Aug 27, 2015
Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (2012)
Despite bad reviews and worse box office returns for the first installment of Atlas Shrugged, the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus/paperweight, the sequel arrived in theaters in October of 2012. This was just in time to, as the filmmakers freely admitted, exert some influence over the outcome of the presidential election. I wonder how well that went? Given the movie’s weakly delivered political/economic message, I have a hard time believing Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike could sway the vote for school board superintendent.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss a film based on an Ayn Rand novel without delving into her philosophy of Objectivism. I have no real desire to become an expert on the subject for the purposes of a movie review, so here, straight from the book itself, is Objectivism in a nutshell:
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
On the surface, Rand has assembled a lot of concepts that no one can really argue with. Who doesn’t want to be a heroic being? Who doesn’t want to be happy and moral? Productive, noble achievement? Sign me up!
But Rand’s philosophy (at least, as expressed through the movies based on her novels) appears to come down to this: Pure, unregulated capitalism is the ideal economic system. The leaders of industry are the true “heroes” who drive the so-called “motor of the world”, and they should be free to use their talents with no government interference. They have no moral obligation to help society other than whatever value they generate by being productive, profitable, and awesome. Also, the world is filled with “moochers” and “looters” who seek to profit off the hard work of the heroes.
It’s worth seeing these films, at least to have some basic familiarity with Objectivism, which at first glance may seem about as relevant as Dianetics, but which has had major ramifications on our global economy. A member of Rand’s inner circle, an economic analyst named Alan Greenspan, went on to become Chairman of the Federal Reserve and put Rand’s laissez-faire ideals into practice. And we know how that story ended, with Greenspan himself admitting in 2008 that there was a “flaw” in that whole unregulated capitalism thing.
Rand might have had a few valid points, but by the time her philosophy got distilled down to the masses via conservative talk radio, the takeaway became: wealthy people are noble “job creators”, under no moral obligation to provide their employees with basic healthcare or even a living wage. And the real reason for our current stagnant economy is that corporations—the same corporations who diligently exploit loopholes to avoid paying billions in income tax every year—are being taxed too much.
The most amazing feat the wealthiest Americans have pulled off is not completely shirking their social responsibilities. It’s that they were able to take a cue from Ayn Rand and convince half the country that they are heroic for doing so.
And to that half, Atlas Shrugged II is clearly dedicated. The sequel continues the task of singing the praises of the unfettered free market, with the irony being that in an Objectivist utopia, Part 2 wouldn’t exist at all, seeing as how Part 1 didn’t earn enough to justify a sequel.
And despite Part 2 bombing even harder than Part 1, grossing only $3 million against a $20 million budget, the producers are still determined to get Atlas Shrugged III made. And they’ve even launched a Kickstarter to make it happen. Yes, act now, and you too can selflessly give your money away to a project that almost certainly won’t turn a profit! Ayn would be so proud.
Atlas Shrugged II picks up where Part 1 left off, but it’s more of a restart than a continuation. For one thing, despite covering (one assumes) the middle part of the novel, the plot of Part 2 is indistinguishable from Part 1. For another, every single role has been recast. And not just the leads—every character down to the most insignificant bit player is now played by a different actor. Some of these actors are now people you’ve actually heard of, though that doesn’t seem to make the finished product any better.
Railroad executive Dagny Taggart, played by Taylor Schilling in the original, is now played by Samantha Mathis, best known for Broken Arrow and Pump Up the Volume. Unfortunately, she comes off less like the maverick COO of a major corporation than the fretting housewife in an ad for stain remover. She literally wears the same gloomy, concerned expression in every scene.
Steel tycoon Henry Rearden, played by Grant Bowler in the first film, is now played by Jason Beghe, evidently the manliest man who ever manlied, with a voice like he gargles with chunks of asphalt in the morning. He’s still carrying on an affair with Dagny, even though his wife is fully aware of his extracurricular activities.
The lady Rearden is now played by Kim Rhodes, who doesn’t nail the role nearly as well as the haughty Rebecca Wisocky, but… she does show a lot more cleavage. Oddly, there’s been a significant and varied increase in the amount of cleavage on display since the first film.
You might recall that in movie #1, Dagny and Hank happened to come across a perpetual motion machine that, thanks to those insidious moochers, was just lying around unused in an abandoned factory. Here, Dagny tries to get it running by calling on an array of character actors. First, she tries Robert Picardo, the Doctor from Voyager (and IMDb be damned, he’s got to be playing the same role as fellow Trek alum Armin Shimerman in the first movie), who can’t help her.
So she turns to, of all people, Diedrich Bader. I have no idea why they got Bader to be in this movie, because he never does anything the slightest bit funny. Though I did get a laugh out of dialogue that refers to him as a “young engineer”.
