It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Atlas Shrugged Part I was box office poison. It was a dry adaptation of the first third of an unfilmable book, starring Taylor Schilling pre-Orange Is The New Black. The studio presumed that it would find success because it courted a conservative market that is largely ignored by Hollywood. This was a huge miscalculation, because nakedly conservative films have (typically) been driven to profitability by church groups and Rand isn’t exactly a fan of religion. Also, while plenty of Republican politicians cite Atlas Shrugged as an influence, I’d wager that most either (1) haven’t read it or (2) didn’t understand it because otherwise they’d have to realize modern American political conservatism has way more in common with the regulatory capture and obstructionism of the villains than the ambitious drive of the protagonists. Socialism wasn’t the only windmill Rand tilted at with Atlas Shrugged, after all.
The misguided quest to film a book that didn’t need to be filmed should have ended with the failure of Part I. The free market spoke. But the producers didn’t listen. They still had a vision to complete, even if it would have to be reduced in scope and, hilariously, funded by selling debt. The entire cast was replaced. Jason Beghe took over for Grant Bowler as Hank Reardon. And Taylor Schilling was swapped out for Samantha Mathis, who is probably best known by readers of this blog as Daisy from the Super Mario Brothers Movie.
When we last saw our heroes, Hank Rearden was fuming over yet another set of governmental regulations that would make it illegal to produce his “Rearden Metal”, which may or may not just be a type of steel. And Dagny Taggart was screaming at a burning oil field after tycoon Ellis Wyatt decided to torch all his product rather than let the government tax the state of Colorado. Wyatt then disappeared with a mysterious fedora-wearing dude, John Galt, whose very name has become a rhetorical question that no one has an answer for, because this world is very much like our own but does not have Google.
Atlas Shrugged: Part 2 opens with one of the oldest tricks in the storytelling book: a flash-forward to an exciting, mysterious part of the story, followed by “nine months earlier,” signposting that the film will essentially be the story of how the characters ended up in such a ridiculous situation. There was an entire episode of Community built around mocking this narrative device and there is nothing wrong with using it…except that in this case, the flash-forward is to the last few minutes of the movie, so it feels like the entire film is just a shaggy dog story to get to that moment it teased at the very start.
And what a moment it is! Dagny Taggart–we know it’s her despite the actress swap because she’s wearing the bracelet made by Hank Rearden–is flying a plane! Not only that, but she’s chasing down another plane, which disappears into thin air right as it’s about to collide into a mountain! And Dagny is right behind it! Oh no!
Just as Dagny is about to collide into the mountain herself, she mutters the phrase that has haunted these films like the world’s most awkward ghost: “Who is John Galt?”. This is said many times throughout the first two installments of the trilogy and nobody can pull it off. It always sounds forced, uncertain, out of place. Which, of course, it is. So to start, Samantha Mathis doesn’t have much to go on. It’s a hell of a responsibility having the first line in a film, especially after taking over for another actress. You want to put the best foot forward and then you have to say “Who is John Galt?”, a line that no one can pull off. I suppose Mathis gives it her best but, uh, hmmmm…
I’m sure this is not your best work, Sam.
Before we can find out Dagny’s fate, we get the dreaded “nine months earlier” title and the film picks up (generally) where the last one left off, just with an entirely new cast. The great men and women of this bizarre parallel universe are either disappearing or being harassed by the government for being great.
First, we have Dagny Taggart, who despite her relative triumphs in the first film, sits squarely in the shadow of her brother James. James has taken credit for everything Dagny has done for the company, even the originally maligned John Galt Line. He’s now a model successful businessman, appearing on the cover of “Economics” magazine and being swarmed by supporters when he goes out. He also, strangely, buys his ties at a discount store called Microbuy that looks like a Big Lots.
James Taggart is now played by Patrick Fabian, who you might recognize as the sleazy law partner Howard Hamlin from Better Call Saul. If nothing else, the people who cast these movies sure know how to pick out a creepy white dude to play an unethical businessman.
