Fox // 2011 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // November 23rd, 2011
Who is John Galt?
When cinema is at its best, it's an amalgam of entertainment and art. When at its worst, it's fulfilling an obligation to uphold a contract or retain legal rights. Atlas Shrugged: Part One is a film so strained by its obligations, it isn't all that entertaining.
It's the year 2016, and the United States is in shambles: energy prices are through the roof, forcing most people to return to trains for transportation; the steel industry is smoldering with over-regulation and government-mandated fairness; and the country's top industrialists, inventors, and producers are vanishing, reducing progress to a standstill.
It's a tough time to be Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden.
Dagny (Taylor Schilling, Mercy), the head of Taggart Transcontinental, is struggling to keep her railroad in business after some faulty lines cause a massive derailment in Colorado. She calls upon experimental metallurgist Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler, True Blood), whose new steel just so happens to be the lightest and strongest in the world. Together, these two team up to fight the mooching government system, cut their own path, take over the rail industry, and, most importantly, make some money.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One is based on the first third of the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand.
A few years back, I carried a paperback copy of Ayn Rand's gigantic novel around in my satchel for months, slowly working through her tale of railroads, individualism, and long-winded people with funny names -- it's too bad I read it before the Kindle was invented. I enjoyed it, though; it was suspenseful, pulpy, and challenging. Most notably, it was cinematic. Rand's early work as a screenwriter helped her take a lumbering new philosophy and apply it to a science fiction mystery about railroads. Not an easy task. Adapting that 1,000 page book to the big screen proved to not be any easier, as producer John Aglialoro found out after 20 years of trying to sell the rights to anyone in Hollywood. Threatened with losing his investment, the entrepreneur set out to make the film himself; however, this admirable sentiment to produce the movie on his own terms keeps Atlas from ever aspiring beyond the quality of a direct-to-DVD release.
In a race to meet the required legal deadlines, Atlas Shrugged: Part One was quickly scripted by Brian Patrick O'Toole. The result is a screenplay that is both too brisk and overburdened. It's almost paradoxical that so much is said, and so many events unfold, yet character relationships and motives are still undefined; that events of a major scale still breeze by like points on a checklist. Characters speak in passages chocked full of ideas and exposition, but actual emotional investment or tension doesn't develop. There's barely a sense of the magnitude of what's at stake -- guys, the world is supposed to be falling apart.
Unless you've read the novel and are able to fill in the blanks, Atlas is merely a mediocre stage play. Not since IKEA's corporate training video has there been a movie featuring so many desks. Our protagonists are perfectly content just chatting -- in offices, bars, diners, and ball rooms. In literature, having characters talk for entire scenes isn't really a problem. When the writing and direction are superb, we don't mind so much in cinema either. Here, it's an issue; Atlas is too claustrophobic for much of its runtime. Director Paul Johansson (One Tree Hill), who took on directorial duties nine days before the start of production, can't shoulder too much of the blame. Some of his exterior shots, like the opening diner scene with Midas Mulligan, are really well done. But it's clear that his lack of budget held the film back from really being able to open up. It's not until the third act, when trains start running and things start exploding, that we get any sense of the epic scale this story needs.
Atlas is a notch away from being decent in just about every area of its production, acting included. The film's two leads never feel comfortable or realistic. Taylor Schilling plays Dagny with emotional inconsistency; she keeps trying to act within the confines of the stiff screenplay, and the result is something that resembles a cold line reading. Bowler fairs a bit better as Henry Rearden -- he plays him with the smug anger of Gary Cooper in Rand's The Fountainhead. But the two don't connect in any meaningful way, which effects the weight of events later in the film. At least the supporting cast is a well-recognized assortment of character actors: Michael Lerner (Elf) plays the slimey Washington looter Wesley Mouch, Patrick Fischler (Mulholland Dr.) is Rearden's opportunistic hanger-on Paul Larkin, and Geoff Pierson (Dexter) appears briefly as big-wig Midas Mulligan. The film's secondary cast is easily its strongest asset.
Despite respectable intentions, Atlas Shrugged: Part One misses the mark. The acting is poor, the writing needed more time in the incubator, and the pacing is all over the place. Worst of all, "part one" does not stand on its own as a complete film. It ends with an abrupt, downer of a cliffhanger that would be perfectly acceptable if this were the first episode of a TV miniseries. It's not though, and without any guarantee the next two installments will even get produced, the ending is unsatisfying.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One is at least a decent-looking Blu-ray release. The film's 2.35:1/1080p transfer is bright and colorful, with a slick presentation and moderately convincing digital effects. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does stumble a bit, however, due to some unfortunate inconsistencies in the dialogue track. A number of scenes have characters suddenly getting quieter when they turn their backs or start walking -- I can't tell if that's an issue with the microphones they used during filming or the mix itself. The rest of the surround sound is quite good, with ambient noise pushed to the back speakers and booming trains and Elia Cmiral's score blaring when necessary. The disc comes with a making-of featurette, a slideshow, a weird assortment of fan videos where people claim to be John Galt, and a commentary track that's both informative and kind of dry.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One isn't a complete train wreck, but it's really close. Made under the worst kinds of circumstances, the film almost feels like it should have been shelved after meeting its contractual demands, waiting to be remade again when the proper talent, writing, and funding was in place. Their attempt is admirable, sure, but fans of the novel (or even critics of it) shouldn't have to settle for this just because it exists. What was released was an average product that no government would try and regulate, no looter would want to steal, and no John Galt would want to see.
Guilty, with a shrug.
Review content copyright © 2011 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Fan Videos
* Official Site