Fox // 2011 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 1st, 2011
"Ayn Rand's timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice" -- from the DVD liner notes
That hilariously misguided description is one of the most entertaining aspects of this entire DVD, since true Randians value self-sacrifice about as much as film critics cherish the Transformers franchise. Still, it must be said that at least that misprint (to be corrected, apparently, on future DVD releases) does mark a deviation from Rand's written words, which is a welcome release for a movie that serves its source material not wisely, but too well.
In 2016, Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling, Mercy) is trying to save her family railroad from the administration of her incompetent brother James (Matthew Marsden, Rambo). She teams up with Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler, Ugly Betty), a steel magnate who has created a new type of alloy, to put together a brand new railroad while battling government bureaucrats. Together, the two also try to solve the mystery of the design of a new engine that could change the way trains run, as well as they mystery of why famous company owners are suddenly disappearing.
Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957, and most of Rand's proponents (especially the filmmakers responsible for this adaptation) will insist that her ideas are so timeless that viewers today will easily be able to relate to the story. It's entirely possible that the way those ideas are presented in the novel makes that true (for the record, this reviewer has never read a word of Rand's work), but this film version makes the story look ridiculously dated, in ways that echo old '30s visions of what the late twentieth century would look like. For that, the filmmakers deserve the blame; if Atlas Shrugged: Part I is meant to be a disquieting vision of the future, then why does it look like a third-rate recreation of a long-gone past?
Make no mistake: this is a movie that, in every way, shape, and form, screams "1957." That's not a compliment; it's an indication of just how ludicrous the filmmakers' decision to slavishly follow Rand's text to the letter is. The opening titles proclaim that this story takes place in 2016, yet the story centers entirely on the need to construct a new railroad. Rail travel, of course, was a big deal at the time the book was written, so it became the centerpiece of the novel. Making it the heart of a movie set in the early twenty-first century, however, is preposterous. There's a brief explanation at the beginning that attempts to gloss this over (it involves high gas prices), but it's so halfhearted and delivered so quickly that it's as if the movie would rather you just forget about it and focus on the pretty trains. As a filmmaker, you can ask for a lot of suspension of disbelief from viewers, but to expect people to view a movie about trains as a parable on America today and tomorrow is more bizarre than a movie about giant robots from outer space.
Throughout Atlas Shrugged: Part I, you can find other decisions that make this a profoundly alienating experience. The story depicts a supposed dystopia, yet it's told entirely from the point of view of the wealthiest and most comfortable members of society. This proves to be a mistake. If this such a dystopia, then why are all the characters onscreen living in sumptuous mansions, eating exotic four-course meals, and being chauffeured in limousines? Their only problems are not that governments and bureaucracies are threatening their livelihoods; it's that government and bureaucracies are threatening their ability to make hundreds of billions of dollars instead of tens of billions of dollars. As a dramatic choice, this is disastrous; there's no urgency whatsoever to any of the problems onscreen since no one is being threatened with anything remotely painful. Why don't we see the effect this supposedly hellish netherworld has on actual, non-billionaire people? Atlas Shrugged: Part I is like a bad '50s movie in which supposedly terrible things are happening but we never actually see them happening, because it doesn't actually want to disturb viewers. The only people in the film who don't have cushy jobs are a homeless bum, glimpsed briefly in one shot, and Dagny's secretary, who has no defining characteristics other than telling Dagny when and where her meetings are.
As if to add insult to injury, that secretary is the only non-white character in the entire film. That's right: the one token minority is a secretary that does nothing but help the movie's main white character be successful. Clearly, according to Part I, Rand's philosophy is so universal that its appeal runs the gamut from white billionaires in the railroad industries to white billionaires in the manufacturing industries. This is by far the most outrageous aspect of this film -- in an America that's more multiracial and multicultural than ever, the notion that the future's most heroic and capable citizens are all white billionaires is almost -- almost -- hilarious.
Actually, it might be possible to label the film racist for making the one non-white character so one-dimensional, but that wouldn't be entirely fair, since every character here is so one-dimensional. The "good" characters (mainly Dagny and Rearden) never suffer from self-doubt or hardship, apparently because their cause is so noble and righteous. Similarly, the "bad" characters are all cardboard villains, who aren't the least bit likable or even complex. They state their evil intentions clearly and even look sweaty and ill-groomed, just to highlight their villainy. It's all about as subtle as an Ed Wood film, which makes it even more bizarre to watch. Given such poorly delineated characters, the actors deliver equally shallow performances. No one stands out as better or worse, because no one is given a character so much as a mouthpiece for pro-capitalist or anti-capitalist sentiments. Why are Dagny and her brother so different? Why does Reardon's wife hate him so much? The movie doesn't know and doesn't care, even though it would explain an awful lot.
You might hope that the special features might fill in some of these holes, but they're actually even less helpful. There's a commentary by executive producer John Aglialoro and screenwriters Brian Patrick O'Toole and Harmon Kaslow that's mostly just self-congratulatory blather. You won't even hear a word about how the film's director was brought in at the last minute after the original director left the project. Also included is the brief featurette, "Road to Atlas Shrugged" (5:12), which is just a short interview with Aglialoro. The other featurette, "I Am John Galt" (35:07), is even more pointless. It consists of fan videos sent in over the web of people saying the title phrase. Unless you're one of the people in question, skip it. The disc is rounded out with a photo gallery.
Where Atlas Shrugged: Part I does go right is visually. It looks remarkably good, considering its low budget. The shots of Dagny's triumphant comeback project look appropriately epic and spectacular. CGI has made the ability to make a low-budget film like this one look reasonably well. The anamorphic transfer does indeed show off the pretty pictures quite well (although there is a touch of grain in some of the nighttime scenes). Even better is the 5.1 surround mix, which sounds thunderous even in the quietest moments. At least technically, Atlas Shrugged: Part I delivers some entertainment.
Also, the mystery part of the plot is handled reasonably well. It's hardly groundbreaking storytelling, and anyone with even the slightest cursory knowledge of film can easily spot the solution miles away, but during these scenes Part I plays like a reasonable facsimile of a modern film. Considering that this is a film set in the future in which the Internet is never mentioned and people still get their news from newspapers, that's no small achievement.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I suffers from the key flaw that way too many book-to-film adaptations have: it follows the source material so slavishly that it's useless as a movie. If Ayn Rand's ideas are so timeless, then why not take the basic outlines of the story and update them for today's audiences? Did the movie have to be about railroads? Did it have to focus exclusively on white billionaires? Must the story take place in an America that looks, sounds, and behaves exactly like a vision of the future from the middle of last century? The only people who could possibly enjoy this movie are devoted Rand acolytes, and even then they may as well just stick to the book instead.
Guilty of being ridiculously dated and pointless.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Official Site