Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike, the second movie in a trilogy based on Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, is tolerable as a popcorn film -- that is, if you like fairytales about evil governments, objectivist CEOs, and cursory allusions to metal bondage.
The basic plot points will be familiar to anyone who has ever read the book (or known a 16-year-old libertarian obsessed with it). As the film opens, the U.S. economy is shot. Gas is $40 per gallon, and the trains of Taggart Transcontinental offer the only affordable transportation between coasts. Desperate government agents have given the economic theories of Diocletian another chance. They freeze prices, wages, and employment, and attempt to nationalize the major industries. Egotists Dagny Taggart, bombshell rail executive, and Henry Rearden, CEO of Rearden Steel and inventor of a miraculous new metal, fight for the independence of their corporations by day and shag by night. The rest of the country’s talent is mysteriously disappearing, destroying their work in the process, and leaving only notes written with a question, "Who is John Galt?" Playboy industrialist Francisco D’Anconia (picture the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from those Dos Equis ads, except younger) appears from time to time to ask, in his sultry Spanish tones, if Dagny and Rearden are ready to wash their hands of their pointless struggle and join the other heroes of industry in Atlantis, a secret land where the market always solves.
Producer and backer John Aglialoro, in opening remarks at the Oct. 2 premiere in Washington, D.C., attacked the critics of the first film, Part I, for mocking its philosophy of individualism rather than doing their job by judging it on style. "The critics prostituted their profession for politics," he said. But Part II has little going for it artistically. The camera work is uninventive; during the opening sequence, in media res, a twin-prop rolls and pitches dramatically through mountain valleys, but when the scene cuts to a shot from the nose looking back into the cockpit, the plane is perfectly steady. Later in the film, when the plot comes back around, the same sequence is repeated frame for frame, with all the drama of a drinking companion retelling his favorite joke.
Further, Mr. Aglialoro’s criticism is odd considering that politics, not art, dictated the movie’s creation. The film seemed driven by the producers, not the director John Putch, who wasn't present for the premiere. Production was timed with the express purpose of cinematic release before election day. It’s a political commentary, and the audience was asked to think of it in that light. Producer Harman Kaslow told TAS that the film is an evangelistic tool for young conservatives who "never crossed that barrier in a friendship to talk about free markets," and he said it would appeal to independents who haven't made up their minds between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Ideology Over Art
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.
The Enemy is Altruism?
Perhaps the more interesting question is this: Would Ayn Rand have approved of the making of Atlas Shrugged Part II, particularly since investors seem unlikely to recoup their money?
Rand, famous for preaching ethical objectivism, and the centrality of the virtue of pride, also railed against the evils of altruism. Mr. Aglioloro mirrored this feeling in his speech before the film’s premiere, saying, "altruism is the mortal enemy of individualism."
To be clear, the bad guys in Rand’s novel aren't actually altruists, but thieves. Government agents try to persuade Rearden to sign over his metal patent to government science in the public interest; when that fails, they blackmail him. Guests at the wedding reception who complain that "we all know money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak" sacrifice nothing of their own. (Here the film comes closest to a thoughtful estimation of modern politics, and sometimes it rings of the rhetoric of our incumbent president.) By making out that the politicians are genuinely inspired by deep-felt sympathy for a pure doctrine of altruism, she caricatures them beyond belief.
But this does seem to raise the question: Is Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike a noble self-sacrifice on the part of its producers and financial backers? If it turns out to be a commercial disaster, and the market rejects it, will it still be, objectively, a good thing? Mr. Kaslow rejected the hypothetical in the question. "There are ways to measure success outside box office receipts," he said. "Besides, Atlas Shrugged was panned when it first came out, but it eventually became a bestseller. There are DVD sales, there will be people buying the book after they see the film."
A full $20 million was invested in Part II, double what went into the first movie, and the higher production values show, even if the FX in one of the big action sequences looks like a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film's marketing people did an excellent job with publicity. The first film opened in 299 theaters, and the second opened in 1,012. So far, the market has judged the film and found it wanting. By October 28, it had taken just $3.2 million, or $3,166 per venue. If the final result is a commercial failure -- and that seems likely now -- it’s because producers idolized an idea at the expense of a movie.
On second thought, that sounds right up Ayn Rand’s alley.