At Large

I Left the Theater Shrugging

The second movie in the Atlas Shrugged trilogy fails precisely because it succeeds.

By 10.31.12

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Superficially, the story is a dystopian thriller. Its entrepreneurs, artists, and inventors wrestle for life in a Hobbesian wasteland against small-minded "looters." There's no consciousness of history or inherited freedoms. The timeline stretches out only into the future, where an eschatological horizon divides those who choose dependence, and perish, and those who choose independence, and live. There is something in Randianism that resembles Marxism. The world's population is split between the evil and the good, those on the right side of history, and those on the wrong side. The good guys will save the world through destruction and revolution.

But behind the curtain, the true story is utopian. The problem, it holds, is not with mankind, but with individuals. If only we could extract the best and the most virtuous of men (plus one woman), and let the rest of the human race go to hell, we could reshape the world into a perfectly rational society. Its utopia badly needs a sense of irony. Rand’s characters lack the greatness of soul that goes along with a consciousness of tragedy, the failure of hope, and the death of good things.

The film, to its credit, tempers the logical extremes of Rand's moral thought. In The Strike, Dagny doesn't alternate sleeping with D'Anconia and Rearden while dreaming of John Galt, hopelessly attracted to a string of dominant men. The minor characters are not quite so two-dimensional; they are permitted to be merely average rather than being either incompetent or genius. Indeed, the movie thrills most in those moments when the inventions -- not the characters -- take center stage: A generator spins, a train flashes down its tracks, a futuristic airplane lifts off from the runway. The grand machines are the first fruits of a new world.

Still, the film begs to be compared to its source material, Ayn Rand’s novel: Francisco still implausibly interrupts a wedding reception to lecture on the nature of money; Rearden still despises his wife for her jealousy of his affair with Dagny, and boldly seeks a divorce; Rearden still inspires cheers from an apparently libertarian courtroom audience by proclaiming to a tribunal that he lives only for his own profit. It's an exercise in ideological faithfulness rather than artistic accessibility.

But perhaps the ideologue and the artist are not so different. They share the bold conviction of rectitude, the indifference to critical reception, the triumph of spirit over flesh. For the film succeeds just as so much modern art has done, by alienating its audience. At no point do Dagny's troubles excite sympathy. What emotional connection can an audience entertain toward a character whose arc progresses from her opening lines in Part I, "No Jim, I guess I've never felt anything at all," to her abandonment of a burning world, as she heroically learns to treat herself as the only object of moral significance in her universe? Sex becomes consensual rape, and characters freely allow themselves to be objectified, so long as they objectify their partners in turn. For a moral solipsist that might be attractive. The rest of us shrug, unmoved, and walk away from the theater.

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About the Author
Matthew Taylor is an editorial intern at The American Spectator, with a scholarship from the National Journalism Center. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College. Email him at taylorm@spectator.org or follow him on Twitter @mjohntaylor.