Thursday, 4 July 2019

Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged - Part I (2011)

Hey it's the 4th of July people, so what better way to celebrate than with a retrospectives series! Last time we went through a fantastic slasher film and it's chaotic web of sequels, but I try to shake things up a bit every time. I could easily make every retrospective about laughably bad horror franchises or slasher flicks, but there has been another franchise that I've been wanting to dive into for years. That "franchise" would be the Atlas Shrugged trilogy, the production of which was notoriously troubled throughout. Will that make for entertaining viewing, writing and reading? Having not seen any of them at the time of writing this part, I sure as hell hope so!

Also, I'll be up-front going into this series: I haven't read any Ayn Rand works. Going into this series, most of my knowledge about her philosophy comes through light research, Bioshock, cultural osmosis and unpleasant encounters with libertarians. While I can't call myself an expert on Rand or Atlas Shrugged as a text, I can certainly still analyze this film trilogy based on its own merits (in fact, not knowing the book can reveal whether the film requires prior knowledge of it to maintain narrative coherency). That said, as I go on with each subsequent entry in this retrospective, I learn more about her philosophy through watching the films and subsequent research, so keep that in perspective. If you don't know anything about Objectivism, don't worry, I'll try to explain it succinctly as we go along. "Well if you don't know anything about Rand then how can you review Atlas Shrugged properly!" you may say - luckily for you, I convinced my good friend Matt at The M, who is more familiar with Rand's philosophy and has read the book, to watch these films with me and come to his own conclusions. Be sure to check out his reviews as well for some contrasting perspectives!

I don't really know what to say about this poster. It's fine, but it looks like something you'd see promoting some keynote speaker at a dinner conference rather than a theatrical movie release.

PRODUCTION
After years of modest success as a novelist and screenwriter, Russian-American authour Ayn Rand wrote and published her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to great success. To put it very simply, The Fountainhead dealt with themes of collective societal oppression and stagnation, which stifle creative minds and prevent progress from occurring. The Fountainhead's success helped spur philosophical debate about the novel's themes, providing an early core for Rand's ideas going forward. Rand herself began taking a greater interest in political activism, campaigning in favour of the free market and against communism. This growing philosophical interest and political activism coalesced in her next novel, 1957's Atlas Shrugged, a massive, nearly 1,200 page epic which was equal parts narrative and philosophical treatise. The novel explicitly lays out the foundations of Rand's philosophy which would become known as "Objectivism".

Before we go any further, it's important that we get an idea of what Objectivism means. According to the Atlas Society:
"Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person's rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals."
Rand would further develop the philosophy of Objectivism for the rest of her writing career. Perhaps because of this philosophical focus, the novel was not received very well. This is possibly due to the notion that Objectivism can be boiled down to "excuses to continue to be an asshole". However, the novel found a receptive audience of those who agreed with Rand's philosophy and found it extremely compelling. The influence of Objectivism upon libertarian and American conservative movements can be felt to this day (even if they don't necessarily understand her). Naturally, the political and ideological importance that this novel has garnered after its publication would lead libertarians and Objectivist adherents to want to see a film adaptation.


There had been several attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a film or television series, but none came to fruition for one reason or another (including an attempt by Ayn Rand herself, which ended when she died with only a third of the screenplay completed). The roots of the film which would eventually come about began when John Aglialoro bought the film rights for Atlas Shrugged from the Rand estate in 1992. He then started optioning the film to various studios. After a proposed four-hour miniseries with TNT fell through, the project was taken to Lions Gate to be turned into a two-part film series (which was eventually shaved down into one screenplay). Vadim Perelman was going to direct the film and various high-profile actresses were in negotiation for the film, including Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway (according to the Atlas Society, Jolie was likely going to be playing the female lead, Dagny Taggart). As interest in the film fizzled, Lions Gate then started work on a miniseries, but could not come up with an adequate script. After spending nearly $20 million on various Atlas Shrugged projects, Lions Gate scrapped the whole thing in March of 2010 and nothing came to fruition.