Also in a strange side-plot that goes literally nowhere, James ends up marrying the woman in the gif above. She approaches him at Big Lots, marvels at his tie-buying acumen, and then… Uh… They go to a piano recital and they are suddenly getting married less than thirty minutes into the film.
For all his sleaziness and impulsive marrying, James means well. He wants to be a man of the people, to help out the less fortunate, and spread around his wealth. However, this is a story written by Ayn Rand, so these qualities make him gullible at best and disingenious at worst. James collaborates with the government on all sorts of shady business, including the “Fair Share Act” which is some form of commodities regulation that compels companies to honor government purchases first, and then divvy up the rest of their products equally among other purchasers. It’s not fully explained, probably because even the people who made the film didn’t understand it.
And how do I know that so little thought went into making this movie? Because they put Sean Hannity in it.
While Dagny tries to keep Taggart Transcontinental afloat under the management of her brother, our other protagonist, Henry Rearden, has even bigger problems. First among them, he has been recast from the conventionally handsome, clean-cut businessman he was in Part 1 to black-clad mob enforcer in Part 2.
The US Government wants to buy several tons of Rearden Metal, but won’t tell Hank what it’s for. While Hank spent the entire first movie preaching about the importance of making deals and earning money, MobHank doesn’t want the government’s dirty money. At various points in Part 2, he tells an assortment of government stooges that if they want Rearden Metal, they can come in with troops and seize it. That’s how bad he doesn’t want to sell to the government.
But Hank’s belligerence doesn’t stop there. He does want to sell metal to a nearby coal mining outfit that needs the metal to reinforce their mines. Unfortunately for Hank, selling more metal to these miners would violate the Fair Share Act in some way that isn’t fully explained. So what does Hank do? What do you think Hank does? He’s a man who wears a black suit, a black shirt, and a black tie. He sells the metal to the coal miners anyway.
The government doesn’t like this one bit, of course, and they move against Rearden in the only way they know how: they drag him in front of a completely unconstitutional court comprised of multiple judges for his flagrant violation of the Fair Share Act.
Rearden doesn’t flinch, or hire an attorney, or do anything that any reasonable person might do when charged with a crime. Instead, he stands up and gives a moving speech about how he can’t be compelled to do anything by the government. And again he invites the government to come and take his metal with guns and tanks, which they politely decline. Rearden’s speech is so moving that the audience–there is an audience for what appears to be a preliminary hearing–bursts into applause.
The judges aren’t moved by Rearden’s speech because they’re all in on the greater conspiracy (even though we never see them again) but they realize that if they send him to jail then they’ll just be creating a martyr. So they convict him (after forcing him into a no contest plea) and give him the full ten year jail sentence, but suspend it so that he won’t be facing any time. This is actually impossible because the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 removed the power of Federal judges to suspend sentences, but FUCK IT THIS IS AYN RAND WORLD.
While Dagny and Hank undergo their various (literal) trials and tribulations, the overarching plot of the disappearing prime movers continues. All of Dagny’s qualified employees at the railroad have disappeared. Partway through the film, the coal mining executive that Rearden put his freedom on the line to help vanishes into a hidden door behind a bookcase (yes this actually happens). Remember the piano recital I mentioned earlier–the one time we see James Taggart and the discount tie saleswoman on a date together? Even the pianist disappears, leaving behind this note:
Dagny has her suspicions about who is behind all these disappearances–an old friend (and lover) by the name of Francisco d’Anconia. Francisco is the owner of a huge copper mine and, we are told, a brilliant businessman and engineer. But throughout the course of both of the films so far, he has done nothing but squander and mismanage his inheritance. At one point in Part 2, he arranges for the destruction of his own mines in a move that mirrors Ellis Wyatt’s burning of the oil fields.
