Bad Movie Diaries: Atlas Shrugged: Part I (2011)

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Bad Movie Diaries: <i>Atlas Shrugged: Part I</i> (2011)

Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.

Jim: I just want to state for the record, Ken, that although the title of this series is “Bad Movie Diaries,” it does imply a certain basic level of “movie-ness” to the films we’re going to be watching. Say what you will of Ninja 3: The Domination, but I don’t think anyone is going to challenge whether it constitutes “a movie.” Atlas Shrugged: Part I, on the other hand … this is like something from outside the realm of movies. It’s like a relic from an alternate reality where the U.S. movie industry invented film cameras but never codified the concept of “entertainment.”

Which is to say: this movie sucked, Ken.

Ken: Like the novel on which it is based, we are entering truly experimental territory, Jim. Here is the film adaptation of the definitive ode to the free market, which the free market seems to have ignored and scorned so hard that, by Part III, it was only the deep pockets of private donors who kept the whole mess afloat. But speaking of Ninja 3, I understand you recently learned an interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit. Would you care to share with the class?

Jim: Well, in a moment of serendipitous happenstance that only the internet could possibly provide, I was actually contacted on Twitter by actor Jordan Bennett, who played the hirsute (and uncomfortably rapey) Officer Billy in Ninja 3. It seems that he saw our conversation and wanted to submit his approval. We discussed several aspects of the production, most notably the scene where our heroine pours V8 juice over her naked body, and he revealed that this classic cinematic moment was never in the original script, but was instead improvised by none other than himself. So there you have it: Our little series here has provided the sort of behind-the-scenes nuggets from the set of Ninja 3 that you never knew you needed.

hairy billy inset (Custom).PNG The hairy guy in question from Ninja 3.

Ken: I daresay that you may now possess the most behind-the-scenes knowledge of any film critic regarding Ninja 3, and if this is true, I daresay it is one of the most dubious honors you’ve ever won while working for Paste. Humanity is in your debt, sir. As to this month’s travesty: I understand you are not terribly familiar with the source material, so I want to ask what your expectations were going in.

Jim: I was in the odd circumstances of being more familiar with Ayn Rand’s general ideas than I was with the plot of Atlas Shrugged. Thanks to more than a little exposure to Randian trolls online, plus having played Bioshock quite a bit, I feel like I have a grasp on the ideal world Ayn was supposedly envisioning. As for the story, though? I was pretty sure trains were involved. And Jesus, there are indeed a lot of trains involved.

Ken: Quite! The original work, just so you’re aware, was set in a sort of imaginary contemporary time. This was why trains were a totally understandable symbol. The silliest aspect of this adaptation, for me, is that anybody would ever argue, as this 2012 film set in the dystopia of 2016 does, that a collapse of fuel resources would ever mean that trains would again become the primary form of continental travel. I am writing this, at this very moment, while aboard an Amtrak, and let me tell you: If we ever get forced back to using trains, we’re hosed as a nation.

atlas shrugged trains inset (Custom).PNG The majesty of TRAINS.

Perhaps you’d like to set the scene for our readers?

Jim: I feel like the idea of “trains” appeals to right-wingers on some kind of primordial level. They look at them and see antiquated things from an earlier day of robber barons, and think, “If only we could get back to the good old days, before the ladies had the vote.”

However, as far as this actual story is concerned, our heroes are all railroad magnates and captains of industry. Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) is the brilliant sister of a douchebag railroad president who is squandering the nigh monopoly he’s been handed, and her sole motivation is to set everything right and literally make the trains run on time again. In this, she’s aided by an industrialist named Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler), who has invented a fabulous new “Rearden Metal” that can do just about anything but have a decent name. Because their work threatens the status quo, the political fatcats are against them from the start. That about cover it?

political fatcats inset (Custom).jpg Tonight, the part of Political Fatcat A will be portrayed by this man.