All of these false starts left John Aglialoro in a bind. After 18 years of nothing, his rights to the film were set to expire in June of 2010 if he was not filming an adaptation by then. So, in early April with barely two and a half months of pre-production time, Aglialoro and producer Harmon Kaslow threw a production company together, hastily wrote a script, hired the production team and crew, cast the film and got all of their locations sorted out. Many of the crew were fans of Rand's work and took pay cuts in order to be a part of the film. The cast were largely unknowns or D-list talent, including Taylor Schilling (who would get her big break right after this film by starring in Orange is the New Black) as Dagny Taggart, Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden and Matthew Marsden (from the DOA: Dead or Alive movie!!!) as James Taggart. Stephen Polk was initially hired to direct, but was fired and Paul Johansson was signed on as director just nine days before filming began. Filming began on June 13, just two days before the rights would have reverted to Rand's estate, and lasted for five weeks on a budget somewhere between $10-20 million dollars (although this number is debated; it might be including all of the costs of the false starts at Lions Gate, because I've seen estimates as low as $5 million). However, due to the rushed production, John Agliarloro and Harmon Kaslow weren't able to afford to negotiate and secure any of their actors to appear in the next two entries in the series, meaning that they would be forced to start fresh and recast when it came time to begin Part II. This rushed schedule may also have been why the film takes place in a near-future setting, despite maintaining the novel's 1950s trappings, in order to save on production costs.

The film's release date was set, symbolically, on "tax day", April 15, 2011 - only a year after production began. The film's marketing budget was low and promotion was largely done in an evangelizing manner, similar to Christian films. The film was promoted not only by Randian organizations, such as The Atlas Society, but also through political organizations, such as Fox News and the Tea Party movement and its affiliates, explicitly playing up the film's political status in order to draw interest. One of these affiliates, FreedomWorks, went so far as to try to get the film into more theatres and to promote it at the Conservative Political Action Conference. However, apparently none of this mattered because, despite playing in 465 theatres across the country, the film was a total bomb. It's opening weekend haul of $1,676,917 was good for the 14th highest gross of the weekend, and it ended up earning less than $5 million by the end of its theatrical run. For whatever reason, the film's political marketing campaign didn't translate to a ticket bump as it often does for Christian films.


PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in 2016, with America in a serious economic depression due to intense oil shortages after the Middle East stops supplying the superpower with the oil it needs (this is the last time this bit of context will ever be mentioned, for the record). Further exacerbating matters is catastrophic oil spills and skyrocketing gasoline prices, which cause the rail lines to become the most important transportation method for people and goods. However, the rail lines are in poor repair and there are several derailments on the Taggart Transcontinental railroad after CEO James Taggart tries to get the lines replaced with cheap, shoddy material.

His sister, Dagny Taggart, forcibly takes control of the situation, saying that she's negotiated a deal with Rearden Steel to replace the tracks with a new metal that has been invented by Hank Rearden, which is supposed to be considerably stronger and lighter than any other metal on the market. Rearden gives a bracelet made of the first batch of Rearden metal to his wife as an anniversary gift, but she and the rest of their family openly mock him for it, while another insults Hank while asking for a $100,000 donation. Meanwhile, James Taggart negotiates a deal with lobbyists to secure Taggart Transcontinental a rail monopoly in Colorado. This angers an oil baron named Ellis Wyatt who is now forced to do business with Taggart, but Dagny assures him that they will provide him with the service that he needs.

While Dagny and Hank are working to get the railroads replaced on time, talented individuals in their companies keep disappearing with their only explanation being a cryptic question: "Who is John Galt?" A former lover of Dagny's, Francisco d'Anconia, creates further difficulty for Taggart when his copper mines are revealed to be worthless, costing Taggart and various other investors billions of dollars (it is heavily implied that he did this just to screw them over). To make things worse, the State Science Institute reports that they believe that Rearden metal is not safe for public use, a claim which Hank scoffs at. In response to this, Dagny forms her own company in order to finish the rail line and keep the pressure off of Taggart Transcontinental, calling it the "John Galt Line".

