No, Seriously… Atlas Shrugged: Part One Is Hardly Worth Defending

When a film is this bad, any message becomes meaningless.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Yesterday I published Crave Online’s review of Atlas Shrugged: Part One. I was disappointed to discover that it was a very bad movie: poorly acted, under-dramatized and often unintentionally silly. The film has its fans, and some of them have responded negatively to my review as well as the reviews of the many other critics who despised it (Atlas Shrugged currently ‘boasts’ a mere 8% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes; by way of comparison, Ishtar has a fairly celebratory 19%). Like the films of Michael Moore or Sergei Eisenstein, Atlas Shrugged has a direct social agenda, and those who subscribe to this agenda have responded favorably to the film. Unlike the films of Michael Moore or Sergei Eisenstein, Atlas Shrugged: Part One (that is to say, the movie as opposed to the book) does not boast the quality of narrative necessary to convince the uninitiated that its arguments have a modicum of significance.

In what I then considered a somewhat reasonable attempt to avoid delving into political controversy I chose to focus my review on the film’s overall cinematic ineptitude, touching upon Ayn Rand’s philosophies primarily when they contributed to the uninvolving plot or protagonists’ lack of charisma. (The Bioshock comment was, admittedly, largely snark.) Like the protagonists of the film I am unfazed by most of the criticisms lobbied in my direction, such as those indicating that the review lacks validity because I have not read the book. Any adaptation of any kind of source material needs to stand on its own merits, and Atlas Shrugged: Part One simply does not. I remained unconvinced of its arguments due to the lack of compelling storytelling or characterization in the film. One could argue, I suppose, that the movie is essentially an overlong advertisement for the Ayn Rand’s novel. If this is the case, consider my review not an assessment of an artwork’s craftsmanship and value but rather an unimpressed observation of an inept marketing campaign. I have less interest in reading Atlas Shrugged now than I ever have before, and to be perfectly honest reading the novel used to be on my ‘To Do’ list.

The response I find curious enough to actually reply to is the funny notion that my review needed to discuss the film’s actual message in order to be worth the bandwidth it was downloaded upon. The film has a mission, and by not assessing the greater value of that mission my review has been described as ‘less than.’ If you will forgive my profanity: pish posh. By analyzing Atlas Shrugged’s philosophies in greater detail I would have been forced to clarify whether or not I actually agree with them. This, I argue, would have been more likely to invalidate the critique than anything else. The piece would have consisted of more editorializing than actual qualitative observations. That said, I will admit to a general lack of in-depth analysis in regards to Atlas Shrugged: Part One, which may have contributed to the interpretation that my entirely negative critique was based on bias. For the sake of easy consumption I must often limit my reviews to a modest length, forcing myself to gloss over certain elements of the critique in order to provide a general overview for casual readers.

These kinds of movie reviews are often to be taken more as a kind of consumer advocacy as opposed to examples of real critical writing. Watching movies costs money, unless you’re stealing them, and with an incredibly flooded marketplace many seek the advice of critics to determine the best cinematic products on which to spend their hard-earned currency, as one might consult a food critic before eating at a new restaurant, or Consumer Reports before purchasing a new car. Critics are then forced to distil what should be, in theory, complicated insights into bite-sized morsels, often so very tiny that they are reduced to number, letter or star-ratings. I am not a fan of this system, but it is accepted shorthand for those readers who only want to know whether a film is strong enough to seek out above other competitive releases. Individuals who would seek out Atlas Shrugged, I surmised, are generally existing fans of the book, who likely already approve of its content and would, I imagined, be more interested in whether the quality of the production matched the story’s perceived significance. (It does not.) Audience members who are not existing fans, like myself, would presumably like to know whether the movie is good enough to convince them of said story’s value. (It is not.)

So let’s take this editorial as an opportunity to look at the film in a just little more depth, and explain why I consider it a failure, no matter what philosophical, economical or any other manner of purported insight it claims to contain. Atlas Shrugged: Part One – that is the say the movie, since I cannot speak for or against the novel – falls prey to the kind of blind hero worship that lazy storytellers have been peddling since the dawn of narrative fiction. The protagonists, Dagny and Henry, are paragons of integrity whose value system is affirmed less through their actions than by their juxtaposition to characters with opposing views who are uniformly characterized as weak, sniveling and frequently corrupt individuals with silly, impotent names like ‘Wesley Mouch.' They succeed financially because they peddle superior products, which is reasonable. But they only succeed philosophically because nobody with a contrary value system is portrayed with a modicum of respect by the filmmakers.

Whatever philosophy a film espouses, well reasoned or otherwise, would be undermined by such hackneyed storytelling. The belief system Atlas Shrugged: Part One promotes is never tested, only affirmed. It does not overcome reasonable obstacles, despite the pompous musical score’s insistence to the contrary, only minor inconveniences that are usually solved off-screen. And when comically unreasonable obstacles finally become overpowering, the heroes of the narrative literally retreat from society entirely. This is not a convincing argument that they are powerful individuals, and in fact implies just the opposite. Atlas Shrugged: Part One does not have the wherewithal to test its views. Perhaps it would in the proposed sequels, but until they are released – if indeed they ever are – we are left with a single film with a largely unsupported argument, and no particular promise that a more rational affirmation of its mission statement is forthcoming. The result is a film that lacks the kind of drama necessary to support its lofty ambitions. The only audience members likely to be moved by this kind of narrative are those who already agree with its message and seek simple validation of their beliefs, or those who do not question information placed in front of them simply because it is conveyed with confidence. At the risk of digressing, I’m not sure that either of those mentalities would be encouraged by the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, and at least this once I would agree with them.

The critic’s job isn’t to judge what a movie (or book, or what have you) is about, but how it is about it. A critic can see the cinematic value in The Birth of a Nation without subscribing to its celebratory depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, and a critic can dismiss the Paul Haggis’s comically melodramatic Crash without disagreeing with the notion that racism is bad. The beliefs promoted by Atlas Shrugged: Part One probably aren’t inconsequential to society (whether they’re right or wrong), but they are inconsequential to the quality of the film. It’s a sloppily written narrative, which the weak performances and uninspired direction fail to hide. For all I know it could have been adapted from the single greatest work of fiction in literary history, but the film by itself provides no evidence to support that claim. Any form of adaptation has the responsibility to stand by itself, and like its protagonists Atlas Shrugged: Part One shirks all responsibility for the sake of self-indulgence. That is not to be celebrated. It is to be criticized.