On Second Thought: “Atlas Shrugged: Part II”

Adapting a book or book series is no easy task. Some just get it, and others struggle under the weight of creative people who have no idea how to make something interesting. With the Atlas Distribution Company film “Atlas Shrugged: Part II”, based on the novel of the same name by Ayn Rand, there are many factors trying to get in the way of an even half decent film from existing. Some are familiar issues, like dealing with a source material that’s so methodical and dense in its conveyance of a philosophical belief, that it’s a wonder any other aspects of a story could’ve come through at all. And then there are the new issues, which should’ve been somewhat avoidable, but due to changes elsewhere, allowed for a big door to appear and open, so that those issues may waltz in and cause havoc to an already struggling film series.

Themes Away!
Like with the previous film in this trilogy, understanding the core philosophy at the heart of the story, which the story really revolves around, and the various themes that come up as they’re connected to the core philosophy, is crucial. Without some kind of base knowledge, even something that’s more on the superficial side, fully understanding what’s presented could still become an issue of its own. Or, which is a possibility too, you skipped the first part and went straight to the second. Definitely a risky move.

Objectivism (philosophy of rational self-interest) is still ever present, with even more slightly complex examples to try and follow, but this time it’s not alone. There’s at least two additional themes to consider. Both of which are stated out right. Capitalism and government. In the film, it’s said that, “capitalism doesn’t work” and that “money is the root of all evil”. Good to know. But is that true? In this complex and ever increasingly frustrating world, yes. Yes, if you’re someone unlike Samantha Mathis’ Dagny Taggart, Jason Beghe’s Hank Rearden or Esai Morales’ Francisco D’Anconia. For anyone who is not them, or one of the many people who have simply disappeared, they’re called Looters. Someone who’ll just take and take from those who work so hard to create. In so many ways then, it’s easy to understand how money could be the root of all evil or that capitalism doesn’t work. From a philosophical standpoint, and the point of this film, that all’s just for starters. There’s still more to explore.

Government, even after seeing this film again and seeing what’s going on in real life (ahem, President-elect Donald Trump, etc.), is still something I find incredibly fascinating. However, this film, and the source material, seem to paint a pretty good, albeit really hyperbolic and dramatic, picture of what can happen when government gets too involved. When it’s allowed to interfere at seemingly every moment, especially when it shouldn’t. This particular theme isn’t new to the series, and won’t go away until the final film’s last shot and the credits roll, but it seems to be a bit more omnipresent than before.

In “Atlas Shrugged: Part I”, audiences were treated to “The Equalization of Opportunity Bill”, which says that any one person cannot own more than one company, and mentions of the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule”, which forbids competition between railroads in certain areas, which helps push the story forward and piss off certain characters. There’s also moratorium’s and a few other laws meant to cripple Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart’s companies. In this film, we hear constant references and see through lengthy examples, of what the “Fair Share” law is. It says that producers must share their creation with all who ask, even if that means some get less than others. Through this you also get examples of how this won’t work, especially when the producer is unwilling to comply. A harsher law, which is meant to revive the still struggling economy, is called “Directive 10-289”. Some of its mandates are: people can’t quit and are therefor attached to their current jobs, copyrights, patents, etc., are to be transferred to the government, no new goods or technologies shall be created and wages, prices, etc., shall remain frozen at the current amount. And if it’s not directly laws that are causing problems for our protagonists, and those whom we don’t see, it’s policy decisions from inside the corporations. Mathis as Dagny even goes so far as to state:

“I am not going to say the words that make me the murderer. It’s your policies that killed The John Galt Line. It’s your interference that is killing this railroad. You’re the assassins.”

One would now think there couldn’t be any more government or corporate interference, which was usually done to help further some other government interest, but there is. That’s one reason why there’s a third part left.

Turn Your Attention Elsewhere
A common staple with low budget films is the fact that they typically look like it. There’s no need to see an actual number, you just know. The acting’s terrible, the script and story are awful, the special and visual effects, if there are any, are crap, and so on and so forth. The previous film may not have been as low budget as I was expecting, but it was low enough and still looked of a worse quality than it should’ve. This time around, things are worse. Is that because of the estimated budget, which the Philadelphia Business Journal says was around $16 million? Perhaps. That’s still not much to use for the production, and I’m certain enough of it went to marketing, whatever that may have been. Regardless, it’s low enough for me to wonder if the producers knew they needed to approach this film drastically different.

