20 October 2012

NO GALT ON HER TAIL

No cheaper shot can be taken than to point out that 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.

1/10

16 comments:

Thrash Til' Death said...

Wow. I feel like I need a cold shower after this review.

In related news, Nic Cage is allegedly going to be starring in a moderately-budgeted adaptation of the "Left Behind" novels. Reading a Brayton-flavoured takedown of that when it comes out will - somewhat ironically - be something akin to an actual religious experience if it's anything like this adaptation of a key text of right-wing nuts.

Jeremy said...

Damn Tim, should've given in the full (negative) monty and went 0/10

MrRoivas said...

You know your inhabiting an odd universe when the bad people are identified by their charities.

Mysterious F. said...

I predict that you're going to get a lot of comments on this page within the next week...

DeeperUnderstanding said...

I lost it at Dingy Tiger...

Tim said...

Thrash- That can't possibly happen. It would be too unbelievably perfect for that to actually come to pass. But rest assured, I will be there with all my powers of sarcasm if it does.

Jeremy- Honestly, it's closer to a 2 than to a 0: it's at least as competent as the first movie, and I like to save the worst scores for movies that fail in some major way to be functional at all. Only my active dislike for the theme even got it down to a 1. But there's always Part III to look forward to!

MrRoivas- Or where the protagonists say things like "What's with all the stupid altruism?" Which was a Part I line, but still...

Mysterious F- Still, not likely to be as bad as my negative Star Trek review. Whatever their sins, Randians aren't sci-fi fanboys.

DeeperUnderstanding- It is my private pledge that as long as they keep making Atlas Shruggeds, that I never refer to the unfortunately-named Dagny the same way twice.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

*Slow clap*

KingKubrick said...

That review was an epic smackdown.

Benjamin said...

I took the trouble and seeing and reviewing it for my own purposes, and thought much the same. Though there were a few moments that, while certainly not redeeming, at least managed to be campy rather than irritating. I'm thinking Rearden's wife and Dagny being bitchy to each other at the wedding party, and especially that glorious sequence where everyone freaks out about the new law that ends with the hobo carving his sign that says, "Here lies my country. Born: 1776 - Died: yesterday."

I'd actually love to see you review The Fountainhead, just because it's so crazy.

David Greenwood said...

As a bad movie fanatic, I'm waiting for the third "Shrugged" to come out, to see if it's worth shotgunning the trilogy ^___^

Tim said...

If by "shotgunning", you mean" watching them while drinking down an entire bottle of liquor", I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that will be the case, especially if they dump the whole cast for the next picture, as is my extremely earnest wish.

David Greenwood said...

I hope that means you'll help us all come up with an "Atlas Shrugged" drinking game.

Junius said...

I enjoy your reviews, but what you called the "cheap shot" at Rand makes no sense whatsoever. Rand would never object to people spending their own money as they choose. That is so not "welfare" that I am confident in stating you do not understand Rand's philosophy at all. After all, if you get a simple term like "welfare" wrong - and I mean in Rand's terms, not that you are wrong in you own values or feelings about welfare - then I am on safe ground stating that you miss the logic and subtleties of her deeper concepts.

I suspect you dislike the parody of her work that people put about.

james1511 said...

I can't speak for Tim or anyone else, but I know that what put me off Rand was actually reading her work, not anyone else's "parody" of it.

Cardiganx said...

As much as the movie fails to explain many of the facets that make the book so thought provoking, you fail to explain how wishing to be in control of the fruits of your labor make you a bad person.

I mourn to see a critic who is praised for giving a negative review to the idea of "Hey, what would a world be like if everyone earned what they had?"

Your review of the movie is correct; it sucks. But keep philosophical reviews to people who have an open mind enough to not let their obvious bias make them sound like petty teen age girls.

Too bad they didn't include the media's likeness to sheep in the movie adaptation. That would make your bias and review too obviously ironic. Instead, you leave enjoying seeing you make a fool of yourself to those who pick up a book and don't get their political ideology from a b-rate blogger.

David Greenwood said...

@CardiganX Wishing to be in control of the fruits of your labor doesn't make you a bad person. However, the Atlas Shrugged films (to be fair, I've only seen part one so far) go past that and argue that altruism is impossible, foolish, or doesn't exist.

Never in the film do we see characters who are legitimately concerned about the plight of the poor or the disadvantaged. We only see people who are using altruism as a smoke screen to sponge off of hardworking wealthy people. The effect is akin to Glenn Beck saying that when you hear someone say they value "social justice" it's a code word for Nazism.

The film is an ideological tract for a distasteful ideology. Fiscal conservatism is not distasteful. The notion that anyone claiming to want to help their fellow man is not to be trusted is pretty distasteful. Maybe that notion isn't in the book. But it's in the movie, and that's where we're talking about here, isn't it?