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‘Atlas’ is a Laughingstock

There’s something almost poetic about seeing the first installment of a proposed trilogy of films based on Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” in Irvine. Something akin to a screening of “The Godfather” in the Italian countryside, or of “Star Wars: A New Hope” on Tatooine. Only two miles from the Ayn Rand Institute’s global headquarters, I ventured into an Edward’s cinema for the film’s opening night—which was, not accidentally, April 15th, Tax Day.

Elbow-to-elbow among old, very old, white conservatives in a packed house, I settled in for an adaptation forty years in the making. Rand is, of course, a patron saint of the Tea Party movement: a symbol of capitalism without restraint, conservatism without religion, and feminism without feminists, and her mammoth (1,368 page) tome has inspired many to embrace their rational self-interest and follow it wherever it may lead.

With that said, the film is didactic, unaesthetic, tone deaf and comically bad—it is, I would dare say, “The Room” for Republicans. The reference to Tommy Wiseau’s ironically-beloved cult classic is hardly an overstatement. With a script that reads like a free-market Chick tract and a cast of feckless has-beens and never-weres, the feature film debut of director of Phil Johansson (“One Tree Hill”) might just be the perfect cinematic rendering of Rand’s philosophical-literary work.

The story, as far as there is one, centers around Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), a railroad magnate, and her kindred spirit, Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), a steel magnate whose new metal, brilliantly-named “Rearden Metal,” will revolutionize industry. Or, it would revolutionize industry, were it not for the unholy triumvirate of state-sponsored scientists, Washington politicians, and organized labor scheming to undermine all individual achievement everywhere.

Dagny is, famously, a cool, rational pragmatist with a passion for business, but Schilling plays her robotically — my description here is unfair to robots everywhere. The only hints of affect in her characterization come in the mishandled sex sequence she shares with Hank, which called to my mind James Baldwin’s old observation that “any loveless touch is a violation.”

Indeed, the love affair between Dagny and Hank — who is a stunted, one-minute-man with his wife at home — can hardly stand itself! It is presented in a series of glimpses, the screen fading in and out during the entire scene.  This miserable sex-like scene is the only attempt the film makes towards anything like cinematic experimentation, the only moment when the cinematography isn’t completely in the service of the film’s politics.

This moment of failed humanity is metonymic for the larger failures of the film’s absent pathos. That is, whereas the novel is a sprawling account of heroism, the film sees fit merely to label, in a big block letters, “HERO” on each of the leads’ foreheads (perhaps for conservative audiences struggling with multiple varieties of cultural/emotional illiteracy). The cartoonish heroism of the protagonists turns their liberal enemies from villains to clowns.

And what clowns they are! The Washington politicians cavort in smokey nightclubs while planning legislation like the “Equalization of Opportunity Bill,” and the trade union bosses are dim, lazy roustabouts. When one such union organizer was verbally assailed by Dagny, several members of the audience applauded, and I was in stitches.

The film was shot in a little over a month during the summer of 2010, with a paltry budget of 10 million dollars. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with low production values, but the film masquerades as a much more expensive movie, to its detriment. The visual effects are jarringly bad, and the crowd scenes are filled with noticeably non-Hollywood types (read: the ugliest people you will ever see outside of a British art film).

This rushed, bumbling film also tries to capitalize (pun intended) on the current economic crisis. Set in a dystopian 2016, a series of crises are introduced via an opening montage of news reports showing the poor and destitute — or, mankind’s greatest enemies, according to the logic of the film — causing havoc in the streets. It’s worth noting that these opening clips feature more black faces than the rest of the film (and likely the rest of the series) combined.

That is, in a world where poor people have stupidly (because, in the world of the film, poor and stupid are synonyms) destroyed business, the only hope for humanity is a confederacy of alpha capitalists. Not for nothing, the crowd of Irvinians was quite enthralled and the film received a vigorous ovation.

Admittedly, I have only been able here to scratch the surface of the film, which itself dispatches with all of the artistic richness of the novel in favor of conservative prosthelytizing. In short, the film is definitely worth downloading illegally and watching with a group of friends and some hard alcohol, as it offers a perceptive — and awesomely-bad — encapsulation of the terrible poverty of capitalist philosophy.

Rating: 1/5