As Dagny and Hank continue working desperately to complete the rail line, even more pressure is put upon them when a new law forces Hank to sell off all but one of his businesses, leaving him only with Rearden Steel to finish the John Galt Line. Despite all this opposition, the John Galt Line is completed ahead of schedule and the first test is wildly successful, setting a new speed record for a locomotive. Wyatt is overjoyed and invites Dagny and Hank to celebrate at his home. Dagny and Hank end up having an affair that night as John Galt confronts Wyatt in secret and convinces him to disappear along with the other men of talent.

The next morning, Dagny and Hank follow-up on a lead that Hank had found about a revolutionary new motor that was developed at the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation but never released, as the company went under before it could be produced. They find the incomplete motor in the abandoned factory and try to track down its inventor. Dagny traces it back to Dr. Hugh Akston, but he is unwilling to reveal the identity of the inventor, saying that the inventor might track her down.

However, a new law is then passed which limits the speed of trains on the John Galt Line and puts a special tax on Colorado. Dagny then discovers that Wyatt's oil fields are on fire and rushes to the scene. When she arrives, she is distraught by the scene, where she finds a sign left by Wyatt which reads "I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It's yours."


REVIEW
Atlas Shrugged: Part I pulled a number of emotions out of me during its runtime, but unquestionably the most prominent one was soul-crushing boredom. Most of the film boils down to discussions about railway construction and the politics surrounding it. Mind you, that doesn't have to be boring! The story of the founding of Facebook sounds soul-crushingly dull, but The Social Network made it a gripping drama. And who cares about the story of the franchising of McDonalds? Me, apparently, because The Founder ended up being one of my favourite films of the past decade. Unfortunately, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does very little to make any of this business and politicking engaging for the audience. This is in part because most of the scenes boil down to:
  1. Characters talking about something they're going to do off-screen (eg, Dagny talking about forming her own company to finish the rail line, Washington lobbyists talking about all the bills they're going to pass to screw over Rearden Steel, etc).
  2. Characters reacting to something that happened off-screen (every time one of these laws gets passed, the reveal that d'Anconia's copper mines are worthless, etc).
  3. Exposition dumps (Hank's speech about the fall of the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, scenes where someone says "Who is John Galt?", etc).
As a result of these building blocks, the vast majority of this film feels stuffy and boring. There's very rarely any sort of payoff, which actually makes the big, triumphant test run of the John Galt Line probably the best scene in the whole film since it's a rare moment of excitement. Hell, even when Dagny and Hank have sex, they can't even get down to business until they have first talked about wanting to have sex with each other, holy shit. God forbid we not realize that they're into each other unless someone explicitly states it first.

Another failed source of tension in the film is the constant setbacks that Dagny and Hank's efforts encounter, from the laws put in place to oppose them, to the employees being whisked away by John Galt. In a competent film, like The Martian, each setback provides the audience with mounting tension as they wonder how the characters can possibly overcome the obstacles in front of them. In Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the characters... just do it. Like, seriously, there is very rarely any sort of explanation for how or why Dagny and Hank manage to not only overcome all of the impossibly difficult roadblocks that get put in front of them, but also complete the project ahead of schedule. You're telling me that, despite losing their most talented employees to John Galt, having Rearden Steel's suppliers get sold off mid-project and having Dagny break off and form her own company from scratch to manage the project (again, in the middle of the process) wouldn't affect their schedule any? Again, there isn't really any explanation for it, it's just handwaved away like "well they're super talented, so they pulled it off".

Right before they pulled each other off.

