Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Apr 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part One

This is the first movie I've seen in the theater this year. No joke. And I went to see it on opening day. Those who know me are probably already aware that I'm a big fan of Atlas Shrugged, not just as the equivalent of a "bible" of Objectivism, but because I really enjoy it as a book. So, of course, when they finally made it into a movie, I went and saw it right away. I asked my housemate if he wanted to go with me before I left, and he said, nah. He turned out to be right.

Atlas Shrugged: Part One is a train wreck.

Now, this opinion has nothing to do with the fact that it's not exactly like the book. I expected that the movie wouldn't be like the book. I HATE movies that make substantial effort to be "exactly like the book" as some sort of fanservice because this usually makes them lousy movies. Movies and novels are different art forms. What works in a novel doesn't work in a movie and vice versa. You have to take into account the nature of the medium in order to make a good movie. So I was fully prepared for even major characters to be edited out (or merged), entire plot events bypassed--all sorts of changes. I was even looking forward to them, as something new, exciting, and enjoyable.

What I wasn't expecting was the inept direction, characterization, pacing, and overall just bad moviemaking. From the moment Atlas Shrugged: Part One started to roll, I was shaking my head and rolling my eyes. I'm not talking about the casting. Most of the casting seemed reasonably appropriate and well-done. I can accept that Ellis Wyatt, who was in his mid twenties in the novel now appears to be approaching sixty. The essence of the character was reasonably well preserved.

What I can't accept was the horrible mishandling of any development of suspense or immersion. The lack of immersion is particularly egregious. This is a movie which cannot decide what world it is in. Placing it, time-wise, in 2016 was a major esthetic error from the get-go, one which even semi-competent science fiction authors know not to make. (Heck, Ayn Rand talked about this in The Art of Fiction.) Atlas Shrugged is not about any particular time period, and the effort to root it with mentions of an oil crisis in the Middle East turned it from a story about the philosophical problems of any kind of men in any kind of time into a trite modern political commentary.

From there, it only got worse. A slight miscalculation of this kind could be easily overlooked--it happens just in the first few minutes of the movie, after all. The phrase "Who is John Galt?" is done about as naturally as those radio commercials with two women doing a back-and-forth conversation about their personal problems. I was half expecting that the chosen individual uttering the phrase would turn and wink at the camera. Ayn Rand did such a wonderful job in the novel of making it a throwaway bit of slang that it was rather painful to watch.

Yet, it gets still worse. I feel like I could go on listing major errors forever. All the action (except very, very late in the movie), involves only perfectly coiffed, dressed, and made-up people in expensive clothes sitting in beautiful offices or bars or restaurants and arguing snidely with each other. This is not the way you portray a ferocious struggle with time, materials, and gross malice. Any shots that include actual machinery are completely impersonal, seen from great distance or through glass or via a news story. It is a caricature of Ayn Rand's celebration of people who really do work at the mine face where there are "no lousy jobs, only lousy men unwilling to do them". If I had only seen the movie and I was asked to give the difference between how James Taggart and Hank Rearden conduct their business, at best, all I could say was that James Taggart was a bit of a backstabber. This is not a conflict between a swollen parasite who does nothing but sit at a desk and a brilliant metallurgist who spent ten years sweating in a laboratory to produce a fantastical new product. This is a conflict between TWO men who . . . sit at desks and make snarky comments. All right then.

Then you have Rearden reminding Dagny of his anniversary party. Rearden, whose devotion to business is such that he forgot about said anniversary in the novel--repeatedly. Then you have Rearden hanging affectionately on Lillian at the party, and kissing her forehead. I could keep going in this vein, but I think I've given enough specific examples here.

I can kind of see what the director was trying to do--make the characters more "human" and accessible, doing ordinary sorts of things (like Rearden greeting Dagny cheerfully after the culmination of their roma--argh, okay, okay, I'll stop). But this completely trashes the parts of the movie which ought to be a cashing-in on the chain of established events. When Dagny and Rearden visit the 20th Century Motor Company (and Rearden just EXPLAINS what happened there ARGH ARGH NO I'M STOPPING I'M STOPPING), Dagny proceeds to throw out this line about something being a "stupid altruistic motive" and I seriously wanted to scream. They hadn't established a rationale for altruism being bad! The line completely comes out of nowhere, like those references in comic-book movies to obscure continuity events or characters. The difference being that the comic book movies don't HANG THE MOVIE on the people in the audience picking up on these obscure references and supplying all sorts of preexisting mental context. It is just plain bad. Inept. Unworthy.

Now, if you're a fan of Atlas Shrugged for the political commentary and don't know or care much about the esthetic issues here, you may actually enjoy this movie. (The theater I went to was packed, and people APPLAUDED at the end. ARGH.) There are plenty of one-liners and references in there to make you feel you're among friends and that this is a movie for "your kind of people" and invite you to feel a warm glow of belonging. But if you're actually looking to be drawn into another world, a world of stark conflicts, heroism, love, hate, reason, drama, and romance, you will be seriously disappointed. I certainly was.

And there's still more of this coming, too.


Thomas Rowland said...

I haven't seen the movie. And not having seen it I could not give the details as you did. Neverthe less, it was quite apparent from what I had read of the comments at the Movie's web site that the movie would be a train wreck. So glad you beat me to it! I can spend the time on my music theory.

Jennifer Snow said...

Sadly, I could have gone on for several more pages listing just plain bad stuff in the movie, too.

I'm glad I went to see it. I much prefer being able to form my own opinions from scratch whenever possible--I'm far too inclined to read one thing and adopt someone else's opinion because I liked the way they put something. But I'm NOT glad about what I saw.

Myrhaf said...

Haven't seen the AS movie, but I wondered if you got a chance to see the premiere of A Game of Thrones on HBO. I thought it was terrific.

Jennifer Snow said...

No, I don't have access to HBO, but it did look pretty promising from the adds.

I'm kind of looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens to be honest.

John Stark said...

I signed up for HBO just for Game of Thrones, and it was impressively done; very good production values and true [so far] to the book.

David C said...

Thank you for writing that. Phew!