A disclaimer: I don’t hate Ayn Rand. Or, at least, I don’t hate her in the performative way that someone who falls on the left of social/political lines is supposed to hate her. Rand’s prose is mediocre, her characters hollow, her futurism half-baked, and the way that Objectivism has been twisted and weaponized in modern politics is horrific. However, at the core of everything Rand wrote was a brutal honesty that I just can’t bring myself to hate. Rand offers a window into the selfish, greedy part of humanity that is usually hidden, rejected, or couched in relentless apology. And very rarely she makes a good point, like a squirrel with a bad haircut finding single acorn after gathering a dozen rusty nails. Her unflinching acceptance of the human id causes her to stumble into some useful insights into the futility and self-absorption of guilt.
That said, engaging with most of Ayn Rand’s ideas is like smacking around an empty pinata. Sure, it’s fun to swing a bat, but ultimately by hitting the pinata you’re admitting that you think there’s something of worth inside it. So this post isn’t going to be about Objectivism, it’s going to be about a bad movie.
A really bad movie.
First, some background: Atlas Shrugged is an unfilmable book. It’s a sprawling, disjointed retro-futuristic epic that features a sixty-page speech as a dramatic climax. It alternates between gritty realism and dreamlike fable from moment to moment. The hero doesn’t show up until halfway through and, despite supposedly being an uber-mensch prime mover, acts almost exclusively through passivity. Despite all of this, Rand-lovers have been trying to make it into a movie forever. They finally did. In three parts, over several years.
But this isn’t like The Hobbit, where each film was made back-to-back. The producers intended to use the profits from Part I to finance Part II and so on. But Part I bombed. So the production fell apart and then was (in a stroke of tremendous irony, given the source material) funded by outside sources despite the failure of Part I. And when Part II bombed even harder… The third film had a Kickstarter. No, I am not making this up.
The result of this is that there is no consistency between the three films. Different directors. A shuffling pool of screenwriters, including the driving force behind this project, John Aglialoro, who is not a writer but (seriously) the CEO of a fitness equipment manufacturer. And, most ridiculous of all, completely different casts. In Part I, the main characters Dagny and Hank are played by Taylor Schilling (pre-Orange is the New Black) and Grant Bowling. In Part II, they are portrayed by Samantha Mathis and Scientology whistleblower Grant Beghe. Finally, in Part III, we get Laura Regan and Rob Morrow. Yes, that Rob Morrow.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I begins in September of 2016 (five years after the film’s initial release) with a montage of fake news clips intended to introduce the horrible ways in which the world has changed. This is important, because the world of the novel was implausible when it was written in 1957, but absolutely ridiculous today. Most of the central conflict in the first part of the book centers on train travel, for fuck’s sake.
Surely, the movie adapts that to modern day. Doesn’t it? DOESN’T IT? No. Of course not. Instead, rising oil prices suddenly make passenger trains important again. Also suddenly the government takes a hairpin turn into a bizarre series of fantasyland legislation, fixing both an upper limit on wages (???), fixing prices of goods, and making it illegal for companies to fire employees. And that’s just the opening montage!
We meet our heroine, Dagny Taggart, as she learns of yet another train derailment on her family’s transcontinental railroad, Taggart Transcontinental. This is entirely the fault of Dagny’s brother, James, who purchased bad steel from a company “that needed the business” rather than the best available metal.
This is a problem, not because of the people killed or the environmental damage, but because a wealthy oil baron in Colorado by the name of Ellis Wyatt is Taggart’s best customer. Because of derailments like this, he’s pulled his product from Taggart and put it on another rail line.
Fortunately, Dagny has a plan. She wants to rebuild the Colorado portion of the railroad with an experimental new metal called “Rearden metal.” The film is internally inconsistent on whether Rearden metal is a type of steel or not. Sometimes they call it “Rearden steel” (which is the name of the company producing it) and other times it is referred to as an entirely new alloy. But it doesn’t matter what it is or isn’t–in some ways it’s just another Macguffin in a film full of them–what’s important is that it’s way stronger and lighter than steel and Dagny thinks it will convince Wyatt to come back to Taggart Transcontinental.
Dagny’s brother, James, has his own ideas about how to recapture Wyatt’s business, but he’s a fucking doofus who wants to utilize regulatory capture and drive competitors out of business, so Dagny takes matters into her own hands and completes the Rearden deal all by herself. In fact, she personally visits the owner of Rearden Steel, Hank Rearden, because all good business is done under the table and in person.