The film also has a central mystery surrounding the phrase "Who is John Galt?" which could also have provided some intrigue for the audience. However, this also falls flat on its face because, somehow, the characters aren't even interested in the mystery! Imagine this: your best, most talented employees are resigning one-by-one, can't be persuaded stay and they all give the same, cryptic explanation - "Who is John Galt?" You'd think that someone would try to figure out what this conspiracy is all about, but Dagny and Hank don't even bother to look into it. WHY!? This might have been explained in the novel, but here it's left untouched for no discernible reason, time after time. This even ruins scenes which were actually building up their own tension, such as when Owen Kellogg resigns from Taggart Transcontinental. The scene has Dagny asking Owen every question except why he's leaving, so when she finally does, the camera zooms in on his face for a close-up, there's a pregnant pause and then he answers with... "Who is John Galt?" Cue ominous music, black and white freeze-frame and then a pop-up that says that he's gone missing. End scene. What the actual fuck was that? That's like the cinematic equivalent of prematurely ejaculating into your girlfriend's hair right when things were getting interesting. And, again, Dagny doesn't even look into what happened! She just whines to Hank later about "why are so many great men disappearing?" I guess we'll never know with that attitude! Oh, and to make matters worse, it's not like we're given an answer to any of this, not in this film anyway. The film certainly hints that there's some sort of cult surrounding John Galt, who is doing something to whisk away the talented people in society, but there is no payoff to the subplot in this film.

That actually brings us to another issue with Atlas Shrugged: Part I - it is very much an extended first act, rather than a stand-alone film. Sure, you're probably supposed to experience all three parts back-to-back, but that doesn't change that this was released stand-alone and that, at one point, you would not have been able to view the complete package (not to mention that you may not have the time to do so anyway). It's not really rocket science though, they had two options available. One: knowing that they needed each part to be satisfying in its own right, they could have made this film's railroad drama more interesting and provided some more payoff to all the plot threads they introduced. Or, two: a number of scenes could easily have been trimmed down to move the plot further ahead and not leave so many unanswered threads just dangling in the wind. I could easily see Atlas Shrugged as a two-part film, but instead they chose to stretch it out over three films to the detriment of this film's enjoyment (hey, where have I heard that before?). I mean, the film ends with Dagny not finding the inventor of the new motor she and Hank rediscovered and having Wyatt's oil fields burn to the ground. That's about as much of a non-ending as you could possibly have.

Another notable aspect of Atlas Shrugged: Part I is just how cheap it feels, despite the fact that this film's budget was somewhere between $10-20 million dollars. Sure, that's a low amount, but it's certainly a workable number of a film which is largely about people talking about railroads. Like, DOA: Dead or Alive's budget was $21 million, and that film had to incorporate bigger sets, fight choreography, more special effects and more expensive actors, all while looking much better than Atlas Shrugged: Part I. All of The Purge films have had similar budgets as well and are considerably better looking and feature plenty of exciting action sequences. Hell, Neil Marshall's The Descent is one of the greatest horror films of the twenty-first century and it was filmed on a budget under $10 million. It all comes down to the producers, director and crew and unfortunately there are moments when Atlas Shrugged: Part I literally looks like a micro-budget fan film. This cheapness stands in stark contrast to the supposed opulence of the characters inhabiting the film. Like, there's a part of the film where Hank's upper-class meal involves him eating a baked potato and some slices of bread. The sets suffer somewhat from this as well. Sometimes we'll get an expansive exterior shot of a big mansion or a rail line, and then in others we'll a character's office which could have easily been left over from some legal drama. Perhaps my absolute favourite moment though comes during Hank Rearden's introduction. Check this image out:


As you can probably see, they couldn't film the scene in a proper factory, so they went into some office building, green screened the windows and then keyed in stock footage of a rail factory and hoped no one would notice. This was so bad that I had to pause the film and rewind it several times to make sure I was seeing this right, because it made me laugh for several minutes. I'll admit, it's a clever workaround for their problem, but the office that they chose to film it in makes it glaringly obvious. I mean, look at the placement of the doors, which don't make any spacial sense compared to the factory (especially the exit which is apparently right next to the factory floor). The lack of lighting in this dark office also doesn't help make this any more convincing. There is also some horrible, 90s-quality CGI during the train sequences - the train itself looks unconvincing, but the railroad tracks are the worst part, having been painted this bright, contrast-less chrome colour in order to convey how "special" Rearden metal is. The opening shots of the film are also really bad - they need to show a train derailment, but they can't afford the CGI to do it, so they just take some (obviously-darkened) stock footage of trains, cut between shots of broken rails and then have some guy screaming to imply that the train crashes. It's the sort of work-around that feels even less like a fan film and more like high school students running around in the backyard with a camera. I can't help but think that the cheapness of this is partially due to the film's rushed production schedule, which squeezed out any time to secure proper on-location shooting or dress sets properly, squandering a budget that many other films could put to much better use. Like, with a proper pre-production schedule, they could have secured filming rights at a factory, but when they had to slap a whole film together in two and a half months, that wasn't a luxury they could afford.