Ken: I think that it does. Now, just so you’re aware, I have never read the doorstop novel on which this cinematic screed is based, though I did once attempt it, fell asleep and woke up at a South American worker’s rally with no memory of how I’d gotten there. What struck me about both the book and this film is how recklessly self-assured our protagonists are. Dagny believes in Rearden Steel without question and is convinced every attempt by regulators to say, “Hey, wait, does this actually work?” is some conspiratorial sabotage.

Jim: She explains that she believes in it because she once read about the theory in college, and by god, that’s good enough for her. That’s like one of the movie’s random themes: No source of expert information or knowledge can be trusted. Just go with the gut instincts you think you possess, “because I did some reading that one time.”

It could hardly be more apropos to today’s political climate, as far as statistics and issues such as climate change and gun violence are concerned.

Ken: Truly reflective of our times, sadly.

As you’re aware, Jim, the film’s characters randomly repeat a strange rhetorical question: “Who is John Galt?” This has for decades been the tagline for the novel. It’s a bit of fiscal-right-wing cultural cachet, should you ever find yourself in such a situation. I’m truly interested in your response to this: What was going through your head about what that line meant as these characters said it? Because for me, the deliveries were all so awful that I don’t think it came across that it’s a stand-in for “Who knows?”

Jim: I agree with you 1000%. I was so powerfully confused by every time it was uttered, on multiple levels. Its meaning is totally opaque, even after the film tries to explain it, which is made all the more confusing by the fact that all of the characters don’t seem to think it’s at all odd when someone ends a conversation with “Who is John Galt?” On a practical level, I don’t understand how this phrase could possibly have ever come into widespread use. We come to understand that the mysterious figure who is seen abducting various titans of industry is presumably the titular “John Galt,” but how does a phrase with his name in it become an old adage all over the continental U.S. in the space of a few years?

Ken: Even among destitute hobos! Perhaps this is a revealing look at the detachment of the upper class as viewed from Dagny’s perspective. Which does remind me: The other thing that repeatedly shocked me is how utterly detached and unsympathetic these main characters are, as are the people immediately surrounding them.

Dagny doesn’t say a single nice thing to her brother in the entire film. And Rearden’s family are all characterized as cackling ghouls waiting to steal his money. When he gifts his wife a bracelet—one turned out from his own factory—she openly bitches about the fact that it isn’t gold.

Jim: Anyone who cares (or professes to care) about the common good or societal health in any way is also bad at business and simultaneously a jerk. Wanting to help other people somehow manages to automatically make you an asshole in this movie.

Ken: It is SO wrongheaded!

Jim: Meanwhile, the “smart” captains of industry like Dagny and Rearden have no empathy or emotion toward the wider world or the downtrodden masses, but they’re still somehow portrayed as being “nicer” than the people who do.

Ken: It is incredibly dissonant in that way. Early in the film, a subordinate of Dagny’s tenders his resignation. We know, or strongly suspect, that he is among the rich/smart Ubermensches raptured by John Galt. And Dagny drops everything to start hurling higher salary offers at him to get him to stay. Nothing in her character so far has shown that she would be willing to do that. This also reminds me: Did you not love the sequences where John Galt approaches these one-percenters? The movie freeze-frames and goes black-and-white, then types out a time and date over the name of the disappeared person. That would work if it were “Elon Musk,” but we don’t know or care who these people are or what their roles in this world are, either.

Jim: What, you weren’t devastated to see that banker “Midas Mulligan” was no longer walking the streets? Finally, a movie that tells it like it is, portraying “banking CEOs” as the most sympathetic class of American society.

midas mulligan inset (Custom).PNG

Ken: I lit a candle for him. And checked to see if maybe that meant some of my crippling student loan debt notes also vanished.

Jim: By the way, readers: You may have noticed that we haven’t been discussing the plot very directly. This is because there really isn’t any to discuss. The only thing in the film that qualifies as “plot” is just “Dagny wants to build her railroad and the government opposes her.” Everything else is just unrelated discussions of copper mines, train tracks, diesel engines and state science comptrollers. That goes doubly for characters. There are no characters in this film.