Hank Rearden is a work-obsessed weirdo who, for some reason, surrounds himself with shallow socialites (including his own wife). He’s developed the best steel/metal/macguffin in the world but no one around him cares because they don’t understand his genius.
Fortunately for Dagny Taggart, he’s also got a dignified, conventionally-handsome-as-determined-by-a-panel-of-FOX-News-hosts look.
Dagny and Hank demonstrate strong chemistry in the same way the film demonstrates the strength of Rearden metal–by repeatedly telling you until you have no choice but to believe it, no matter what any actual evidence might show. They share so many sideways glances that you’d think that Dagny must have a condition that prevents her from looking anyone in the eye. Oh, and he talks to her on the phone while shirtless. Classic Hank.
Hank and Dagny sign some contracts and start to lay rail–literally, not dirty/metaphorically (that comes later). And suddenly the rest of the business world gets nervous. The other steel producers worry that Rearden will put them out of business, the other oil barons are afraid of Ellis Wyatt… Oh, and people are disappearing.
I guess I forgot to mention that.
All across the country, talented Titans of Industry are being visited by a mysterious man in a fedora and then disappearing off the face of the Earth.
Every time this happens, the film freeze-frames, fades to black and white, and gives a little description of the disappearance in a font that feels like it belongs in Terminator rather than a serious, philosophical film about trains.
Whenever anyone asks what happened to these folks, someone inevitably asks “Who is John Galt?” This is supposed to be a rhetorical question–the in-universe equivalent of “Who knows?” Problem is that, when spoken aloud, it sounds incredibly silly. Also, knowing that the fedora-clad dude going around and making people disappear is, in fact, John Galt, it is hard not to imagine that they are simply answering the question in Jeopardy format and everyone is too dumb to figure it out.
As an aside, John Galt is a real person in this universe–a worker at a motor parts company–who only disappeared a few years before the film takes place. It seems absolutely bonkers that his name would enter the common vernacular without anyone ever saying “Oh, hey, that was an actual guy. I knew him. We played pool on Wednesdays.” What about his wikipedia entry? And where is the Vice.com thinkpiece tracking down the women he slept with?
OKAY, back to our heroes Dagny and Hank. Their partnership not only threatens Hank’s loveless and inexplicable marriage, but also everyone who works in every industry that tangentially touches theirs. So, with the tacit permission of Dagny’s brother, the government begins conspiring to ruin Rearden metal by deeming it unsafe.
Well, shit. No amount of flirting will get Dagny and Hank around this. Or will it…
After lining up all the “experts” to condemn Rearden metal, the government sends one of their metallurgical consultants to Hank with an offer to buy it from him. Now, I don’t know about you, but that sure seems like a clumsy way to tip your hand to Hank that the whole thing is astroturfed outrage. But what do I know? I’m no government agent.
Also someone was taking the piss out of the whole production because they managed to get the actor who played both Quark in Deep Space Nine and Andrew Ryan in Bioshock in as a cameo.
All this bad news about Rearden metal tanks the stock price of Taggart Transcontinental, which is the only important thing in the world. So Dagny hatches a plan: she will assume control of the part of the railroad which is being rebuilt with the metal, assuming all risk, and then return it to the company only if successful.
This plan is approved without ever mentioning the board of directors.
Dagny is joined in her venture by Ellis Wyatt, the oil man from the beginning who stands to benefit if the plan is successful, and (of course) her partner-in-flirtation, Hank Rearden.
Dagny decides to name this new rail line “The John Galt.” Remember, Galt is a real person in this world who has been missing for less than a decade and probably has an extensive posting history on Reddit, yet it’s totally normal to name this experimental train line after him.
Everyone in Washington is afraid that the John Galt Line will succeed for reasons that still aren’t clear–at some point you have to wonder why no one defects from this massive conspiracy to get even more profit by backing the genius engineer and oil tycoon who have teamed up–but Dagny has faith. She and Hank depart on the first train to run on the new line, despite fears that the rail may be torn up or a bridge might collapse.
Of course, it doesn’t.
Yeah, Dagny and Hank totally sleep together after this.
With every bit of tension in the plot suddenly resolved–the train has entered the station (now both literally and dirty/metaphorically)–the film starts to meander even more than it meandered before. The government passes more legislation that is less realistic than the premise of Jurassic World and newly-consummated lovers Dagny and Hank go on a quest to find the inventor of an amazing new motor that they discovered while raiding an abandoned warehouse for locomotive parts.
