Review: ‘Atlas Shrugged Part I’ is Profoundly Bad Filmmaking

By  · Published on April 16th, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part I is a movie brimming with so much frustration that you almost expect the screen it’s playing on to have an aneurysm. It’s an honest attempt at adapting difficult (frankly, non-cinematic) material, and it fails spectacularly on almost every level.

Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) is the brains behind a legacy railroading corporation that faces the internal dim-wittedness of its President, James Taggart (Matthew Marsden) and the external hell of a government bent on regulating businesses into non-existence. It’s a Dystopian 2016, but Taggart is on the verge of a sexy and profitable partnership with steel head Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler). He provides an incredible new metal product for her to reform her lines in Colorado, and the day might be saved. But with the government actively trying to redistribute the wealth, will success even matter?

The profound problems of the movie are rooted in its structure. It’s a film that overwhelmingly relies on dialogue yet staunchly refuses to make any of it interesting. The conversations fall in one of two categories. The first is commentary on exactly what’s happening currently in the room that the people are in. The second is exposition-weighted jargon that sounds like it came from someone who stormed out of day one of their MBA classes because they thought they knew better than the professor. The entire movie is about treacherous business environments – a campaign to turn public opinion against Rearden, the government making it illegal for one person to own more than one business, redistribution of state wealth to surrounding poor states, a conspiracy about ore-less mines in Mexico, and a few others – but instead of fixating on one (like Wall Street or Boiler Room or Chinatown or any other high concept business thriller), Atlas bravely tackles a half dozen that all melt together in a tangled mess of constant explanation and zero exploration. There’s no tension that arises. One character says something is a threat around a dinner table, that situation arises soon after, and everyone continues on to the next dinner table and the next business paradigm.

Speaking of which, Atlas makes the interesting stylistic choice of almost never showing anyone but the ensemble cast. There are some on-the-nose shots of the Taggart limo passing by a dirty street corner and a burnt out car, but this is a world on the brink of economic collapse notably missing its people. It’s like a zombie film that focuses on a group of survivors that are in large part completely unbothered by the brain-eating hordes. This is most notable in the scenes of railroad construction where a group of seemingly unmanned machines are doing all the work. The camera specifically keeps low to avoid showing people (although there are a few shots that prove people are hanging around the site). The result is a movie which claims the country is going to hell in a 99 Cent Store Basket but only shows people in expensive suits eating the best food and drinking the best wine even while gas is apparently at $37.50 a gallon.

It’s a fascinating style concept, but it also means the stakes of the film can never extend beyond Dagny and Henry. The characters do a lot of telling when it comes to what the next business catastrophe means, but without any showing, it’s all face-value pointlessness unless you connect with the two leads.

As for that, the actors are fairly solid with only a few missteps (that come in the form of moronically flaky lines being uttered with zero effort). Schilling is in high heel lock step with Dagny, playing her as a preternaturally adept business mind in the body of a supermodel who is about as no nonsense as Gordon Gekko without the need for hair gel. Bowler is dashing and direct, carrying himself like a man walking on air while wearing cement shoes.

As a character study, Atlas takes risks because, while Dagny and Henry aren’t irredeemably despicable, they’re still pretty awful human beings. They’re flesh-covered robots who have fortunately been recently installed with Flirt Program 2.4 (for Windows). Henry is stuck in a loveless marriage, but even though his wife (played as if she’s constantly smelling a bad fart by Rebecca Wisocky) is a hateful shrew, he’s heartless and cruel in return leaving her pasted as the villain of the story while he heads closer and closer toward cheating on her with an Atlas-sized shrug of his shoulders. Likewise, Dagny is openly dismissive of most everybody around her and at one point even offers her body to a potential investor who can get her new railroad gambit off the ground.