Francisco seems to be a likely culprit in the disappearances because of his frequent (and unprovoked) speeches, in which he attacks the government, charity, and later his own friends for continuing to work and support the “looters” and “moochers” who are agents of their own destruction. He serves as this film’s mouthpiece for Ayn Rand, since John Galt is still relegated to rhetorical question duty. Francisco is practically painting a sign on himself that says “the guy inspiring people to quit working and disappear.”
Despite insisting that he is not behind the disappearances, he even approaches Hank Rearden and tries to convince him to blow up his steel mill rather than allow the government to seize it, an action Francisco sees as inevitable. After witnessing Hank risk his life to save a small part of the mill during an accident, however, Francisco gives up on convincing him to abandon his life’s work.
For Dagny Taggart, this is a particularly bad time for all the geniuses to disappear, and not just because her family company is in the hands of her brother, a man who doesn’t even know where to buy a nice tie. No, Dagny specifically needs a genius to help her figure out how to use the motor that she and Hank found at the end of Part 1. The motor supposedly can convert static electricity in the atmosphere into a power source, and for a world that is experiencing an oil crisis (thanks, Ellis Wyatt) such a technology would save both lives and corporations.
Dagny, however, doesn’t know how to fix the motor and all the engineers she would normally turn to have disappeared. In desperation, she contacts a scientist within the government to help her find someone to work on the motor. This scientist is one of the men who, in Part 1, tried to discredit Rearden Metal with bad science. He was played, in a single scene, by the actor who portrayed Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He has been recast, again for a single scene, as the actor who played the doctor on Star Trek: Voyager.
I wish I was making this up.
The Doctor from Voyager wants to take the motor to the government science institute but Dagny tells him to fuck off, because Ayn Rand. In a remarkable fit of not-being-a-villain, The Doctor recommends the only scientist he still knows of who might be able to help fix the motor–the single remaining occupant of the Utah Institute of Technology, an engineer named Quentin Daniels.
He is played by Oswald from the Drew Carey Show.
Dagny and Quentin work together on trying to fix the motor, to no success. He suggests that the only way to fix it is to find the man who designed it, which was a brief-but-major plot point in Part 1 that seems to have been discarded as impossible. That doesn’t stop them from trying, multiple times, and triggering some iffy CGI and subsequent reaction takes.
In the back half of the film, once Rearden has been convicted-but-not-convicted and Dagny has almost given up on the motor, shit starts to get real. Between the government corruption and disappearances of almost every productive member of society, the economy is on the brink of collapse. There is only one thing that can be done: assemble the Avengers.
A bunch of white guys in suits meet in a stuffy boardroom and come to the conclusion that they haven’t gone far enough and that capitalism has failed, which is not exactly the usual topic of the day when a bunch of white guys in suits meet up… But that’s neither here nor there. Something drastic has to be done–and that something is Directive 10-289.
You’re forgiven if you think that Directive 10-289 is the order Darth Palpatine gives to Anakin Skywalker and the clone troopers to kill all the remaining Jedi, because for Ayn Rand they are pretty much the same exact thing. All patents and copyrights are turned over to the government. All employees are ordered to stay at their jobs and it becomes illegal to fire any worker. All wages are frozen and must remain at the same level as throughout the previous fiscal year–and same for production, sales, pretty much any aspect of the economy. And then there is the cherry on this sundae of fantasy-land ridiculousness: all consumer spending is to remain equal to the prior year as well. Which is to say: if you bought an Xbox One this year, well, I sure hope you want another one.
All of this is delivered to the public via a speech made by President Thompson, a character who has not yet appeared, and who is played by… Fuck, you have to be kidding me.
But that’s not all the government does, because in the world of the Atlas Shrugged films, even a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by Leland Palmer isn’t bad enough. They also finally find a way to break Hank Rearden and get him to sign over the patent for Rearden Metal, which is immediately renamed Miracle Metal. And how do they do this?
Rearden, who was willing to go to jail for a decade to protect his company, signs over the rights for his metal to protect Dagny Taggart, his lover, from embarrassment. Now, let’s be clear on something:Hank is cheating on his wife, who refuses to give him a divorce and tacitly OKs the affair. But Dagny? What exactly do these photographs prove? How is this embarrassing? The government blackmailer points out to Hank that Dagny is seen as a respectable businesswoman, and that little girls look up to her.
