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Review: ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part I’ A Stiff, Soulless, Cut-Rate Adaptation Of Ayn Rand's Epic Novel

by Kevin Jagernauth
April 13, 2011 8:21 AM
21 Comments
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It’s difficult to discuss Ayn Rand and "Atlas Shrugged" without touching on the countless attempts to produce a filmic adaptation of the work, beginning with producer Albert S. Ruddy’s plan in the early ‘70s, which fell apart when Rand insisted on final script approval. From there the highlights include an adaptation by Rand herself, which was unfinished at the time of her death in 1982; passing interest from Clint Eastwood; a TNT miniseries scrapped after the AOL Time Warner merger of the late ‘90s and, perhaps the most interesting attempt of all, a planned two-part adaptation from director Vadim Perelman ("The House of Sand and Fog") with a cast list rumored to include Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.

With producer John Aglialoro’s 18-year option on the rights set to expire on June 15, 2010, a film was finally thrown together and rushed into production last summer. Principal photography began just in the nick of time on June 13, 2010. At the helm was "One Tree Hill" star Paul Johansson, who replaced Stephen Polk just nine days before production began. "Atlas Shrugged: Part I" was filmed in five weeks with a reported budget of $10 million dollars. It stars Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart; Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden; Matthew Marsden as James Taggert; Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt; Edi Gathegi as Eddie Willers; Jsu Garcia as Francisco d’Anconia and Michael Lerner as Wesley Mouch. The director portrays John Galt in brief, shadowed appearances.


In this slightly modernized take of Rand’s tale, now set in a dystopian 2016 where society is on the verge of collapse and government is growing its control over all industry, Dagny Taggart runs the last remaining railroad company in America, the fledgling Taggart Transcontinental. When a driven industrialist named Hank Rearden develops a new lighter, super strength metal alloy called Rearden Metal, Taggart sees a chance to revive her railroad. She teams with Rearden (first professionally and later personally) to restore the railway while facing roadblocks in every direction -- from Taggert’s politically-connected brother James, from economic dictator Wesley Mouch, from the government at large and, to some extent, due to the sudden and mysterious disappearance of society’s greatest minds, who leave behind only the incessantly repeated question, ‘Who is John Galt?’ The story tackles only the first third of Rand’s magnum opus, quite possibly leaving the question eternally unanswered, at least on screen.

While it’s impossible to deny the politically-charged motivations of Rand’s writings and this largely faithful adaptation, reviewing the quality of the film itself has little to do with political leanings. You certainly don’t have to agree with a film’s politics to comment on such things as story, directing and acting. With that said, dismissing the writing of Rand as mere conservative propaganda is indeed an oversimplification of a novelist whose collected works are amongst the most read and influential of the past century. Rand, a noted pro-choice atheist and founder of the Objectivism movement defending the rights of the individual, has been both championed and demonized by conservatives and liberals alike. While her prose isn’t for all tastes and her politics may at once intrigue and appall, the importance of her work within the context of American history is undeniable.

The shame of "Atlas Shrugged: Part I," irrespective of politics and prose, is that a work so long-discussed has been so blatantly bastardized in the name of a quick buck. Produced at the expense of Rand’s labor of love, the meticulous author herself would surely condemn this paper-thin attempt. Talents greater than this assemblage have struggled and failed to get a hold on the material for a proper adaptation, but here Aglialoro and Co. merely take advantage of timing, delivering a cut-rate travesty of low rent celluloid sure to win back its meager budget (and even draw some defenders) purely on the basis of good timing. Perhaps it will even be enough to propel the unlikely (and unwanted) Part II and III.

"Atlas Shrugged" is a product of Aglialoro’s looming option deadline, pure and simple, rather than any sort of serious attempt at filmmaking. Some have compared the work to that of a TV mini-series, but Atlas doesn’t even broach those levels, as its more daytime soap than network prime time. It’s poorly acted, poorly directed and, all in all, stiff and soulless. You have to feel at least a little bad for the actors, who clearly weren’t receiving an awful lot of guidance from first-timer Johansson, but since the members of the cast all possess some modicum of acting experience, they are not without some share of the blame.

