my doubts.

It doesn’t help that with but two exceptions in the supporting cast, all of the actors display the emotional energy of a self-hypnosis tape.  These people are supposed to be pissed off, and yet you never see any evidence that their pulses are capable of getting over eighty.  When the film’s sex scene finally comes along, it’s something of a surprise, simply because it’s hard to imagine the characters being interested enough to consider sex anything other than a waste of time, or to imagine them capable of getting sufficient blood flow to achieve orgasm, for that matter.  (This is, by the way, one of the dullest sex scenes you’ll ever see; we’re talking total darkness and shoulder up.  Did I mention that the target audience is conservatives?)  Aside from Graham Beckel as the oil baron and Michael Lerner (Godzilla) as the Evil Liberal Tax Fiend (played to such a level of caricature as to remind one of certain 1930s propaganda films), none of the actors read their lines with any more life than a bored undergrad proofreading a term paper out loud.  The dialogue is bad, yes, but these readings thereof are just flat out pathetic.

With that said, I’m less inclined to blame the actors – especially Taylor Schilling, who occasionally shows glimmers of life that are quickly quashed – than I am to blame Director Paul Johansson, whose point and shoot and yawn style of direction shows all the passion of a Test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  Given that he is at the helm of a film based on such a polarizing and passion-inspiring work, one would like to think he’d want to inject some life into it, but he seems more interested in just getting it in the can than in doing anything lively or artistic with it.  (One might also think he’d be interested in at least some attention to detail, but his depiction of the deserts of Wisconsin demonstrates otherwise.)  One suspects that once it was decided that Atlas Shrugged: Part I would be targeted solely at the already converted choir and not make any attempt at winning over new hearts and minds to its cause, any thought of bringing passion to the movie was considered unnecessary.

Whether or not one agrees with Ayn Rand’s ideas either in whole or in part, this is a travesty.  A book like “Atlas Shrugged” deserves far better than this if one's going to bother at all.  Tossing a third of it onto the screen with no real assurance that the rest of it would ever get there is a cheap enough move in and of itself, but to then squander the opportunity to present that first third well and in a way that just might convince someone not already amongst the converted to give its ideas some thought… that’s just sad. 

As it stands, the marketplace seems to be speaking quite loudly with its shunning and indifference, making it less and less likely that “Atlas Shrugged” will ever get its real due on the screen. It certainly won't as long as this group holds the rights, and the worse they do with them, the less likely it is that someone more competent will pick them up to try again.

Bottom line, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is nothing less than a failure.  Far less of a movie than it is a political tract aimed solely at those already adherent to the philosophy it champions, Atlas Shrugged: Part I wastes no time in alienating most of the available audience, and with its utterly dull and dispassionate presentation, it then fails to live up to its source material for those who do believe.  Given box office reaction (which can only be described as "poor"), one wouldn’t expect Atlas Shrugged: Part II to show up anytime soon, though allegedly, it's coming... with a different director, a completely different cast, and a shooting schedule that takes just six months from first shot to release, with the intent to be out just in time for election season in America. So apparently, the producers were smart enough to catch on to the fact that the first chapter stunk, but they don't care enough to try and do any less of a half-assed job on the second.  Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone in the audience.  After all, it’s not about you.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

Updated solely to reflect reports of work being done on the sequel, February, 2012.


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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