Saturday, September 13, 2014

This is John Galt Sleeping

There was no shortage of Schadenfreude to go around when John Aglialoro and the producers of Atlas Shrugged raised funds on Kickstarter—asked for a handout, that is to say—in order to fund the third and final installment of that charity-despising, money-hemorrhaging ode to wealth creation. It’s easy to laugh at their expense, at the screaming irony and hypocrisy of it all. It’s much harder to laugh at the result of that fundraising campaign, so broken as a film and adaptation that it’s scarcely even laughably bad. I’m not even talking about the nonexistent special effects, tacky sets, and completely new cast; by now that’s to be expected. What is genuinely shocking is the abridged 112 99 minute runtime and the butchered storytelling. Atlas Shrugged is terrible as literature and philosophy, but as page-turning pulp fiction its narrative is sturdily constructed. Its third film installment, however, is an unstructured mess.

Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? picks up where the previous one left off, with the Brilliant train magnate Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) crashing a plane in a Colorado valley while in pursuit of the mysterious John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), who she believes is responsible for all the disappearance of the only people who matter in the world, the smart ones. She is correct, but then learns, after being told, repeatedly, by everyone there, that they are actually on strike, because altruism is evil. She falls in love with the Brilliant engineer Galt but leaves Galt’s Gulch to rejoin the world in order to save her family’s train line that her brother James Taggart (Greg Germann) is running into the ground with his collusion with a cabal of eeeeevil government altruists led by dull head of state Mr. Thompson (Peter Mackenzie). Galt gives a speech to the nation, Dagny decides she’s done trying to save a sinking ship, she saves Galt, and everyone flies away while New York City goes dark.

The strangest thing about all this is how little it builds off the previous two installments. Entire subplots and characters that received attention before are referenced obliquely, if at all. Dagny’s affair with Brilliant steel magnate Hank Rearden, for instance, which occupied a great deal of earlier runtime, is acknowledged only by a shot of her playing with that Rearden Metal bracelet she got from his shrew of a wife Lilian and a phone call she receives from him saying he’s gone Galt. Rearden’s (unintentionally) hilarious intro is in fact his only appearance in the movie, except, maybe, the ending.

Yet this is not a self-contained film. Discussions about Ellis Wyatt’s oil fields or the John Galt train line or Galt’s Brilliant new engine are only understandable in the context of the (incomprehensible) parts one and two, as is the staggeringly large cast, which, to alienate things further, has been replaced yet again. The multitude of disappeared captains of industry make an appearance, but do little to justify the inordinate amount of time spent with them. Laura Regan’s Dagny essentially has two modes: glowering at socialists and looking quirky and happy at freedom-lovers. Juaquim de Almeida looks much too old for Francisco d’Anconia, a debauched playboy who was Dagny’s lover when they were younger, while Polaha’s John Galt is a blandly handsome personality void; admittedly, this is staying true to the book. (The cheesy device used to re-re-introduce each character, a sepia-toned freeze frame with the character’s name and ‘Missing’ status, is a frequent source of amusement.)

So instead of drawing from what came before, the story lurches forward, first at a leisurely pace--a good half hour is spent in Galt’s Gulch, during which absolutely nothing happens besides characters spouting off Objectivist talking points--and then with increasing franticness. The collapse of the nation’s supply lines, which actually made for one of the genuinely good parts of the book, just kind of happens. Any momentum that might be built up, is dashed by the frequent interruptions of a narrator who fills us in on the other, far more interesting things that are happening (a battle at a steel mill! a character’s suicide! a bridge collapse!) but which the filmmakers clearly did not have the money to film. The deadly effect of all this on the film’s pacing is to make it feel somehow both endless and malnourished.

For there is a great deal of material that did not make it to the screen, and sadly much of it was the campy best the novel had to offer. Gone is Hank Rearden’s shrieking, awful family getting kicked to the curb, his wife confessing that she fucked the lowly James Taggart as petty revenge. Gone is Ma Chalmers’ soy bean cult. Gone is the extended death speech of the “non-Absolute” kid at Rearden’s mill. Project X, the giant super-secret government weapon, has been lamely reduced to Project F, the torture device used on Galt (a particularly egregious pulp anachronism given our country’s recent history with torture). My favorite line in the book, the awesome-lame “Somebody has changed your suppositions” is nowhere to be found.

The whole climax is a botch, really. John Galt's infamous 60-page speech is stripped of Rand's characteristic atheism and misanthropy, and is reduced to about five minutes of anti-government self-help boilerplate. Absolutely none of the film’s stable of hissable villains receives an onscreen comeuppance. A character who the book implies is basically dead, the merely adequate Eddie Willers, the movie implies that he gets rescued by the heroes (it’s too cheap to make that rescue explicit, of course). The film ends with New York City plunging into a blackout—except the Statue of Liberty, of course—but shies away from even the implication that everyone on Earth except our ‘heroes’ is going to die, deservedly. In doing so it is intellectually dishonest, breathtakingly so; that smart people are awesome and everyone else can literally fuck off and die, is the entire point of the book and Rand's philosophy, and the filmmakers obviously don't have the courage, even in a kamikaze project like this, to come out and say it. The abridged ending also robs the movie of Rand’s perfect-awful ending in which Galt “raise[s] his hand and over the desolate earth… trace[s] in space the sign of the dollar.” Worst of all, the fade to black is followed by text from Galt’s climactic speech and quoted as if he were a real person, that is also read by Galt, which suggests a real disregard by the filmmakers for their audience’s intelligence, and then an end card that reads, “The End. No…It’s the Beginning,” which suggests a disregard for their own.

Like in Part II, there are scattered moments that don’t exactly work—nothing here really works—but their enjoyable badness makes it easier for the whole thing to go down. The sappy piano-and-strings score tries really hard to make the proceedings sound exciting and inspiring. The extended stay in Colorado means we get a lot of really pretty outdoor photography, including some aerial mountain shots that probably ate half of the budget. A top of the show flashback of John Galt leaving the 20th Century Motor Company and saying he’ll “stop the motor of the world” hits a nice sweet spot of camp posturing and mistaken profundity. There is a howlingly bad sex scene between Galt and Dagny in a train office during yet another crisis that challenges Watchmen’s Night Owl-Silk Spectre mid-air romp for the dubious honor of worst coupling of this century. And finally, credit must be paid to Larry Cedar, a Deadwood veteran whose scheming scientist Floyd Ferris enlivens every scene he is in merely by dint of his gargoyle scowl. He, and to a lesser extent Greg Germann as James Taggart, understands the needs of this overblown melodrama for a villain we love to hate, possibly more than the creative team understands it.

This is all thin gruel for what was supposed to be an adaptation of the deliriously awful climax of a deliriously awful book. It ends up the dullest of them all, so much that the biggest laugh the half-full audience got was from an old man who fell asleep twenty minutes in. The budget, a quarter of the first movie’s $20 million, is so small the filmmakers couldn’t afford even bad special effects, leaving us to gawk at a cast so marooned by James Manera’s slack direction and his and Harmon Kaslow’s mangled script that one can barely even be incensed by their characters’ indignation at those who believe that “everyone deserves a living.” One can only roll one's eyes at the parade of conservative cameos that includes Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, and Grover fucking Norquist. Their presence in such a dire product smacks as much of ideological masturbation as it does the creators thinking it would be cool to put their friends in their rinky-dink movie, which is about what all this comes down to. Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? purports to celebrate greatness and human achievement, but is itself an affront to those values and in a roundabout way is the best possible evidence that could be marshalled in favor of its argument: something so unwatchably bad does not deserve to exist.