"Atlas Shrugged" Flicks Give Randians Their Own "Battlefield: Earth"

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 17, 2012

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Get me out of here: Samantha Mathis’ Dagny Taggart escapes plane wreckage in "Atlas Shrugged: Part II."

Atlas Shrugged: Part II
Starring: Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe, Esai Morales
Director: John Putch

Far and away the weirdest franchise rolling right now, Atlas Shrugged is the dreamchild of Philadelphia’s own John Aglialoro, a CEO and poker champ who slogged for 20 years trying to bring Ayn Rand’s doorstop-sized Objectivist Bible to the big screen. Independently financed and released and shot on obvious shoestrings—with little regard for conventional notions of pacing, production values or what we in the 99-percent crowd might call “entertainment”—the first two installments in this projected trilogy are fascinating disasters. Watching them is like seeing a greedy billionaire’s most feverish nightmare realized with all the amateurish panache of a daytime soap opera. Seldom do films so devoid of professionalism see the light of theater projectors.

For those fortunate enough not to have had this book pressed upon them by rabid Randians, we’re in an unspecified future dystopia (the first film claimed it was 2016, but the second picture changed its mind and erased the date) where $40-a-gallon gas prices have done in the automobile and airline industries, leaving railways as America’s last viable transportation method. The economy is in ruins, while Washington fatcats eat a lot of steaks and conspire with evil unions to bleed the few surviving corporations of their profits.

Our lone beacon of hope is Rearden Steel, a lightweight, inexpensive and altogether miraculous new metal invented by swarthy industrialist Henry Rearden. Foxy railroad executive Dagny Taggart bets on Rearden’s innovations to revolutionize mass transit. They also discover a prototype for a clean energy source in an abandoned motor company that we are told went bankrupt “because they tried to pay workers according to their needs instead of their contributions.” This gizmo could very well solve the world’s energy crisis, so too bad all those pesky re-distributors from Big Government keep passing intrusive regulatory statutes, fiendishly plotting to crush our valiant job-creators.

Rand’s philosophy is tirelessly spelled out in endless boardroom conversations where our heroes flatly recite howlers like “Why all these stupid altruistic urges?” and “I don’t believe in the greater good.” Meanwhile, captains of industry all over America keep sabotaging their own businesses, destroying natural resources and vanishing into thin air, leaving behind only cryptic notes asking: “Who is John Galt?”

Irrationally enough, the above synopsis applies to both Atlas Shrugged: Part I and Atlas Shrugged: Part II because the same damn things happen in both movies. It’s shocking how much is repeated and how little occurs in this second picture, yet doubly surreal because almost the entire creative team has been replaced in the year and a half since Part I was released. (Perhaps they wanted to be paid according to their needs instead of their contributions?) So, now we’ve got a new cast, a new director, a much smaller budget and comically little effort to match any continuity with regard to sets, costumes or performances. Most of the replacement actors aren’t even remotely the same age as the previous players, which is presumably why everybody spends the first half-hour of the sequel introducing themselves.

The first Henry Rearden was played by Grant Bowler as an elegant metrosexual. This apparently didn’t go over so well with fans of the book, so this time around, Jason Beghe devours the scenery as a gruff-voiced swaggering alpha male. Taylor Schilling’s Dagny Taggart had a stilted frostiness, subbed for here by a dumpy and morose Samantha Mathis.

As with any ideologically charged endeavor, peculiar cameos abound, such as a speaking turn from silent magician Teller. You can pass the time during one of the endless board meetings by playing Six Degrees of Alex P. Keaton, while Michael Gross and Biff from Back to the Future (Philly native Tom Wilson) demand that businesses surrender all patents to the U.S. government. Eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot stock footage borrowed from Tony Scott’s Unstoppable because this threadbare sequel couldn’t afford too many train shots, and Laura Palmer’s dad plays the president. Also, Sean Hannity is in this movie.

There’s an evangelical zeal behind this foolhardy project that is, in some sense, quixotically admirable. Despite the first film’s box-office disaster and widespread derision, Aglialoro soldiered on with a sequel and still plans to make a third, in which we will finally meet this John Galt fellow. It’s cute that Objectivists now have a Battlefield: Earth of their own.

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