Underwhelmed by last year’s unsuccessful Atlas Shrugged Part 1, I attended the premiere of the independent sequel Atlas Shrugged Part 2, scheduled to open on October 12 in 900 theaters according to its backer, with low expectations. The upshot: it is both better than the first film and inferior in quality to what Ayn Rand’s epic novel deserves.
Still lacking understanding of Atlas Shrugged – which is a work of great literature ingeniously seeded with a philosophy for living – the filmmakers overstate, overact and generally overdo aspects of the novel and they minimize or omit key developments. For example, Rand’s brilliant tunnel scene, in which heroine Dagny Taggart’s transcontinental train is heading toward disaster due to incompetence caused by government control of the economy, is depicted with all elements in place except the most crucial: passengers on the train that are indicative of the population’s consent to slavery. Instead, passengers are condensed into a composite character – Kip Chalmers – leaving out that, on the story’s terms, there is a sense in which everyone on the train deserves what’s to come. In the novel, the scene is a gripping, horrifying moment of truth for people who have ignored, evaded or aided the rise of tyranny. In Atlas Shrugged Part 2, it’s a plot point to punish a smarmy politician and a transition to Dagny’s character arc.
In fact, the independent filmmakers, who are not Objectivists, not that they’d have to be to do justice to the book, make a point to portray the public as kind and supportive of the story’s heroes, the opposite of what Rand intended and wrote. Her heroes are individualists who happily but wearily carry on under enormous burdens; from brakemen to titans, they are lonely and alienated from a nation that’s lost its way and turned them out. But, here, when industrialist Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe) stands before the Unification Board, having violated the government’s new economic dictate the Fair Share Law, an assembled audience cheers for him. So it makes you wonder how the country ended up in the grip of looters. Depicting merely the politics, but not Rand’s morality, egoism, the movie doesn’t dramatize how society – falling apart with the cost to fill up the gas tank over $800 – is reduced to a vast wasteland. In other scenes, public reaction to the dictates is divided between Tea Party type opposition and Occupy-type anti-capitalism. The result is confusion with regard to what world Dagny inhabits.
The sequel continues the plot that the great minds are disappearing due to state-sponsored coercion, that Dagny and her lover Rearden – both more sexless here than in the first movie – take on the mooching and looting government and that Dagny, played with a more serious and plausible sense of purpose this time by Samantha Mathis, hires someone to solve the mystery of a potentially revolutionary motor. Facing the reality of total dictatorship, the men and women of ability – Dagny and Rearden, Eddie (Richard T. Jones), a coal producer (Arye Gross), Dagny’s machinery detective (Diedrich Bader) and, possibly, her childhood friend Francisco (Esai Morales) – race against time to keep the West in action before the bureaucrats and parasites, such as Mrs. Rearden (Kim Rhodes) and James Taggart (Patrick Fabian), destroy what’s left of what they know and love. The story is framed within an impossible aviation race and it achieves an exciting conclusion touched by science fiction.
Objectivists and those who have read and like Ayn Rand may find value in seeing certain beloved scenes on screen at last but Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is absent Rand’s mastery of thought, language and theme. The novel’s political plot points serve the story of a lifetime – a woman who runs a railroad longs to worship a man worthy of her admiration and wants to be happy here on earth – in a breathtaking tale that’s larger than life and, here, as in the first picture, it’s the other way around. Do not expect this movie, which is more deliberate, more purposeful and more compelling, to honor the grand literary foretelling of our dark and disturbing times which is Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is satisfying as political drama only if you know why capitalism is moral and only to the extent that you do. It’s the little things – Rearden’s razor-minded secretary Miss Ives reduced to office eye candy, Cherryl Brooks without a proper introduction, Dagny in hideous earrings – that keep you from mistaking a cable TV-ready warning about what’s wrong with the world for an epic tale of the men who move the world and what it takes to be one of them. Atlas Shrugged Part 2 may mean well – and in this rotting civilization, that is something – but Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged means, and still deserves, much more.