In director Paul Johannson’s modern-day update of Ayn Rand’s epic 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, the not-too-distant world of 2016 has become a very frightening place — especially for the capitalists and corporate types, deemed as this film’s “rugged individualist” heroes on the DVD cover.
America is on the brink of economic disaster, and gas prices have hit 40 bucks a gallon, necessitating a return to the rail system as the primary means of affordable transportation. Meanwhile, banking CEOs and other people who “get things done” are mysteriously disappearing faster than you can say “Who Is John Galt?”
An out-of-control government bureaucracy is also uncharacteristically hostile to corporate interests, making things tough for them by passing laws limiting their holdings to a single company, and making it illegal for any company turning a profit to fire its workers. Oh, the horror!
The perspective of these workers, by the way, is an element missing from the story altogether. The only time the working class is acknowledged at all in Atlas Shrugged, the point seems to be to dismiss them as parasites sucking the life force from the corporate machine. Or as Dagny Taggart, one of this film’s two main protagonists puts it, “What’s with all this altruism, anyway?”
Other than this sort of back-handed lip service, you never see the working stiffs building her railway system at all. It’s as though they never existed.
Rather, the main point of Atlas Shrugged seems to be an attempt, so thinly veiled as to be transparent, at promoting the “Objectivist” ideas put forth in Ayn Rand’s books. This school of thought espouses the virtues of self-reliance and self-determination, and the idea of a free market unfettered by such inconveniences as taxation and government regulation. It’s no wonder that libertarian purists like Ron Paul have embraced Rand’s Objectivism like some kind of new religion.
What is more curious however, is how conservative Christians have likewise hitched themselves to an atheist movement that celebrates blind selfishness and greed over the “feed the hungry, clothe the poor” teachings of Jesus. When the other heroic figure of this film, corporate honcho Hank Reardon, defends his tireless drive for profit, he does so almost incredulously, simply saying “because, it’s mine.”
So it is inevitable when the two main characters, Reardon and Taggart, form an alliance to defend their corporate interests against a sea of government bureaucrats conspiring to bring their two respective empires down. The government types here are portrayed as bumbling idiots — people who would impede any forward progress during bad economic times in the name of misguided altruism at best — and evil, inherently corrupt conspirators at worst.
The thing is, despite a couple of pretty great performances from Taylor Schilling (as Taggart) and a very charismatic Grant Bowler (as Reardon), the heroes of this film are far from sympathetic, driven primarily by greed and selfishness as they are. The only time you really feel anything for these characters, it is because Reardon is stuck in a loveless marriage to an ungrateful bitch, and because Taggart’s brother is a clueless fool more interested in gaining political than monetary capital. Needless to say, these two souls find common ground in their self-interest and eventually fall into bed together.
Other than that, Atlas Shrugged mostly plods along through an endless series of boring boardroom meetings and cocktail parties in getting to its point. The thin production values also add little to the intrigue. When Reardon excitedly marvels at the “advanced technology” he sees in an abandoned warehouse where a revolutionary engine was developed, the background scene looks more like the sort of ordinary vacant garage you might find in some B-grade zombie film.
The subplots — which include a terrorist pirate character named Ragnar, and a hedonistic millionaire playboy named Francisco — are also given too little time to develop into anything more substantial than brief diversion. Presumably, these will become more fleshed out in the second and third installments of the planned Atlas Shrugged trilogy though.
But the seemingly most important subplot here, the question of “Who Is John Galt?” is likewise barely addressed. The bigger question one might ask here, is since when do billionaire CEOs answer the door for some mysterious stranger wearing a dark hat and trenchcoat (especially with an epidemic of other corporate types going missing)?
Even so, it’s not hard to see where this is going, and I fully expect to see the emergence of John Galt as the messiah figure of some capitalist utopia in Atlas Shrugged Part Two. For now though, Atlas Shrugged Part One represents the sort of trickle down filmmaking, that is unlikely to find much of an audience outside of hardcore Ayn Rand devotees.
Extras on the DVD include filmmaker commentaries, and a series of YouTube videos that feature average Joes proclaiming “I Am Joe Galt.”