Let’s try this one more time.
I reviewed Atlas Shrugged: Part One (which premieres on Blu-Ray today) earlier in the year and had some very negative things to say about it. That’s because it’s not a good film, regardless of its philosophies, which depending on your point of view may be entirely truthful and poignant and life changing, or may be wrongheaded. The film’s message of individualism gets lost in a quagmire of awkward plotting, thin performances and poor explanations for events which are probably better established in Ayn Rand’s popular book by the same name (minus the “Part One” part, of course). I have still not read Atlas Shrugged. If reading it is some sort of requirement to understand or appreciate the movie version, then that may be the film’s biggest failing. A film adaptation needs to stand on its own. There’s no point in making a movie to exalt a book if that movie turns out bad enough to imply that the source material is lifeless and dull.
Of course, critiquing a book, movie or anything else that exists to espouse a particular philosophy carries a certain danger. If you critique a movie that happens to defend Christianity, for example, then fervent Christians might take issue with those criticisms, as if they are intrinsically an indictment of their beliefs and not just observations of shoddy filmmaking. The same holds true here, with ardent individualists potentially taking issue with the suggestion that a film made for their target audience lacks artistic value. (Of course some critics might actually be critiquing the philosophy itself, and in those cases some frustration might be entirely justified, but those critics aren’t really doing their jobs.) That Atlas Shrugged: Part One fails to convey its message in a successful way says nothing of Ayn Rand’s work, novel or philosophies, only its cinematic adaptation. Lots of adaptations of novels are weak compared to the original. Atlas Shrugged: Part One isn’t be the first, and it won’t be the last. The film promotes the value of individual achievement, but with that comes the potential for individual failure, to which Atlas Shrugged: Part One utterly falls prey.
The movie tells the story of Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler), two titans of industry suffering the slings and arrows of corrupt politicians, scientists and non-profit organizations who want to bring them down a peg. Actually, a lot of pegs. These individuals and organizations are actively conspiring to destroy Taggart and Reardon’s proposed railroad line, and by extension – even by design – Taggart and Reardon themselves, since they are successful based on their own abilities and want to keep those successes to themselves, rather than share their wealth with the increasingly socialist America of 2016. In the background, a mysterious figure named “John Galt” is approaching titans of individual achievement and convincing them to go on strike, leaving an unappreciative world behind for a mysterious location he calls “Atlantis.” Atlas Shrugged: Part One is the first part of a proposed trilogy, and as such little is resolved by the end of the film, with many obviously significant plot points – like the elusive Mr. Galt – relatively unexplored throughout.
From a technical perspective, Atlas Shrugged: Part One betrays its low budget origins despite its obviously ambitious goals. The world feels unlived in thanks to sterile sets, poorly populated crowd scenes and photography that feels rushed and rote. There’s a long, ambitious one-take Steadicam shot during a posh party scene that fails to capture any level of grandeur, since it serves no narrative function. It’s not mobile enough to sell the opulence of the event, nor does it end with or ultimately cut to a significant frame. They broke the editing rhythm with no discernible purpose and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Since the rest of Atlas Shrugged: Part One has little visual ambition, this one attempt to elevate that material falls especially, flat since it has no particular reason to exist. They make one attempt to wow us, and half-ass it. The whole film feels the same way.
From a narrative perspective Atlas Shrugged: Part One takes serious risks by subverting Hollywood storytelling conventions, and does not profit from the effort. Taggart and Reardon are not sympathetic protagonists, thanks partly to cold performances but mostly to the characters’ actions, which are left largely off-screen. Much of the film takes place in offices and boardrooms, where the characters discuss big business deals and political machinations with little context for viewer. Rail lines are destroyed, the world changes, but there’s little impact on the film except that the protagonists sometimes smile for a change. Both the heroes and villains alike exist in a social vacuum, which does little to create rooting interest for anyone without, at least, the context of the book, which is not the mark of a strong adaptation. At one point their machinations indirectly lead to some kind of revolution in Mexico, but this rather portentous revelation is swiftly ignored in favor of more closed-door conversations about the quality of steel. These people can change the world, but the film seems less concerned about the impact of their actions than whether or not they should feel good about themselves for taking them. Without context, we don’t know whether their values are justified beyond agreeing (or potentially disagreeing) with their abstract principles.
And from a philosophical perspective, Atlas Shrugged: Part One doesn’t sell its argument particularly well. This has a lot to do with the bland portrayal of the protagonists, but much more to do with the fact that the philosophy of individualism is never countered by anyone with a legitimate concern that is then neutralized by rational thought. The antagonists of Atlas Shrugged: Part One are all sniveling lowlifes promoting philosophical ideals that are so outrageously extreme that you’d have to be a complete moron to agree with them, individualist or not. But the film never entertains the idea that an intelligent person might simply take issue with building an entire railroad using untested materials, rather than simply take the manufacturer’s word that it’s safe. It could be argued, I suppose, that everyone who disagrees with these ideals, or at the very least wants to keep a close eye on billionaires who’d like to do anything they want without an iota of outside scrutiny, is a total moron, but of course that denies the subtleties and chaos of real life. Obviously Atlas Shrugged: Part One is an allegory, but it’s an extremely blunt one that seems to exist to confirm its audience’s existing opinions rather than appeal to anyone who doesn’t already conform to them.
For existing fans, however, Atlas Shrugged: Part One has arrived on Blu-Ray with an excellent visual presentation, although the film is so insular that there’s little opportunity to take advantage of a surround sound setup. The disc includes a few special features, including a brief documentary about the development of the film, a montage of Ayn Rand fans who contributed footage of themselves saying “I am John Galt” (which is a nice treat for those who contributed but, at 30 minutes long, is unlikely to be watched in its entirety by most viewers) and a highly informative, excellent commentary track from producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro, and Aglialoro’s co-writer Brian Patrick O’Toole.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One obviously has its fans, but seems ill-suited to creating new ones who aren’t already invested in or at least leaning towards its philosophies. That’s not laudable. The film itself – which I’m actually reviewing – displays technical and dramatic mediocrity, with frequent spikes into actual ineptitude, and can’t be rewarded for its utter failure to achieve greatness. Based entirely on its cinematic merits, or rather its overt lack thereof, Atlas Shrugged: Part One thus far remains one of the worst films of the calendar year from an artistic perspective. Even if it is 100% right about everything in the universe, it’s still extremely bad at conveying its arguments, with no entertainment value to balance its heavy soapboxing for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the material.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Film): 1.5/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Blu-Ray): 5/10*
(Note: Our “Blu-Ray” rating is of the product as a whole, with audio/visual presentation, supplemental materials and the actual quality of the film taken into account.)