When I begin writing a review of a movie starring Nicolas Cage, I always feel obligated to provide a warning: I am a fan of Nicolas Cage. I don’t warn my readers every time I’m reviewing something that I like, but I worry that the fact that I am such a fan of Cage might unduly color my response to his films. Similarly, I feel it’s necessary to begin writing this review of Atlas Shrugged, the first in a proposed three-part adaptation of Ayn Rand’s epic novel, by admitting up-front that I am a fan of Ayn Rand. I’m ashamed to say, in fact, that there was a brief time in my life where I fancied myself a novice Objectivist and tried to fashion my life in order to fit within the constraints of Rand’s ideals about never profiting off of the work of another person, or “looting” as she calls it. I have thankfully passed that time in my life, but my appreciation for Rand’s work remains strong. Her philosophy is certainly far from perfect (she believes that women cannot hold leadership roles, for instance), and some even refuse to declare it a legitimate philosophy, but a lot of what she wrote mirrored my own thinking which is what I found intriguing, and though her writing can be dry I still found it exhilarating.
With that said, I’m here to inform you that Atlas Shrugged: Part I, despite the meager 10% rating it currently holds on RottenTomatoes, is not as bad as most would have you believe. Which is not to say that it is good, either. The movie is extremely low budget, and I have heard rumblings that it was created largely so that the producers would not lose the rights to the film. The fact that a half-assed version of the story was put to the screen primarily to profit off of the work of Rand is an irony that I hope is not lost on the people behind the film’s creation.
Ignoring that hypocritical hiccup, the movie mostly succeeds in being a faithful book-to-screen adaptation. There are some changes made, such as the decision to set the events in the year 2016, but overall the film holds a huge fidelity toward the original work. This is both good and bad. As a fan of the novel, I found the movie largely successful. We are introduced to Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), the sister part of the brother-sister team that runs Taggart Transcontinental, the largest locomotive company in the United States. Because the world has been run into the ground by looters and altruists, gas prices have skyrocketed – making the use of trucks and aeroplanes unfeasible; therefore, there’s been a boom in the transportation of goods and people via train in the last few years. Dagny, much like steel magnate Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), is a producer. Her one goal in life is to make money, to become successful, to promote herself as an individual.
Of course, they don’t know this yet. In the beginning stages of Atlas Shrugged, many brilliant and talented men have begun disappearing from the face of the Earth, taken by a man who is cast in shadows even when the sun is out. It doesn’t take long to figure out that these men are being removed from society because they have a lot to offer. Taggart and Rearden also have a lot to offer, but they continue to commit the one sin of Objectivism: they are letting others hold them back.
It’s true that a lot of the movie is talk. The talk is the point of the story, though, more than any action sequence. The heart of Atlas Shrugged comes in a 50-page speech delivered by one key character close to the finale. It should be clear that this isn’t about a love story or a race against the clock or any such thing. Instead, it’s about the individual fighting against the encroaching collectivist state. The “enemies” of individualism here, mostly union workers and D.C. lobbyists, speak in absurd ways. “I’ll take anybody’s profit to benefit the greater good,” one man says. I saw this movie in the theater and there were a group of college students sitting behind me, laughing at lines like these. As one who goes to see Christian films in the theater for a similar purpose, I suddenly understood what it must be like to be a sincere believer and hear kids snickering at what you find thrilling. It irritated me, to some degree, but at the same time I understand that the one-dimensionality is there. The lobbyists in the film are little more than straw men, and the decisions drawn in the movie (such as the concept that no manufacturer may create more or less than anybody else in his field) are so broad that they are an easy target for Rand’s philosophy. It’s easy to see Washington insiders as enemies when they are literally saying things like, “We have to destroy Hank Rearden.”
When the principles are acting together is when the film is at its best. I suppose somebody unfamiliar with Rand’s work might find it corny, but when Rearden faces off against Francisco D’Anconia at a lavish dinner party, it was one of the best moments in the film. Of course, I’m fully aware that their conversation was quite similar to the witnessing of any given religious sect – as D’Anconia tries to convince Rearden that he should live for himself and stop letting his needy wife and greedy business partners feed off of his own ingenuity – but nevertheless it felt like a striking moment for me. Because the main idea of Atlas Shrugged is the cultivation of prosperity, this moment is one of the most important in the film. Oh sure, the struggle of Rearden Steel, Inc., against the raging fire of the Communist U.S. government is a big part of the picture too, but this is a movie made of ideas and not events. The disappearance of key figures in the nation (not unlike the ‘Rapture’ of Christian mythology) is met mostly with indifference. This is because the nuts-and-bolts of the situation, the reality as it would exist within the world of the movie, is secondary to the dream of pure, mutual individualism.
In spite of the trappings of a project that was put together in haste, I think that the film succeeds in capturing that concept. Not to say that it’s a coherent idea, necessarily. Where do intellectual trades fit into Rand’s vision, or those who fail to develop a marketable talent, and how would her characters deal with scarce resources? But a lot of the worries that surrounded the creation of a movie version of the novel, for those who were familiar with it, was that it would fail to capture the essence of the original work. While there are a multitude of criticisms that can be levied against the film, I feel that “missing the point” of the novel is absolutely not one of them.
You’ll notice I have not said much about the acting, which is generally awful. I’ve also refrained from mentioning that D-grade CGI that comes with a low-budget feature such as this. And although it would be quite simple to point out the poor pacing and lack of definition which makes the movie move much too fast without adequately preparing the audience to understand the gravity of the characters’ choices and actions, I have until now remained conspicuously silent. As I mentioned previously, this is not a good movie. It would not be unfair, even, to say that it is a bad one. There are innumerable critics who will relish the opportunity to go over each flaw of the movie, how weak the construction and handling of the story is. I don’t deny any of these charges.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I is bad, but it is not as bad as it could have been. If you’ll forgive the cliche, the movie could have been a train wreck. Instead, it’s probably mostly boring to somebody unfamiliar with the novel and primarily messy to those who have. I found the first in the trilogy acceptable, which is far more than I had expected. It does not fall apart completely, and that gives me some hope that if the next two chapters go into production, more attention to detail might be paid.