But he’s not the strangest bit of casting. When the Taggart Transcontinental board meets to decide on the fate of the John Galt Line, Dagny and Henry’s passion project from the first film, two of the board members are played by Michael Gross and Thomas F. Wilson. They even get a lengthy slow motion entrance to make sure we recognize them.
But even that’s not the strangest bit of casting, because the movie also gives a one-line speaking part to Teller. As in, the mute member of Penn & Teller. This is not the first time Teller has spoken on camera—For instance, he talks at the end of 1989’s Penn & Teller Get Killed, and it felt just as wrong back then as it does now. Given that he’s in and out of the film in a flash, it’s clear the only motive here was to throw in another familiar face endorsing the movie’s politics.
As for the rest of the plot: more titans of industry are disappearing. In the first film, we saw several important people approached by John Galt, a shadowy figure in a trenchcoat, and disappear soon after, AKA “going Galt”. And this film gives us, well, two more hours of important guys going Galt. Though here, the definition of “important guy” has been stretched quite a bit to include a concert pianist.
You see, they’ve all decided to go on strike to protest unfair regulations and government meddling. And as Part 3 will likely reveal, they’re all hiding out in a secret commune called “Galt’s Gulch”, which sounds like a Wild West theme park, where I’m sure the likes of a brain surgeon, a concert pianist, and a copper magnate have no trouble at all building houses and roads and managing their food supply without cheap, unskilled labor. How hard could it be?
The first film featured Congress passing a ridiculous law dictating that no one could own more than one business. This film tops that nonsense with a “directive” that says no one can quit or be fired, that all patents must be transferred to the government, and weirdest of all, everyone must continue to spend the same amount of money as they did last year. The practicality of such a law is questionable, but it does lead to stupid lines like, “Dagny, you can’t quit! It’s against the directive!”
The directive is signed into law by the president, played by Ray Wise, AKA Laura Palmer’s father. I don’t know how a guy with a face this terrifying got elected president, but if it ever happened in real life, I’d just assume the end times were upon us. (On closer examination, his character is not the president, but rather the “Head of State”. I’m sure it makes sense to those who read the book.)
Rearden tries to take a stand against the directive, but he’s blackmailed into signing over his patents by some of the most innocuous blackmail photos ever taken. I think Rearden goes Galt after this, but a scene to that effect is curiously absent.
After the Taggart board votes to dismantle the John Galt Line, Dagny also quits. And for some reason, the company’s COO is the only person with any clue how to handle an emergency. Dagny’s replacement bungles a crisis so badly that he causes what we’re told is “the nation’s worst-ever rail disaster”. And also, the most confusingly edited. (The closing credits admit the movie licensed/reused footage from Unstoppable, which explains a lot.)
Meanwhile, Oswald gets the perpetual motion machine running, but decides he’d rather hop on a plane and take the thing to Galt’s Gulch. Dagny follows in her private plane and a dubious aerial chase ensues. Did you know that a Cessna can maneuver like a fighter jet?
As Dagny is about to crash into a mountain, she yells out, “Who is John Galt?!” Like movie #1, the phrase “Who is John Galt?” is repeated ad nauseum, like they’re still trying to make “fetch” happen. Personally, I would have gone with “holy fuck, a mountain!” but maybe that’s just me.
It turns out the mountain is a hologram, and after passing through what I think is a wormhole, Dagny crash-lands in Galt’s Gulch. She meets John Galt, whose face is obscured by shadow (though, reportedly, actor D.B. Sweeney was clearly visible in the theatrical cut). And that’s where the movie ends, and we’re basically right where we started. Well, I can’t wait to see who plays these roles in Part 3!
The movie has plenty of flaws, not the least of which is its dated source material. Railroads haven’t been a major economic force since the middle of last century, and the whole “gas is now $40 a gallon” hand-wave doesn’t explain their sudden resurgence—rail travel would be just as prohibitively expensive as flying. Also, the film never takes into account how globalized our economy is these days, and how it would probably easily absorb the disappearance of a few bratty Americans.
Actually, thanks to rampant outsourcing, one could make the case that American industry has already abandoned us. But instead of Galt’s Gulch, corporations have absconded to Bangladesh, where they can pay people $1.25 a day to stitch our sneakers.
In the end, it probably doesn’t matter how you feel about Rand’s philosophy, because these films do a terrible job of imparting it to anyone not intimately familiar with the novel. And it’s safe to say that with its stilted acting, clumsy dialogue, and TV movie-level cinematography, Atlas Shrugged II (just like its predecessor) is Objectively bad.