So she can’t have a relationship? What is the movie even trying to imply here? The photos don’t even show them having sex. This is about as dull of a scandal as you get. Even Gawker looks at those pictures and says “who cares?”
Nevertheless, Hank gives in and turns over his business. This infuriates Dagny, who doesn’t know the reason he surrendered (though I imagine that would infuriate her even more) and drives her to quit Taggart Transcontinental. She still doesn’t know why everyone else is disappearing, but she decides to find a way to disappear on her own and moves out to her family cottage to live a secluded life.
Without Dagny, Taggart Transcontinental falls apart. And I mean It Falls Apart. James promotes an employee to fill her position the same way he buys neckties and puts a newbie in charge of operations. That goes as smoothly as expected.
A train breaks down near a tunnel and the understaffed operations team scrambles to get it moving, hooking it up to a coal engine. When the cabin fills with smoke, a passenger hits the emergency brake on the train (because Taggart gives every passenger the ability to stop the train) and puts it directly in the path of an unstoppable military locomotive which is also about to enter the tunnel. Since this is in Colorado and everything is on fire there, bad CG explosions ensue.
Despite the pleadings of Francisco, who hoped to finally convince Dagny to abandon the world like everyone else, the stubborn Ms. Taggart can’t stay away from the crisis. She returns from vacation to fix the mess made by her brother, determined this time to set things straight. She redirects the Colorado rail line through the one part of the state not engulfed in flames, then takes a train out to oversee the clearing of the tunnel herself.
Her trip takes a sudden detour when she meets a Taggart Transcontinental technician who used to work at the same machinery plant where the mysterious motor was discovered. He informs her that John Galt is a real person (finally) who worked at the plant and walked out after the new owners tied pay to need rather than performance. This technician mutters that he is likely responsible for the proliferation of the most awkward rhetorical question in the English language, “Who is John Galt?” though he doesn’t explain why. That would be too much work.
This prompts Dagny to check in with Oswald from The Drew Carey Show to see how progress on the motor is coming. Oswald has other plans, having been visited by the fedora-wearing stranger who is making people disappear. Dagny panics when she realizes she’s about to lose the one person who can fix the motor and buys a plane of her own to get to Utah to stop him.
Just as Dagny is about to land, she sees Oswald getting on a sci-fi looking plane and taking off from the same airport. She follows him in her newly-purchased CGI aircraft and we finally rejoin the very first scene of the film, still in progress. Dagny chases the sci-fi plane into the mountains, where it disappears into thin air just before striking a cliff face.
Dagny tries to pull upon the stick and heed the redundant COLLISION WARNING flashing on her dashboard, but it’s too late. She slams into the cliff face…or does she?
It’s a hologram! There wasn’t even a mountain there! Or… something.
While Dagny has survived the cliff face, she still loses control of the plane and crash lands in a peaceful field ssomewhere in the mountains. As she climbs out of the wreckage, a man approaches her and extends his hand.
“I am John Galt,” he says, answering the awful question the movie begins with.
Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is a bad movie and it shouldn’t exist. It somehow manages to be worse than Part 1, and I can’t tell whether I should blame the script or the cast. Say what you will about Taylor Schilling and the guy from Defiance, they brought solid mediocrity to their portrayals of Dagny and Hank that was sorely missed here.
The only highlight was Jame Taggart, discount tie shopper, who chewed on the scenery with every bad line fed to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone involved with Better Call Saul watched this and picked out that actor just to reprise the role of a sanctimonious asshole who really thinks he’s doing what’s best.
Now on to Part III, which presumably will actually feature John Galt. Urban legend says that Ayn Rand wouldn’t permit Atlas Shrugged to be filmed without the entirity of the John Galt speech intact, and god help me if that’s true. What will I make gifs of?