On a somewhat-related note, man, the writing in this film is not good. Having not read the novel, I'm not sure if this is a Rand issue or if it's because of the breakneck production speed, but at the very least screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole have to bear some fault for co-writing the film that we got. In addition to the unengaging plot that I've already mentioned, the characters are poorly conceived and come across more like propagandistic mouthpieces than actual people. Our "heroes", Dagny and Hank, are both infallible business people who look down on the people around them and take control of everything because they know best. And, hey, the film agrees with them, despite never really showing how or why we are supposed to believe that they should have this confidence. They just succeed at everything regardless, so we're meant to believe that this makes them hyper-competent and deserving of having opportunities just fall into their laps (such as the experimental engine Hank just stumbles across). Despite all this, there isn't much to actually make you like Hank or Dagny unless you're already an Objectivist, because holy shit they are dicks. Hank states, outright, that his only goal is to make money and that he hates giving to the "less privileged", while Dagny whines about altruism and cancels a rail project in an undeveloped part of Mexico because she doesn't see how it benefits her in any way. Meanwhile, all of the other characters are portrayed as scummy, conniving, incompetent and underhanded, particularly James Taggart who relies on political favours to advance his company (which this film views as illegitimate business compared to Dagny's "actual work") and Wesley Mouch (Mouch? ...Mooch? Real subtle there, Rand...), who lobbies Washington to try to break up Rearden's monopoly on the steel market. Probably worst of all is Hank's wife, Lillian, who is possibly the biggest shrew of a female character that I have ever seen. In Rand's eyes, there's no emotional value to anything, no love between these characters - she sees a bracelet made of Rearden metal given to her as a sign of ego rather than a sentimental gift and complains about it constantly, while also being portrayed as leeching off of Hank's success unworthily. When Dagny offers to trade it for a diamond necklace, Lillian jumps at the opportunity since it's worth more in terms of real value. Holy crap, is that the kind of worldview that Rand believes exists, which justifies her own brand of assholes?


That, of course, brings us to one of the film's biggest issues - it's ultimately all about trying to extol the necessity of Objectivism. Normally I try to avoid getting too much into objectionable ideology within a work, for fear of having the whole review turn into a rant and so that people who agree with that ideology can't just write off my arguments wholesale. Trust me, as I have already stated above, there are plenty of reasons why Atlas Shrugged: Part I fails just on a film-making level. However, considering that this film's story is inextricably intended to be a case-study for the necessity of Objectivism, ignoring this fact in a review would be like tip-toeing around the existence of sports in Air Bud. With that said, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does a piss-poor job of convincing anyone that Objectivism is a good idea. Part of the issue is that the aforementioned characters don't act like real human beings. Characters like James Taggart, Wesley Mouch and Lillian Rearden are transparent strawmen whose whose entire purpose is to antagonize our perfect "heroes" and single-mindedly leech off of the success of others rather than do work themselves. It's pretty hard to make a case for your ideology in a film when the world that it's presented in looks and feels completely unlike our own. Even then it's hard to identify with our "heroes", because when Dagny and Hank suddenly start complaining about how much they hate having to give money to people they deem unworthy, it flies in the face of conventional morality. Like, in basically any other movie, having a character say that they don't like helping the underprivileged would be a line given to the villains, but in this one case we're meant to think "yeah, that's right! Fuck the poor!" As far as the film is concerned, only the "best people" in society drive us forward and everyone else just leeches off of their success undeservedly.