The major change, which I hate and it’s noticeable, cringeworthy even, is how shitty the visual effects look. In particular the opening scene. The opening scene is awful, and not because the one tiny bit of acting Mathis does seems bad, but because the plane she’s flying, through what would otherwise be a beautiful day, looks as fake as ever. About as fake as any of the creatures or animals seen in a SyFy Original Movie. Think “Sharknado” or “Sabertooth” or even “Piranhaconda”. It’s just bad. However, unlike those really low budget film, that bad CGI can be enjoyable. Dagny flying a fake looking plane through fake looking skies is not. There are other moments too, but this is the worst. I don’t even want to get started on how bad the finale plane crash looks.

Because of this drastic change in visual effects, a slight positive to this film can be found. The production value has gone up a bit. A smidge? Whatever the word choice, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Every major set was updated. Taggart Transcontinental no longer looked the same or even had the same logo, nor did Rearden Steel and Hank’s office, or even some newer sets. There’s overall a more futuristic feel to the film. Things are sleeker and showcase high tech, which at the time of the book’s publication (1957), wouldn’t have seemed impossible. For instance, the main control room at Taggart Transcontinental utilizes screens and monitors and has a setup that’s almost practical for such a large organization. I definitely felt like I was elsewhere. This change in budget allocation would also explain why even the costumes looked better. The characters all looked like they prided themselves on looking professional, or in the case of the big wedding, that they were the best dressed person there. Another drastic change, which just keeps with the overall theme of changing everything from one film to the next (actors, directors, etc.), is the mysterious motor. Originally it was this small item. Now, and amazingly so, it’s this larger and better looking and designed prototype. I never would’ve thought that something that trivial, in a low budget film like this, could amaze me so much. I guess it just goes to show what you can get out of films such as this.

As Wooden As Ever
Low budget films seem to have another thing in common. The level of acting is usually consistent. It’s bad. The first film had less than stellar performances, with even less livelier characters coming to life. This film, isn’t much better. I’d actually go so far as to say that the bulk of the performances were worse than what we got before. The actors were simply reading lines and pretending to be interesting, even when you could tell there was none left in them. The only exceptions I’d give are to the protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. What Mathis did, while not perfect, but like with previous portrayer Taylor Schilling, gave you a lot of passion. Every breath she used was for some serious purpose, all guided by her own decision making abilities. She never wavered. The downside to this mildly fascinating portrayal, she didn’t have much to give you this deeper inside look into who she is. Then again, neither did Beghe’s Rearden. While he may have had a substantially bigger role, or so I felt, there wasn’t much there for you to get behind and connect to. It was almost one note, even when delivering his philosophical answers to whomever it was that was asking a question or trying to persuade him to do other than he wants.

Questions And (Some) Answers
I’ll say this, no doubt a few more times, but this film’s story isn’t just about conveying a complex philosophical idea in the simplest of ways. No, it’s about telling a full fledged story with good characters and bad. You know, the usual. While the crux of the story is that Dagny and Hank are just trying to keep their business running, even against repeated attempts by the government or others to prevent them, there’s a bigger element than that. No, not Dagny and Hank’s affair, which eventually plays a major role in a painful decision that Hank must make. But the elements of intrigue, of mystery. The first part of this trilogy dealt with mystery, and not in some subtle way, but here it seems bigger. There’s more. So many questions. So many people disappearing. Why? Plus, there’s this mysterious motor that Dagny found, which comes with its own set of questions. Fortunate by film’s end, and probably a bit before then, as Rand used so many examples it’s not too difficult to figure out and understand, the answers to those questions are largely given. It’s just the way in which it was reproduced here and in the novel. None of it revealed itself too soon, and you could genuinely feel you were on the hunt for something. That it had to be answered. It was that important. There’s one question left, which by now really takes on a new meaning.

Who is John Galt?

The film originally opened on Oct. 12, 2012

Director: John Putch

Writers: Duke Sandfur, Brian Patrick O’Toole and Duncan Scott

Starring: Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe, Esai Morales, Patrick Fabian, Kim Rhodes, Richard T. Jones, and D.B. Sweeney

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