Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (or however they're styling the title), adapted from the most important book by a woman for whom the Absolute Rightness of the free market and the indescribable evil of welfare were the immutable foundations of her philosophy, exists solely because of welfare perpetrated by executives convinced that the free market got it wrong: when, last spring, Atlas Shrugged: Part I exploded on the box office launch pad without leaving hardly any trace of its passing, it seemed quite impossible that the two planned sequels would ever see the light of day. Undeterred by this extraordinary clear statement that The Market didn't give one-half of a shit about a film version of Atlas Shrugged, producer John Aglialoro soldiered on to scrape up even more money than the first picture cost, secure in the belief that this time, audiences would- what's that? Less than one-third of the first film's per-screen average? Golly.
A cheap shot; but, indeed, a necessary and perhaps even obligatory one. For this sequel isn't just a movie whose existence undercuts its message, it's a movie whose message was, already, the only reason for its existence in the first place; the entire point of this meek, simpering little franchise was to proselytize the Good News of rugged individualism and keeping the government well out of private industry, or anything else, in the hopes of appealing to and sucking money from a small but extremely vocal and disproportionately influential political movement. It is not a franchise that, on its own terms, is entertaining or artistically meaningful. It is a franchise designed to impart as much of Ayn Rand's philosophy to as many people as possible, and for its mere existence to fly in the face of that philosophy is sheer hypocrisy and nothing but.
Now, Part I was a really bad movie, in an unusually aggressive and total way. Far from being an epic adaptation of Rand's longest work, it was ditsy and shockingly amateurish, with CGI that wouldn't look out of place in an Asylum production, and sets that appeared to be redressed corridors from a mall built in the 1970s, all of it anchored by glorious non-actors Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler giving the kind of studied non-performances that only deep down dark Bad Movies can aspire to. Unfortunately, Part II, having gotten its hands on quite a bit of money, is no longer excitingly terrible: it's just really bad. And by virtue of being a somewhat functional piece of filmmaking, with actual sets and sort of real-life actors (Samantha Mathis steps in for Schilling, and with 14 extra years on that actress, manages to be far more appropriate for the role) and a general sense that the people involved in making it had training and knowledge - though the CGI is still atrocious - the film manages to burn off everything and anything that made the first picture what kind of ironic, kitschy fun it was, while calling our attention squarely to how dramatically untenable the characters are, and how deeply loathsome the ideology Rand was peddling. In fairness, the new movie is neither more anti-dramatic nor philosophically vile than Part I; it's just a lot harder to find anything else to pay attention to.
Some comfortable time after the end of the first movie, Dingy Tiger (Mathis) is hunting all over the United States, looking for a man who can finish the amazing sci-fi motor that she and lover-industrialist Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe) found in an abandoned lab, and thus give her ultimate control over a virtually non-ending energy source. Rearden, meanwhile, is growing increasingly angry at the government's new "Fair Share" laws, which are vaguely expressed but involve the distribution of "strategic materials" as they are most desperately required, not as they can fetch the best price. And both of them are extremely non-plussed by the disappearance of most of the country's best and brightest minds at the hands of the mysterious John Galt - the strike of the subtitle, though what, exactly, all of these people are striking about is still expressed only in the most elliptical ways, with a full explanation holding off for the surely-inevitable Atlas Shrugged III: Seriously, FUCK the Box Office - which has severely impacted Dandy Argot's ability to find a great scientist who isn't stuffed all the way up the asshole of the federal government. At least this film tips its hat in the direction of explaining why, in the first quarter of the 21st Century, trains are a thing.
A whole lot of spiraling around and talking in glowering tones about under-the-table contracts and the value of defending one's intellectual property by burning it to the ground rather than risking that anyone else might possibly benefit from it for free, even by accident, and many populist appeals that seem to genuinely believe that a commanding majority of Americans would a) hate an act which would make it illegal for them to be fired or receive pay cuts, and b) would cheer a man who would refuse to do any good for humanity that didn't benefit him financially as a folk hero, and you know what? As much plot as Part I had, Part II has even less; it is lots and lots of pontificating with very little actual conflict or any kind of dramatic structure at all: only in the second half does an actual narrative throughline start to make its presence known, when Gandhi Trigger finally decides to abandon the sinking ship that too many idiot philanthropists have made of her company, with a big speech about how badly her company has been misused that does not tie into anything we've seen happen, nor does it even manage to score Ayn Rand Polemic Points, like Rearden's asinine but impassioned courtroom defense of corporate selfishness does. For the most part, scenes like that are the only thing in the whole movie: character come out, swap their answers to various social studies discussion questions, and strike iconic poses that come off as blankly smug.
Or blankly something, anyway - characters are absolutely the film's weak suit, though this is to be expected from a story that repeats with increasing urgency that caring about other people is stupid. Our two protagonists, just like last time, are emotionless blocks of ice, ideal if you're a stylistically limited writer ventriloquising your politics in the form of character interactions, nightmarish if you're a filmmaker trying to make a story that people will connect with. Mathis comes off the worst, worse even than Schilling last time: for Schilling, as has been seen in other projects since then, really honestly does seem to lack any ability to feel or have an inner life, so her portrayal of Naggy Garrett is a bizarre sort of naturalism. Mathis, though, has to fake being so unemotive and callous, and it's not convincing. A double nightmare: we can't connect with her because she's so unlikable and removed, and we also can't connect with her because she's like a cardboard version of that.
The film's excruciating unwatchability transcends politics; I can't imagine even the most ardent Rand devotee genuinely enjoying the almost two hours this film will take away from their life. But for those of us who find her shrill "rational selfishness" to be a monstrous, downright immoral perspective on life - decent people, I like to call us - the film is literally unendurable. Shitty characters, a plot that never even gets started enough for us to say that it goes nowhere, scene upon scene of lecturing intolerable simply for how flatly they're presented by journeyman director John Putch, regardless of content - and how about that content, which when deprived of the cushioning effect of bad movie irony is revealed to be just as nasty and inhumane as any philosophy could be when it's centered on the idea that if people were intelligent and good, of course they'd be more deserving of money and power than people too fucking dumb to invent a revolutionary, once-in-a-century metal, or be born to the owner of the country's largest railroad company. It's the rancid topper to a film that would already be one of the blandest and most incompetently-made of the year just on its merits as a piece of cinematic storytelling.