The merits of Dagny and Hank's "worthiness" is also rather questionable to me. The entire plot is put into motion because Taggart Transcontinental's trains start derailing after James Taggart makes a deal with another steel company to expand their rail lines. When that fails, Dagny announces that her solution to this massive PR issue is... to bank everything on an untested, experimental metal that she intends to use to re-rail their entire line in 9 months!? When your company is still reeling from disaster after disaster you'd think that, I dunno, they'd perform rigorous safety checks first, right? Apparently that doesn't matter though, because Dagny is worthy and therefore always right. After all, if she wasn't always right, then she wouldn't be worthy, would she! Then, in our introduction to Hank, he's just as much of a smug dick - he's introduced crumpling up and laughing at requests to meet with experts and metalworking guilds about his new metal, denoting that he doesn't need to prove that his metal is the good because he already knows it is. Guys, he's worthy, he doesn't need to explain or justify himself! But, like... is he really? Dagny and Hank talk up about how great Rearden metal is throughout the film, but we're never really told or (more importantly) shown why it's such a big deal or how Hank developed this seemingly-magical product. Even when the science institute says that Rearden metal is unsafe, Dagny and Hank insist that they're wrong. It comes across that government and science are just conspiring to screw over big businesses, which only want to progress human achievement. Of course, their claims about how good Rearden metal is are to "proven" when they finally get the chance to test it... once. This all just comes across to me as the film insisting that Dagny and Hank are so great and smart, and that their arrogance is totally merited because they're just that good. Nevermind all the people like Billy McFarland who exude all the confidence in the world and who everyone around him claims is a visionary building great things, who ends up being a massive con artist when it all crumbles - the only difference is that Dagny and Hank manage to actually accomplish what they say they'll do, inexplicably.

There's also a big exposition dump near the end of the film, when Dagny and Hank are headed to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Corporation to find the experimental engine they were developing. Hank explains that the company went out of business because of "bad ideas": they paid everyone according to a wage scale, paying everyone according to their needs rather than their contributions. Dagny is vehemently opposed to this and says: "Why all these stupid altruistic urges? It's not being charitable or fair. What is it with people today?" Hank then says that, because of this, "no surprise, the smart managers and the better workers left the company. But hundreds of remaining staff couldn't handle it alone. Service dropped, quality in their once-great products was gone, and that was that." This is, of course, what Objectivists thinks happens when companies don't reward their workers according to their contributions, but it seems way too simplified to me. For one thing, who is it that's determining the proper pay for contributions? The workers on the ground are the ones keeping the company going, but the managers are the ones who are going to set the pay - you know that they're the higher-ups are going to be taking the credit and making the most, regardless of the success or failure of the company. It sure is convincing when we've got a pair of super-rich people complaining about how they're not able to make even more money when that system has already gotten us into a state of radical wealth inequality. Furthermore, are you telling me that these "smart managers" didn't get replaced by similarly-capable workers or that the company wasn't grooming new employees to move into their positions? Probably strangest of all, all of the company's innovations were then lost and left behind!?


This Randian philosophy at the heart of the narrative ultimately results in a film that doesn't fit into any conventional sense of morality. It advocates for a dog-eat-dog world where the rich don't have to have any sort of obligation to society. At best, it suggests that they will use this freedom to help drive society forward (as we see with Dagny and Hank's efforts to revolutionize the railroads and motors), but this is a laughably simplistic notion to apply to real life. In the years since the publication of Atlas Shrugged, its libertarian message has taken root in the United States and has led to insane wealth inequality where people can't succeed no matter how "worthy" they are. Of course, the people at the top will maintain that they deserve to be, despite making more than the vast majority of the employees under their purview, combined.

So, yeah - Atlas Shrugged: Part I sucks. It advocates for an immoral ideology at its core and then has to resort to strawmen and plot contrivances to make it even seem reasonable within its own fiction. Even then, the film itself is poorly made and uncompelling to watch. Similarly to the Christian films I mentioned earlier, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is the sort of film which is only going to appeal to the people who already agree with its worldview and feel validated by its existence. For basically everyone else, it's a total slog with an unsatisfying non-conclusion.

3/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II!

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