Taylor Schilling is Dagny Taggart, a strong, independent woman keeping the family railroad business (railroads being the dominant mode of transportation in AS’s alternate future due to restrictive oil prices) alive despite the irresponsibility, short-sightedness, and political exploitation of her co-manager and brother James.
A major disaster on one of the lines leads Dagny to replace the tracks with a new kind of steel alloy developed by like-minded entrepreneur Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), who shares Dagny’s independent spirit and is similarly being worn down through a miasma of regulations spearheaded by corrupt politicians and competitors. And against this backdrop is the ongoing disappearance of the country’s most productive members and the pervasive question, “Who is John Galt?”
I didn’t get a screening invitation to the film; I paid to see and went with a friend and die-hard fan of Ayn Rand. And while I agree with Rand on many of her points, both my friend and I left the theater disappointed. Atlas doesn’t quite deserve the scathing reviews it’s been getting, but it’s not a good film either—regardless of where you stand on Rand’s philosophy.
I think the major problem is that it expects you to know Rand’s philosophy beforehand—or at least have read and appreciated the book. And I don’t doubt that fans of the book will be delighted simply to see Francisco make his first appearance or Rearden expostulate the virtues of individuality with a sleazy journalist—they know the context—but few others do, and the film does no service to itself and Rand by requiring the viewer to fill in the blanks. This is perhaps best exemplified in an offhand line where Rearden casually vilifies altruism. To someone who knows Rand’s views on altruism, it makes perfect sense, but for anyone who doesn’t, it’s going to seem callous and alienating. It’s not that these concepts and issues can’t be made relatable (which is not to say “dumbed down”), it’s that the filmmakers barely even try.
Myself and others have been criticized for our confusion and subsequent dislike of the Harry Potter and Twilight films by fans who dismiss those criticisms as mere ignorance of the source material. How many times have you been scolded with the phrase, “Well, you need to read the book”? The same applies here, and my response is, “Then why watch the movie?” An adaptation should not be companion piece; it should stand on its own, as its own. It doesn’t have to appeal to everyone—that would render it a heap of soulless placation—but it should tell its own story, be an offspring, not a clone.
And I’m even more incensed with AS because I personally feel that Rand’s warnings against the dangers of government suppression of the individual spirit has merit, importance, and would make for a compelling film. But in the 50-plus years since the novel’s debut, you’d think the screenwriters had ample time to come up with a screenplay that works around Rand’s utter lack of subtlety.
For the first 70 minutes the dialogue is exposition after exposition. So much so that you may as well be reading the screenplay than listen to anyone talk. And it’s less people talking with one another than one setting another up for a long speech on their personal worldviews, whether solicited or not. True, that’s how they speak in the book and is a cornerstone of Rand’s style, but it’s a ponderous style that resists interest. Even if it works in a book, the medium of film has the advantage of visually broadcasting its characters’ thoughts and intentions, an advantage the screenwriters ignore. The scene where Dagny trades her extravagant necklace for a bracelet of Rearden steel with his wife is a good example of how the film dwells on forced speech to explain what could be said in a meager few shots. Likewise, a dialogue polish and some speech trimmings could have saved the movie.
Yet after the first half, the film actually does get better. Initially AS is never quite sure of what it is, drifting among the genres of political thriller, rags-to-riches, romance, high-society drama, mystery, so on, and skirting the compelling elements of each one—until Dagny leaves her company to found her own. From there the film finally takes off and even effectively weaves in the story threads of Dagny’s venture, her budding romance with Rearden, and the looming clouds in Washington.
In all, I can’t recommend it for anyone new to Rand, and that’s the disappointment my friend and I shared. There’s something good in there, and some issues and ideas worth discussing. I only hope Parts II and III follow the second half of Part I and dare to stray from the book, or during the interim the filmmakers at least ask themselves what they’re doing: Are they trying to bring Ayn Rand to a mass audience or are they simply servicing the fans? If it’s the latter, why make the film at all?