Schilling is easy on the eyes and relatively watchable as Taggart, though her characterization lacks any real sense of emotional depth. Bowler is shiny and slick with a nice white-toothed smile, but little more. Lerner and Polito are effective in much the same kinds of character parts they always play and, in their case, more power to them so long as the checks cleared.

The budgetary restraints prevent many wowing bits of cinematography -- instead we get stock looking landscapes, digitized trains and constant cable news bits -- but setting so many scenes around endless mealtime arguments and boardroom discussions don’t exactly propel the sluggish narrative. For those unfamiliar with the story, the constant question of who the heck John Galt is or Taggart’s plan in the latter portion of Part I to name the new rail line after him, make little sense. But making sense of the story or who Galt is are the least of Atlas’ problems, an aimless, amateurish and, more to the point, stone cold boring piece of drivel. [F] -- review by Jeff Otto

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21 Comments

  • Michael R. Brown | May 10, 2011 4:50 AMReply

    Wow. The hate toward Rand in these comments is something to behold. No surprise. The "Ayn Rand was a sociopath" line is particularly popular lately. Considering that it flows from a chopped-up reading from a few page of her private journals [i.e., notes to herself], written when she was barely out of her teens, fresh from the bloodbath of Soviet Russia - and nonetheless doesn't include what Rand actually said about Hickman - that he was a criminal and depraved pervert - reasonable people without an ax to grind won't find it convincing. Rand's social ethics take as their very heart the absolute evil of using coercion against any human being. Clearly sociopathic, there!

    As for the movie - it was not perfect, but it had some loveliness to it. And it's an astonishing job of adapting nearly-impossible material.

  • Certified Truth | April 21, 2011 2:16 AMReply

    Ayn Raynd is/was a sociopath.
    http://exiledonline.com/atlas-shrieked-why-ayn-rands-right-wing-followers-are-scarier-than-the-manson-family-and-the-gruesome-story-of-the-serial-killer-who-stole-ayn-rands-heart/

  • Jeff Otto | April 17, 2011 8:04 AMReply

    Hi Mad Dog,

    Thanks for your comments. That was my intent and I'm glad it came across. Thanks for reading.

    Jeff

  • julius | April 16, 2011 9:35 AMReply

    And yes, it is wholly appropriate, hilariously ironic poetic justice that the author of THE FOUNTAINHEAD was the subject of a rushed, shoddy, adaptation done for a quick buck.

    Ironic, yes. But what about her philosophy of 'loving the product that you create to earn your living' justifies the 'poetic justice' for Ms. Rand?

  • TomL | April 16, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    I've never much cared for criticism of films that haven't opened yet, by people who haven't seen them. Find out for yourself if it is shoddy. Obviously, no one would make a film like this from an original script, but I thought it played well and the actors were fine, especially Schilling. This is not the disaster the film establishment would like to portray.

  • Mad Dog | April 16, 2011 4:49 AMReply

    I just have give kudos to Jeff Otto for this review. I've read most of the other reviews, and this is the only one where no bias shows through. I honestly can't tell where Mr. Otto stands on Rand's book or views, and that's a good thing. The result is probably the best review I've read so far. I truly feel that his opinion on the film is based strictly on the merits, or lack thereof, of the movie.

    While I'm disappointed with how the movie is being received, I'm glad one critic was able to review it objectively.

  • Edward Davis | April 15, 2011 9:15 AMReply

    Hey Simon, this film has a 6% RT score.

    Good luck with that screening this weekend, hope you're buying tickets for a few friends!

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/atlas_shrugged_part_i/

  • DR | April 15, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    What a perfect adaptation of Ayn Rand's oeuvre. Perfectly horrendous, just like the book. Perfectly idiotic, just like the book.

    Making a quick buck by exploiting the base of Randroids is precisely what Rand herself did (until she started collecting Social Security, that is). So this movie does nothing if not follow exactly in her highness' footsteps.

  • RF | April 15, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    I don't think a lot of people know of Rand's wishes. This would have drove her nuts. Even Peikoff has spoken that Rand had always said this should only be a studio project with people that know what they are doing. NBC had they not tanked in the early 80s would have given Rand the control she wanted - just unfortunately that never happened.

