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ReThink Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 -- Who Is John Galt? And Who Cares?

Posted: 04/15/11 03:27 PM ET

Can you believe it? Part 1 (of 3) of the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged is out! In case you don't know, for conservatives, free marketeers, predatory capitalists, and people who hate the government and the poor, Atlas Shrugged is like what would happen if the Da Vinci Code fucked the Twilight books and had a baby, and Republicans decided that baby should be the basis for running history's most powerful country. Atlas Shrugged is the founding text that brings us the revolutionary, inspiring ideas that helping people is dumb, poor people are goblin leeches, corporations are always right, and fabulously wealthy CEOs are the smartest, hardest working, most awesome people in the world -- and the government just won't give them a fair shake.

Yes, the ideology of Atlas Shrugged, and by extension the Republican party, is misguided and disturbingly cruel. But that's only one of the many reasons why Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is a cold, muddled mess that even your craziest Teabagger will find hard to like. Though it's hard to say, since those people are crazy.

The storyline is kind of a mess and hard to summarize, but I'll try. It's 2016 and the world has suffered a massive economic collapse, with sky-high unemployment and gas near $40/gallon. But Atlas Shrugged says "screw those people!" and spends its time following the fabulously insulated wealthy, like siblings Dagny (Taylor Schilling) and James (Matthew Marsden) Taggert who run their family's railroad company whilst hating each other.

Dagny wants to use a revolutionary new steel created by Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler) to update their aging rails. But the evil government in Washington has a freakishly misguided view of equality and serving the masses, so they pass weird, onerous legislation to keep Reardon metal off the market so obsolete steelmills can stay open and workers aren't laid off (the benefit to the politicians is unclear). At the same time, America's greatest CEOs, executives, and corporate royalty are mysteriously disappearing, which has something to do with the question, "Who is John Galt?" And there's also something about some kind of new engine that's really awesome or something.

If all this sounds really boring, that's because it is. Really. Boring. The only thing that kept me engaged was trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. It felt a lot like I had walked into the middle of negotiations between some companies I'd never heard of regarding business I didn't understand or care about involving people who were assholes. If you thought that Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace should've had more scenes about the Trade Federation, Atlas Shrugged is the movie for you.

A big reason why I didn't care is because it's hard to care about any of the characters in Atlas Shrugged. It's more than possible to make a great movie where people just talk about something you know little about, like 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, and the Social Network . But what makes those films work is that the people doing the talking have distinct personalities you might be able to relate to or sympathize with. In Atlas Shrugged, all the people are conniving politicians, rich jerks, or cold, emotionless, wealthy corporate robots -- and we're supposed to root for the robots.

Good things about Atlas Shrugged? Taylor Schilling (who you may recognize as the star of the short-lived NBC hospital drama Mercy) is very easy on the eyes. The digital cinematography looks quite nice.

That's it.

Director Paul Johansson -- who you may remember as Dan Scott from One Tree Hill and the director of no feature films -- gives Atlas Shrugged the look and feel of a well-budgeted TV show, where the main priority is simply getting it done before the deadline. Not coincidentally, that fits with the fact that Atlas Shrugged was rushed into production on an estimated $15 million budget before producer John Agliaro lost the rights to the book. There's little creativity when it comes to shot selection, composition or editing (if a character is talking, the camera is on them), which is consistent with a TV approach where you simply set up your close, medium and wide shots since there isn't time or money to do anything more complicated or interesting.

And then there's the ideas behind Atlas Shrugged. The film unabashedly worships wealthy CEOs, claiming that they're the smartest, most hard-working and deserving people among us who apparently run their businesses singlehandedly (you almost never see any of the employees who work for them or contribute their ideas/effort/expertise). The film has a clear contempt for the poor (since they're clearly lazy and incompetent leeches), as well as those who seek to help them, since Ayn Rand felt that altruism was evil.

If anything, viewers are supposed to feel pity for the rich and powerful, who apparently just want to help the world if only the government would get out of their way. Even amongst the most ardent Teabagger, this is a hard sell in the wake of the financial meltdown, Bernie Madoff and the Gulf oil spill, especially since the film's benevolent ultra-capitalists are not likable characters. The government's actions, which are ostensibly supposed to represent the fantasies of progressives like myself, make no sense, to the point that anyone (including myself) would oppose them.

Is this really what conservatives have based their ideology on? Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is supposed to be the first of a trilogy, but I'll be surprised if the remaining two sequels are ever made. Which I suppose will be an apt statement on conservatism, Ayn Rand, and the marketplace of ideas.

(***SPOILER ALERT***)

The film ends with Dagny, in her most emotional moment, shrieking and crying as she watches an oil field burn. If that doesn't say everything about today's Republicans, I don't know what does.

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