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DVD Review: Atlas Shrugged – Part One

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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.”

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • LKJ

    Ron Paul is not an objectivist. Objectivists see no moral duty to charity, and Ron Paul does. Just because you value much of her statements doesn’t mean you swallow her view on intercommunity relationships. We just don’t mix up community with government.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Fair enough. What I find more disturbing though is the nonchalant attitude towards the less fortunate, and the idea of giving “job-creators” a free pass, while the middle class ponies up on paying the bills. So where are the jobs?

    Like it or not, Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist” devotees have now ballooned to include every Tea Party nutcase and disenfranchised conspiracy theorist under the sun. Ron Paul’s embrace of her views has played a large part in this — it’s no mistake his campaign once promoted the slogan “Who Is Ron Paul?”

    -Glen

  • Dragostea Din Tei

    You didn’t like the movie much? Too short? low budget? And the working class given short shrift?
    When I scrolled down to see the author I expected to read it was Wesley Smooch.

  • Igor

    Ayn Rand was such a poor novelist that I’m surprised anyone would read her except to confirm their radical rightist political predispositions.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’ve never read anything by her, but judging by the script of this movie I’d probably agree. It just struck me as very one dimensional thinking.

    -Glen

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I read “Atlas Shrugged” back in the day when I was a Republican. Even then I knew that the concepts she presented would – like ‘perfect communism’ – exist only in a political extremist’s fantasyland.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Exactly, Glenn. Whenever some ideological vision of a utopian society is being promised, that’s the first signal to run like hell.

    -Glen

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    if I had known you were going to review it, I would have told you it was coming

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    It came to me out of the blue Bicho, completely unsolicited…were you resonsible for that? Scratching head here…
    -Glen

  • Joan

    I’m not a fan of Rand’s political beliefs, but I did love The Fountainhead. The book, not the movie, which is a mess. I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged yet but Part I of the film intrigued me.

    One reason I liked The Fountainhead was Rand’s prediction of the rise of mediocrity, which has certainly arrived, and the tabloid mindset. As an artist myself, I wouldn’t take her philosophy as far as she does. I do believe, however, in knowing who you are and doing work you believe in and you are proud to have bear your name. I am also a huge believer in altruism. I remember in college a teacher describing communism and asking if any of us would like to live in such a society. Then she said, “quite frankly, I would.” It sounds good on paper only, like some of Rand’s ideas.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Ideas like these are almost always fine on paper, but never work because human nature pretty much guarantees they won’t. Socialism begats communism, etc. Interesting comment though, Joan. The movie still mostly stinks though.

    -Glen