    A lot of people are going to like it just because of the political climate. (Plus a lot will hate it without even seeing it for same reason) No problem with that - but the voice of the author and an amazing piece of work is getting crappy treatment.

    Aglialoro rushed this. There were no political issues with this - everybody saw this as a rush to get something in the can. He didn't have proper budget nor the time. During production they were lining up locations couple days before shoots. A first time tv director is rewriting the script regularly. They still were looking for locations 3 days before the wrap of principle photography.

    No wonder the original director backed out and so did Lion's Gate. And they were nice about it - but now we see why.

    You are always going to see a film suffer at the expense of the format of film - but you can still make something that stands well and carries the spirit. Lord of the Rings is an example. You will never make everybody happy but if you exercised reverence for the work and attempted to "do it right" then your that is the best you can do and you tried.

    Here it is rushed, done on the cheap and in a fashion that doesn't show reverence to the author or her work. I

    I'm just hoping they don't go the route of tons of "news" looking clips like most low budget flicks do to extend and move down the plot line.

  • Christopher Bell | April 14, 2011 12:01 PMReply

    Not really. They'd have to do some very serious writing to make the story not completely corny and melodramatic.

  • Jeff Otto | April 14, 2011 8:08 AMReply

    Hey Simon,

    Glad you enjoyed my review. You must have liked it if the best criticism you have is a typo changing the "e" in Reardon to an "o" on the second mention. Not sure if you actually read the review though or just scanned for something to criticize. Seems unlikely by your comment. You SHOULD see the film and judge for yourself though. Let me know what you think.

    Thanks for your support,

    Jeff

  • Paul | April 14, 2011 7:22 AMReply

    @Simon, "sarcasm and hyperbole are the usual tools of tools with nothing to say"

    Yeah, ya got me. But don't forget to add derision and utter contempt, much like what Ayn Rand had for her fellow human beings.

    1000+ pages of Atlas Shrugged summarized in one word:
    "Me."

    Go see this movie if you want. No one is stopping you.

  • Simon | April 14, 2011 6:40 AMReply

    Pity this shallow, paper thin travesty of a review couldn't even spell the protagonists' names properly.
    As for the comments about Ayn Rand, sarcasm and hyperbole are the usual tools of tools with nothing to say, no arguments to make and nothing but tearful resentment in place of the soul they claim Ayn Rand lacks.

    I will go to see this film.

  • McBell | April 14, 2011 6:09 AMReply

    It's Rearden. Shame the movie doesn't appear to be any good.

  • jim | April 14, 2011 4:34 AMReply

    No, BM got it right,

  • Paul | April 14, 2011 4:13 AMReply

    What's the only difference between Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand?

    Nietzsche is a better writer.

    It's entirely fitting that a movie based on Rand's sociopathic and indefensible ideas would turn out to be crap. What's funny is that I actually used to be a big fan of this book...

    ...then I turned 15.

  • Gabe Toro | April 14, 2011 1:44 AMReply

    So weird, I was expecting non-amateur internet commenters to be here. BM, what's your definition of "professional" in this case?

  • adam | April 14, 2011 1:22 AMReply

    Can't believe they are trying to do this movie in a modern setting. The plot hinges on the period. If railroad exec's boycotted the industry today, in an age where the internet and airlines dominate commerce, I doubt it would have anywhere near the impact that the boycott has in the book's earlier period setting. What a disservice to such an amazing book.

  • BM | April 13, 2011 12:00 PMReply

    "If it’s soulless I’d say they got Ayn Rand down perfectly.

    By Goon on April 13, 2011"

    And if they say it's amateurish drivel, I'd say they described you perfectly.

  • jd | April 13, 2011 9:08 AMReply

    Well, at least she was pro-choice.....

    And yes, it is wholly appropriate, hilariously ironic poetic justice that the author of THE FOUNTAINHEAD was the subject of a rushed, shoddy, adaptation done for a quick buck.

  • Goon | April 13, 2011 8:43 AMReply

    If it's soulless I'd say they got Ayn Rand down perfectly.

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