With the leads down for the count, there are no good people in this story. Everyone spits venom through clenched teeth and many do so in such a comical manner that you wish they had a white cat to stroke. Even the decently humane oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) starts his relationship with Dagny off by yelling at her in her own office like a red-faced drunk. The script is so full of snide snippets that it feels like the diary of someone who couldn’t think of the right comeback when getting insulted but went home to jot down a dozen possibilities in an angry scrawl. That person then apparently converted the list into a script when furious masturbation couldn’t work all the rage out anymore.

The characters also don’t have arcs or learn anything. Dagny and Henry develop a bond, but otherwise, it’s all paper chasing nonsense. No one changes. No one sees any depth to their own actions, and everything is so emotionless that 1) what might have been a crucial love scene is done with the passion of two amoebae staring at a blank wall (and shot with just as much passion) and 2) the romantic pair handle the implications of a duplicitous affair with the casualness of ordering tap water at one of the fancy restaurants everyone is always eating in.

It is an angry little movie, filled with frustration, and too blinded by venom to get a coherent story out. On the plus side, it looks like a much more expensive movie than it could have been. Director Paul Johansson does more with $15 million than some directors can manage with twice the amount. The camera work is regrettably too by-the-book to keep things visually interesting, but what’s on screen is impeccable (save for some less-than-great CGI train action).

Fortunately, there’s one element to let us know that everything is incredibly dramatic, and that’s the score. It becomes its own character (that belongs in a completely different movie) by adding bombast to conversations about stock prices and government regulation. It’s not that the situations aren’t severe, it’s that they’re all talked about without any momentum except from the blasting boom base that plays equally loud whether bolstering a raised eyebrow at a party or aiding an oil field explosion. As it turns out, though, the lack of subtlety in the scoring is an apt theme for the rest of the movie.

The task of bringing Ayn Rand’s voluminous work to the screen must be an arduous and mentally-straining one. Even more of a challenge was the hurdle of taking something like a business deal and tying emotion to it. Unfortunately, the production here is a B-Team trying to swing for the majors. Beyond a handful of the actors, absolutely no one here is up to the challenge, and the result is a monumental failure. On the one hand, it’s a strong adaptation because the characters from the page are exported pristinely to the screen (owed roundly to the acting team). On the other, it’s horrendous because it’s so slavish to the minutia of every McGuffin-esque business pitfall, that 70% of the movie could be excised without making much of an impact.

In between all that fat are interstitial scenes of a man impossibly unlit no matter where he’s standing who approaches the best and the brightest (just before they mysteriously disappear (as we’re informed by a black and white freeze frame with words that say so)). He is the enigma of the story, and the question “Who is John Galt?” is uttered half a dozen times in varying scenarios. It’s a non sequitur (and I can’t imagine how someone who hasn’t the read the book would react to the shoe-horning), but it’s eventually worked into the story as Dagny’s top employees end up with their faces on milk cartons. So the question gets raised more and more as the story goes on, but every conversation broaching the topic is a maddeningly pointless game of verbal Keep-Away. It makes John Galt’s tribe of followers seem like purposefully obtuse idiots who can’t give a straight answer because they just plain don’t feel like it (or because they’re obtuse idiots who don’t know any answers).

There’s a quote about sound, fury and nothing being signified that comes to mind here, but Atlas Shrugged doesn’t even have the sound or fury. It is a few passable acting turns surrounded by flaccid, inept filmmaking and a story as compelling as an old sock.

The Upside: It looks great, the cameras were clearly professional, both Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler are fun actors to watch who would do great with a real story, and there are several character actors that bring their usual gusto to the proceedings (like Patrick Fischler and Michael Lerner)

The Downside: One giant exercise in telling instead of showing wrapped up by a constant stream of meaningless exposition and a non-story told with the nuance of a typewriter to the forehead.

On the side: Everyone knows that this project was in development hell for years and saw the likes of Farah Fawcett and Angelina Jolie attached as Dagny, but it’s also important to note that it was done completely independently (and even with failure, there’s virtue in that).

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.