It’s difficult to make a spectacularly bad movie without genuine sincerity. Atlas Shrugged: Part One has no shortage of that. The filmmakers behind Atlas Shrugged seem 100% committed to the objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand’s original novel, which I confess I have not read. I have heard that depending on the crowd viewing Atlas Shrugged this movie tends to elicit either roaring applause or raucous laughter. I suspect that audiences who appreciate this material are existing Ayn Rand fans, or at least true believers in a laissez-faire economy, who support its ideologies regardless of its cinematic quality. Atlas Shrugged does nothing if not preach to the choir. If you’re not singing its praises in four-part harmony it means you have actually watched the movie, because even if you ignore the political soap boxing – which I have attempted to do – this movie sucks harder than the vacuum of space.
The year is 2016. Gas prices have skyrocketed to well over $30 a gallon, meaning that most of America now relies on trains for transportation. America is also whimsically besieged by the villainous ‘Ragnar the Pirate,’ a mysterious figure whose name appears on almost every television screen and newspaper and yet who never actually shows up in the movie nor has any evident link to the plot, which tells the story of two rich white people – Dagny Taggart (played by Taylor Schilling of TV’s Mercy) and Henry Reardon (played by Grant Bowler of True Blood) – who are desperately trying to make money in a time when the economy has been largely socialized. Over the course of the film legislation is passed which prohibits any individual from owning more than one company, and clandestine meetings take place to insure that Taggart and Reardon’s new locomotive venture doesn’t monopolize the market through the sheer force of its utter perfection. Will these two extremely rich and powerful people get even more rich and powerful, or will the world break them down, forcing them to be merely incredibly rich and powerful?
That is the crux of Atlas Shrugged’s plotline, and it requires the audience to associate with exceedingly privileged, boring individuals in order to eke out the slightest bit of rooting interest over the film’s plodding 102 minute running time. Practically every scene of the film involves wealthy businessmen – and what appears to be the world’s only businesswoman – talking in rooms about events which might mildly interesting to actually watch by themselves. Shortly into the film there’s an enormous train wreck. We do not see it, nor do we see the lives it destroys. What we do see is a bunch of people in business suits talking – not particularly heatedly – about how it affects their bottom line. If this sort of thing fascinates you then you are more easily entertained than the vast majority of the population of the Earth.
Director Paul Johansson has directed a lot of episodes of One Tree Hill, and it shows. Atlas Shrugged: Part One feels like a Made-for-TV production, from hilariously limited production values to workmanlike coverage which robs even the most quasi-involving sequences of any real entertainment value. Halfway through the film Johansson briefly attempts to pull off an Orson Welles-ish single take Steadicam shot throughout a posh party, but then he appears to get bored about halfway through it and cuts away for no dramatically justified reason. He also appears as ‘John Galt,’ a mysterious figure whose presence is mostly limited to hushed whispers. If you’re playing the drinking game at home, taking a shot every time somebody asks ‘Who is John Galt?’ will get you one speedy case of alcohol poisoning. Practically every time somebody asks the question the film freezes the image in black and white, and a text scrawl gives the character’s name before indicating that they have gone missing.
Where have these people gone? That is a question for Atlas Shrugged: Part Two, but we eventually glean that they have all abandoned society to its fate. They are among the few truly exceptional people in the world, and they have been marginalized by a new, supposedly altruistic society. So they have chosen to be intensely petty and let the world go down in flames rather than do anything about it. For the record, we’re supposed to sympathize with these people. Ayn Rand’s famed objectivism espouses a lack of emotional attachments, but the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged can’t boast that attribute. These people are offended that nobody recognizes their greatness, to the extent that in one particularly campy scene Reardon bullies a hapless Armin Shimerman into admitting that his ‘steel’ is ‘good.’ They are out to prove that their penises are larger than anybody else’s, and when it appears that nobody is interested one way or the other they just pack their bags and leave in a huff. And once again, these are the heroes. If Atlas Shrugged: Part Two never gets made, I suggest that any interested parties play through the exceptional videogame Bioshock to discover just how well these people fared after crafting their own society. You'll be glad you did.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One is laughably bad, whether or not you agree with its politics. The performances are wooden, the roles are frequently miscast (Matthew Marsden of Resident Evil: Extinction hilariously attempts to play a businessman), the special effects are cheesy, and the story is dryer than a whole truckload of Saltines. It consists of bland, interchangeable characters talking in rooms about events that have no perceived significance, and occasionally yelling inanities even though no such dramatic outbursts have been dramatically earned. I suspect the DVD will find its way into homes of a few sincere admirers, but that most copies will be sold to Midnight Movie enthusiasts who intend to chirp ironic commentaries throughout the entire running time. Atlas Shrugged: Part One means what it says, and I suppose you have to respect that, but it says it in such a pathetically naïve, leaden fashion that audiences will write it off as idiotic drivel, even if – hypothetically speaking – it were conveying the single greatest truth ever uttered.
Crave Online Rating (as intended): 1.5 out of 10
Crave Online Rating (as accidental camp): 9 out of 10
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, after viewing this film I became aware that one of the screenwriters was a Mr. Brian Patrick O’Toole. I have a small connection to this individual, who wrote and produced the Straight-to-DVD horror film Basement Jack, in which I briefly appear as a corpse. I met him once in 2007 or 2008, we talked for a few minutes about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and I haven’t encountered him since in either a personal or professional capacity.]