Now lower them again. Then accept the idea that you can overlook some serious artistic mediocrity in some areas. If you’ll numb your judgement in these ways before going to see “Atlas Shrugged Part II,” there’s a chance you can enjoy it. Or at least parts of it.
Some books don’t make good movies. That’s what I said last year when I reviewed “Atlas Shrugged Part I,” and I feel that way even more strongly after watching “Part II” Friday afternoon.
If you’re a fan of the book — and you can see this movie as a paint-by-numbers adaptation of it — you’ll probably enjoy the movie. If you actually liked last year’s “Part I” (you know who you are), you’ll like this one just fine. But if you don’t already know and love the book, this movie will probably put you to sleep and make you curse whoever dragged you to the theatre to see it.
And that’s the bottom line. How much you enjoy this movie depends on the degree to which you’ll overlook its many flaws and grade it on a curve. It’s not a good film, but you can still enjoy parts of it if you lower expectations enough.
As a book, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is flawed, which should be apparent even to people (such as me) who love it. It’s not so much a novel as it’s a polemic. The characters don’t have depth. They’re simply two-dimensional representations of ideas that Rand moves around in order to make points. The good guys are completely good. The bad guys are completely evil. There are very few characters in the middle, and those few are portrayed as weak. There’s no character development.
This movie has the same flaws that the book has, but it adds to them. The actors are miscast and the direction seems questionable in many cases. The writers were boxed in by decisions made for “Part I,” but the dialogue wasn’t generally quite as heavy-handed as it was in the first part.
One of the worst decisions was to set the movie in the near future instead of the 1950s. A story that centers around railroads and steel mills just screams that it’s from another era. It would have worked much better as a story set in the past, even though the political and economic situation wouldn’t have fit actual history. This is another conundrum that makes it a tough book to turn into a movie.
The movie opens with absurd (but pretty) shots of Dagny piloting a jet that’s chasing another jet. The planes are so low and so dangerously close to Colorado mountains that you wonder if you’ve stepped into a reel of “Top Gun” or a James Bond movie.
From the beginning, everything about the actress playing Dagny is all wrong. Samantha Mathis probably isn’t a bad actress, but she doesn’t fit this role. She doesn’t have the screen presence to play Dagny, and she doesn’t have the kind of severe beauty that the book leads us to expect. She looks more like someone you’d find in a TV commercial for coffee or washing powders, playing the housewife who discovers a great new product. She’s not Dagny, and her presence detracts from every scene in which she appears.
Most of the other actors are just as poorly cast. As Hank Rearden, Jason Beghe has so little chemistry with Mathis that it seems laughable that these two are having an affair. There’s no spark. There’s nothing. It’s like an affair without the least hint of sensuality or desire. They come across more like random business partners, not as people who are hiding a torrid affair. And Beghe’s deep voice — which would be great if he were playing a gangster — feels all wrong to me.
In the first part, the evil government henchmen were played more like cartoon characters. That’s been toned down this time, thankfully, so they come across more believably. They’re not great actors, but at least they don’t feel as though they’re trying to play their roles as parody, as I sometimes felt in the first movie.
I’ve seen much better acting from actors in cheap indie films at festivals than we get from the leading actors in the movie, but the worst of the acting comes from those in supporting roles. Some of them don’t even seem like film actors. They seem more like folks you would expect to show up on stage at a halfway decent community theatre. On stage, that can work. On screen, it’s jarring and feels all wrong.
There’s a lot that I can criticize in the movie (and I’m leaving out a lot of things I noticed), but if you’ve managed to stay awake through the halfway point, you might very well find the last third (or so) of the movie somewhat entertaining. The parts dealing with the train wreck in the Taggart Tunnel are handled pretty well for a low-budget film. Showing the impending disaster from the vantage point of the Taggart operations center (which doesn’t exist in the book) helps the scene. And the train crash itself is pretty good considering the budget.
And this brings up an interesting contrast. The movie does a good job when it shows instead of tells. It does a lousy job when it’s mostly just people making speeches about principles. As much as I love the principles being discussed, they don’t make for good movie dialogue.
Here are a few other random odds and ends:
— Since the movie is set just slightly in the future, the pictures used to blackmail Rearden into signing the “gift certificate” are ludicrous. In the 1950s, he might have tried to protect Dagny from the shame of public knowledge of such an affair. For 2012 and beyond, it comes across as a story that wouldn’t be a blip on the public consciousness.
— A key point in the book before the train wreck in the Taggart Tunnel is that a steam engine has to be used to pull a train through the tunnel. In a movie based in the near future, it’s laughable to think that someone could even find a working steam engine nearby. Again, that story point made sense when set in the ’50s. It makes no sense for today.
— Why do protesters have signs (toward the end of the movie) attacking the government directive (10-289)? It would make sense to have the signs continue to protest against the greedy rich, but they make no sense that the signs are protesting the directive.
— Rearden Steel seems to like MacBooks, because we see them on Rearden’s desk and his secretary’s desk. Dagny also conducts a FaceTime call on her iPhone 4 (or 4S) toward the end of the movie. It’s noticeable that she’s holding the phone oddly in an effort to partly obscure the Apple logo so it won’t be a product placement shot.
— The set-up of Rearden’s trial scene is ridiculous. It’s not a courtroom, but an amphitheater with spectators watching about five judges directly confront Rearden. Nothing about the set-up is believable. When the spectators start cheering Rearden, it feels fake, because the kind of people who attend government hearings don’t suddenly start cheering billionaires when they make little speeches about the morality of self-interest.
— I hate it that we heard what is supposed to be the music of Richard Halley. The book builds the music up as being great, so nothing we hear could live up to the way it’s described. Especially in a low-budget production, the music isn’t going to be anything special. So knowing what his music is supposed to sound like makes hearing it sound anti-climactic.
Overall, if you liked the first movie because you like the book, you’re going to find this one acceptable. You’ll especially enjoy the last third or so. But if you don’t know the book or don’t have any real feelings about it already, you’re going to be bored if you’re someone who has much knowledge about what good filmmaking is.
The movie is opening on many more screens this weekend than “Part I” opened on, so there’s a chance that the opening weekend gross to be higher than the pathetic take of the first part. At my theater, though, I was one of only five people in the first screening of the day. There wasn’t a big rush for tickets to the first show.
If you go to see it, lower your expectations as low as you possibly can. That’s the only way I know to enjoy it. And if you don’t already agree with the political and economic positions of the book, don’t bother, because you won’t get the movie and it’ll just irritate you.
Just remember to grade it on a curve if you want to enjoy it. But please don’t drag your non-political friends, because they’re not going to get it and they’ll just be bored.
Note: As professional reviews become available, they’ll be posted at these pages at MetaCritic and Rotten Tomatoes. The first few reviews are strongly negative, but I think they’re (unfortunately) accurate and fair.