Am I alone in expressing utter disbelief that Atlas Shrugged: Part II somehow crawled out from under the wreckage of its predecessor and found its way into theaters? Part I was a commercial failure, recouping a mere $4 million of its estimated budget of $20 million, and a critical catastrophe, having earned an 11% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes in the year and a half since its release. According to Peter Key in his article for the Philadelphia Business Journal, the sequel’s existence was made possible due to producer John Aglialoro, a New Jersey businessman who raised funds for the movie by privately selling $16 million worth of his production company’s debt. On a related note, he also produced the previous film and even shared screenplay credit with Brian Patrick O’Toole.
What infuriates me is that this movie is intentionally being marketed as a deciding factor for the rapidly-approaching presidential election. If you’re an objectivist or a libertarian, and if you’re intimately familiar with Ayn Rand’s original novel and agree with it wholeheartedly, that’s entirely your business. But to use a movie as a platform to persuade how someone votes is a reprehensible tactic. Voting should be based on your personal understanding of real-life issues and policies, and it should be reached only through extensive research of reputable sources. A film adaptation of a fictional novel shouldn’t even enter the equation. Neither should the novel itself. You are officially taking literature too seriously if you honestly believe it should shape your social and political beliefs.
The great failure of the previous film, which adapted the first third of the novel, was that absolutely nothing happened; it was essentially 100 minutes of people talking to each other in swanky surroundings and riding on trains. Anything we might have learned about objectivism was all but buried under indecipherable corporate dialogue, which would take nothing less than an advanced degree in economics to understand. Now we have this second chapter, which adapts the novel’s middle section. While superior to its predecessor on a technical level – the dialogue is clearer, there are a few well-placed action sequences, and the production design doesn’t look quite as cheap – the performances are overstated, the characters are developed on alarming simplifications, and it still fails to tell an engaging story. It also gives us a comprehensible depiction of Rand’s philosophy, which is to say that we finally see it for how immoral it is. If I had to sum up her beliefs with a motto, it would be: “You’re on your own.”
In a surprisingly bold move, all the original cast members have been replaced. This doesn’t greatly affect a majority of the characters, most of which are featured so intermittently that it’s hardly noticeable. In regards to sibling characters Dagny and James Taggert, however, this results in a jarring visual disturbance. In the original film, they were played by Taylor Schilling and Matthew Marsden, who at the time of principal photography were twenty-six and thirty-seven respectively. In this film, which was shot only this past April, they’re played by Samantha Mathis and Patrick Fabian, who are forty-two and forty-seven. It’s almost as if a magical aging elixir had been slipped into one of the many cocktails the Taggerts drank down in the previous film. If the planned third chapter is miraculously made into a movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked positively decrepit.
The plot involves Dagny discovering a prototype of some kind of advanced engine, one that could pave the way for a new energy source. She can’t unlock its secrets because the inventor is a mystery and all the remaining qualified scientists have disappeared. Her only hope is a scientist named Quentin Daniels (Diedrich Bader), who does experiments in an abandoned laboratory in Utah. Meanwhile, Dagny’s lover, steel tycoon Hank Rearden (noted Scientology opponent Jason Beghe), finds himself in hot water for refusing to comply with a new law stating that products and services must be sold to the government for the common good. He’s also at odds with his wife, Lillian (Kim Rhodes), whose vindictiveness could easily earn her a place in a daytime soap opera. Both Hank and Dagny are approached numerous times by copper industrialist Francisco d’Anconia (Esai Morales), whose only apparent purpose is to give very ominous sermons and behave like a terrorist.
In the first film, the question, “Who is John Galt?” was asked only occasionally. In this movie, it’s asked with a frequency that, twelve years ago, would have rivaled the repetitive inquiry of who let the dogs out. The filmmakers are clearly aware of this, as Dagny herself makes her disdain of the question perfectly clear. Is John Galt a man or an idea? Part I gave us reason to suspect the former, as a silhouetted man hidden by a trench coat and fedora would frequently approach people and beckon them to join him in his cause. As to whether or not this movie confirms our suspicions, you’ll have to see it to find out. But we now have a bit of a problem, as I don’t recommend you do that. Atlas Shrugged: Part II is a weak film revolving around an ideology most reasonable people would find objectionable.