Ken: This is true. Though I will say that “plot” sequences are often advanced by poorly-cut montages mixed in with conspiracy scenes, where characters whose motivations and identities we haven’t had adequately explained to us steeple their fingers and conspire to destroy Dagny and bankrupt Rearden’s company, all so they can…give it to the government and the poorest states? Best evil conspiracy ever.

As for characters, you’re absolutely right. It’s charitable to call anybody besides Dagny or Rearden anything other than “straw man.”

Jim: You’d have to be charitable to even call those two characters. The whole cast is like the lineup of a Chuck E. Cheese mechanical band with human skin draped over them, going through the same repetitive motions.

Ken: One of the guilty pleasures of this nonsense is seeing Taylor Schilling portray Dagny, years before her star-making turn in Orange Is The New Black. I don’t know if I could list something that could more be held up as the antithesis of Atlas Shrugged: A diverse, actually-female-led-with-actually-deep-female-leads examination of how society mistreats its underprivileged.

Jim: You have to wonder which of the two more accurately encapsulates her personal politics. Judging from the fact that the role of Dagny was recast in both the second and third installments of this series, I’m thinking it’s probably OITNB.

Ken: I guess we need to keep this train rolling, don’t we? Dagny and Rearden get inappropriately intimate with each other as they fight to revive a train line in the West using Rearden’s fantastic new super-metal. Dagny discovers there’s an evil conspiracy originating from the state’s Science Division or whatever it’s called, because no one company should ever be specialer than any other company. To make their train go faster, Dagny and Rearden, on a hunch of his, go search the rusted out remains of some company in Wisconsin, where they discover what decades of looters, local LARPers, and Creepypasta YouTubers evidently never did: A freaking super-engine and its blueprints just lying around unguarded in a poorly-hidden room.


Jim: What perfectly cut Adonis so graced the earth with this fabled engine of the gods?

new engine inset (Custom).jpg Conveniently, the revolutionary new engine is the size of a tea kettle, so everything works out great!

Ken: Come on, it’s obviously John Galt. Which reminds me, Dagny named the rail line after him. A reporter quite reasonably asks, “Who’s John Galt?” and she tries to sell this inspirational “We are!” And I’m like “NO YOU AREN’T! He’s asking who ACTUALLY is for his story!”

Jim: Not to mention the fact that “we are all John Galt” is basically the opposite of this philosophy of individual achievement, right?

Ken: That’s an understatement.

Jim: Speaking of, can we talk about this film’s political mindset for a minute? In my eyes, it’s like the entire philosophy is based around a fearful reaction to some impending doom—maybe communism, in the time it was written. It purports to be applicable to our political world, but how often have you seen senators appear on television to announce that they just passed instantaneous legislation that promises to “equalize the national economy”? Or companies that failed because they decided to “pay everyone by their needs, not according to their contributions”? The movie keeps telling us that these types of policies will ruin us, but these types of policies have never happened before.

Ken: And you’re right, because much of this was a reaction to sentiments at the time it was written, largely stressing over the New Deal. That would be the social safety net which, throughout our lifetimes, has basically been unraveled bit by bit. This film was itself a backlash to the Obama years. In any case, it remains the sacred text of your Paul Ryan-style Republican and many, many a college Libertarian convinced of his exceptionalism. I always have wondered if it’s as compelling a read as so many people seem to insist. The movie sure doesn’t make it seem like it.

Ken: To conclude, we’re left with a cliffhanger as Dagny witnesses the beginning of a nationwide strike by the upper class. I can’t wait to not watch the sequel.

oil fields inset (Custom).jpg Shoot your own damn movie, I’m out.

I appreciate your patience in joining me for this commemoration of tax season, Jim. Can I expect a similarly stodgy film from you next month?

Jim: I would rather die than ever submit something as mind-numbing as Atlas Shrugged for us to watch, Ken. If anything, sitting through this film makes it all the more certain that I will choose something hyperkinetic, colorful and brain-meltingly weird.

Ken: I shall try my best not to register my disappointment. Until next time, sir.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and Kenneth Lowe is a regular Paste Movies contributor. You can follow Jim on Twitter, if that’s the sort of thing that seems like a good idea to you.