The plans for this incredible motor–which somehow uses atmospheric particles to generate static electricity–aren’t signed by an engineer. And being the respectful Randian supermen that they are, Dagny and Hank aren’t about to steal it without giving the real inventor proper credit. This leads them across the country on a search for any information about this abandoned factory and the people who worked within.
At this point, the film briefly forgets the conceit that it established in the beginning–that airline travel is no longer feasible–via a shot in a montage. Great work, guys.
The search for the mystery engineer–who is totally John Galt, and they would know this if they just reverse-image-searched the motor and found it was his portrait on his PlentyOfFish profile–is cut short with bad news. The government is governing again, and imposing even more regulations on successful businesses, all in the name of equality. Businesses can no longer relocate across state lines, moratorium on building new railroads, and steel mills must now produce steel (throwing gas on the “Rearden metal is not steel” theory).
Even worse, they are imposing a FEDERAL TAX on Colorado. Literally taxing the state of Colorado. To give to the other, less fortunate states.
This is announced by way of the film’s villain, Wesley Mouch, who has not done anything of note to warrant mentioning up until this point. Mouch begins the film as a lawyer and lobbyist, then ends up as “coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Development and Natural Resources” via unseen, off-screen machinations. This rise to power, though undocumented by the film, is hilarious as an example of correctly identifying a problem but stumbling on how to correct it. Regulatory capture is not undone by destroying regulations but…well…whatever. I said I wasn’t going to bat around the Objectivist pinata and I’ll try to stick to that.
The real issue here is that a Federal agency (not the legislature) levying a tax on a state, forbidding companies from relocating, and forcing the production of steel, is a scenario that constitutional law professor comes up with while drunk on the night before the exam. It is not remotely realistic.
This is all a bit too much for Ellis Wyatt. Remember him? He’s the oil executive and money behind the John Galt Line. He decides to take up the offer of the mysterious fellow in the fedora (who is totally John Galt) and disappear just like all the others who got the faded color/Terminator text sequence. But Wyatt isn’t like the others. He doesn’t want to fade away.
Instead, he wants to set the world on fire.
That’s right, Wyatt bombed his own oil.
And, believe it or not, that’s how the film ends. Cut to black. Terminator text describing how Wyatt disappeared, narrated by a voicemail that he left on an unidentified phone explaining that no one should look for him.
Oh, and fedora guy confirms that he is John Galt, which we all knew.
Here’s the second part of my disclaimer: I don’t hate the book Atlas Shrugged. I’m more than happy to ridicule its many bad parts, but I’m glad I read it. I am a well documented fan of ambitious, sprawling failure so this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, if not for the political aspect. But even as someone who wants Bernie Sanders to (a) win the nomination and (b) move even further left and then (c) somehow win the presidential election, there are parts of that book (not that fucking 60 page speech) that worked as allegory and spoke to me. Rand had a huge fucking blind spot for corporations, and how they could serve the same repressive function as the state, but viewing a few (and I stress a few) of her ideas through that lens, I think the book occasionally hits the mark on rebelling against and dismantling structural oppression. The only problem is that it’s surrounded in godawful profit-worship that, bizarrely, its own characters should see through. But that’s probably a subject for Part II of the film series and not this one.
Of course, the book was written by a Soviet refugee in 1957 and the film was written by an American CEO of a company that manufactures exercise bikes in 2011. So let’s just say all the context and nuance has been stripped out and replaced with Taylor Schilling pursing her lips as a train crosses a fantasy metal bridge.
Atlas Shrugged Part I is a slog, in no small part because of the decision to split the book up into three sections. I’m going to watch and write about all three films because I hate myself, and from what I know about the book I have a terrible feeling that the last section will just be that godawful speech. The book is paced terribly and a slavish desire to that pace is reflected in a film that has just a couple central multi-sided conflicts and one boring, predictable, forced romance.
And not to get too much into trilogy theory here, but the first movie should not end on a moment of despair–the main character literally yelling “noooooo” into an inferno. That’s how the second film should end. The first film should have some small triumph which is turned back around on the heroes in the sequel.
Then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I haven’t accepted enough of the crazier ideas inherent in the story. Maybe burning a shit ton of oil for no reason was a triumph.