Lifeless as entertainment and incoherent as ideology, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is less a film than an invitation to the 9 million Tea Party members to prove their hunger for explicitly conservative entertainment. Yet even the most driven ideologue will be hard-pressed to enjoy this visibly threadbare enterprise, in which railroad maven Dagney Taggert (Taylor Schilling) teams up with steel man/man of steel Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) to stand up for the oppressed free market and big business. With interest already firmly limited to Ayn Rand fans and Tea Party acolytes, the stiff production will have a hard time getting enough of the faithful to attend.
It's 2016, and America is collapsing: anti-business legislation is stifling all innovation, and America's most talented corporate executives are disappearing. While her brother James (Matthew Marsden) thinks bribing politicians and ignoring problems will save the family business, Dagney realizes the company's salvation will be in innovation, hard labor and forward-thinking self-interest. While James rants about redistributing wealth to the less fortunate, and Mexico falls pray to state-enforced collectivization, Dagney hooks up with Henry, a driven industrialist whose new steel is lighter and cheaper than anything on the market, allowing trains to go 250 miles per an hour. Meanwhile, nefarious business interests and misguided government interferences threaten their (free) enterprise.
Nothing if not consistently on-message, Atlas Shrugged is more or less faithful to the main idea motivating Rand's fanbase: socialistic legislation is the greatest threat to America's prosperity, which is best-served when businesses do whatever helps the market. Atlas Shrugged, the film, is most interested in business: in deference to contemporary conservative sensibilities, the brazenly unapologetic sexuality protagonist Dagney espouses is almost entirely omitted here. The filmmakers seem unaware of any double entendres lurking when Rearden rhapsodizes to Dagney about "my steel, your railroad."
Small details have been altered to fit the current political landscape. In the novel, Ellis Wyatt is a vigorous young oilman, but his character in the film, played by Graham Beckel, is a jowly middle-aged man whose reassuring bulk aligns him with images of the American good life. Meanwhile, political lobbyist and malevolent opponent Wesley Mouch is played by Michael Lerner, whose resemblance to Democratic Representative Barney Frank is almost certainly no coincidence. A major subplot concerns the State Science Institute, which denounces Rearden's new steel as potentially unsafe despite a lack of any real evidence. In the book, it's revealed that the government board has tried and failed to develop their own alternative to steel; in the movie, the Institute's main scientist explains he's been forced to kowtow to political and business interests and denounce Rearden's new steel to continue otherwise practicing "true science," thereby reminding the audience to mistrust anyone who would worry about global warming.
The performers play talking points rather than characters, though the cast does insert more inflection and personality into their line readings than the dull script otherwise allows. The real problem is the film's dullness and underfunded nature. Rand conceived of Atlas Shrugged as a big, sprawling narrative that would make her explication of Objectivist tenets palatable by virtue of the sex, violence and set pieces surrounding the speeches. Here, the climax is the successful debut of the new train (how else could it be?), rendered through some visibly cheap CGI and swoony helicopter shots of the landscape. Dagney notes that this is the fastest a train has ever run in the US: an achievement to be sure. The film is so focused on its conservative bona-fides it fails to notice it's inadvertently arguing for national high-speed rail—part of President Obama's agenda for the coming years.
Distributor: Rocky Mountain Pictures
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Graham Beckel, Michael Lerner, Jon Polito and Paul Johansson
Director: Paul Johansson
Screenwriters: John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole
Producers: John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow
Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexuality.
Running time: 102 min
Release date: April 15 ltd.