If you just want to see a piece of libertarian-oriented political propaganda, you might like the new “Atlas Shrugged” movie. But if you want a film that does artistic justice to Rand’s book, this isn’t it. It’s a bad film.
I’m glad I saw it, because it reinforces my conviction that some books just don’t make good movies. But in the hands of these particular filmmakers, this book never had a chance to become a good movie. It’s a paint-by-numbers production that you might expect from an indie movie at a small film festival or maybe from a soap opera. It’s not good art.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but I want to start with someone who’s been dead for something like 35 years — Rand herself. Because “Atlas Shrugged” has been so influential for so many of us, it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that it’s a very flawed book. Those of us who love it do so because of the story it tells, but mostly the economic and social message it conveys. But Rand is a terrible writer when it comes to character development. People don’t really seem to matter to her except for whatever idea they’re supposed to represent. Good people are pretty close to perfectly good. They’re heroes. The bad people aren’t just mistaken. They’re evil. There isn’t gray area in these people. And with very few exceptions, people don’t change in her books. They don’t develop or grow. They’re more like cardboard cutouts that she moves around to make her points. As long as you understand that, you can accept the book on its own terms and enjoy it — IF you’re interested in her ideas.
Movies are driven by people. Movies are about emotions and personal change. So even if there are elements of the “Atlas Shrugged” story that are good for a movie, the people come across as flat and lifeless. They have no depth. They come across as though they’re partial sketches, not complete characters. And the fact that they don’t have much in the way of internal emotional struggles or deal with gray areas in life ends up making them boring. Francisco is the only character I can think of in the movie who’s even vaguely interesting, but that’s because it’s clear that he HAS changed in some way — and it’s a mystery as to why. Everybody else is a cardboard cutout.
Getting to the actual production, it looks and feels cheap. The movie was shot very cheaply and it feels cheap. I haven’t made anything at the scale of a feature, so I’m not really qualified to say exactly what the difference is, but it’s noticeable. (Just because of my personal background in graphic design, I’m especially appalled at the really bad graphic design on the signs. The ones for Rearden Steel and the John Galt Line are hideous, IMO.) The camera work isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s not something you’d expect from a theatrical feature film. It’s more like what you’d expect from a quick-and-dirty TV movie or a soap opera. I’ve honestly seen very low-budget movies at small film festivals with better camera work — and if you knew just how bad most of those movies are, you’d know just how low the standard that I’m using is. There are some shots that show that some camera operator or the director of photography was at least competent, but that’s about it.
The acting is terribly uneven. Some of it is awful. Some of it is mildly competent. None of it seemed to fit together. It’s almost as though the director just told his actors to start playing the scenes without making sure everybody was on the same page. Some of them seemed to be playing their characters more like they were in a live action cartoon. As a result, the evil businessmen and government people seem more like bad guys out of Batman from the ’60s (Pow! Bam!) than characters from a serious drama. The most credible acting job was probably from the actress playing Dagny. I suspect she’s a talented actress, but she clearly wasn’t given enough direction about her role. The actor playing Rearden was competent, but fairly boring. The guy playing James Taggart was almost non-existent. I know that’s a weak role, but this actor seems to just be a stand-in mouthing the lines. Overall, the acting is just plain poor.
Anyone who’s read the book knows that the dialogue feels like something from the past. It works fine when you think of the story as being set something like 60 years ago, but it doesn’t work when placed into 2016, as this movie set the story. And that brings me to another problem. The writers weren’t allowed to rewrite the dialogue to fit the era. Instead, the dialogue in many cases feels as though it was taken straight from the pages of the book and pasted into the script. Although there are plenty of times when writers go too far in changing books in their transition to movies, there are times in this movie when it seems as though the actors are simply reading Rand’s dialogue rather than acting. Since whoever controls the book’s copyright (Ayn Rand Institute?) had script approval, I wonder how much of that might have been their insistence on slavish adherence to the book, but that’s purely a guess.
So where does the blame for this thing lie? As I said, I think Rand bears some responsibility, but she wasn’t here to help adapt it, so the major blame has to fall on the producer who rushed a cheap movie into production before his film rights to the book ran out. He hired a director who wasn’t up to the task and writers who either weren’t capable or weren’t allowed to properly adapt the book. And he shot the movie with a budget that was far too low to get the quality of people who might have had a chance to make the characters live on screen.
It’s always a scary thing to see a movie based on a book that you love. It’s very, very difficult for filmmakers to get that transition right. But this isn’t a case of me complaining because filmmakers deviated from a book. It’s a matter of filmmakers doing a poor job of adaptation AND just plain being incompetent in what they did do.
Film is an art medium. If you only care about film as propaganda, you might not mind this movie if you already happen to agree with it. But this isn’t good art. If libertarians hope to have a chance of affecting the culture, we have to do good art. And this is not good art.
I suspect this movie will do very poorly at the box office. There will be a wave of libertarians and other fans of the book who will see it early, but I can’t imagine that word of mouth will bring anybody in outside of those groups. The entire theatre where I was — which was the only one showing it in all of the Birmingham area — had only 11 people in it for the afternoon showing where I was. That doesn’t bode well for a long-awaited movie on opening day.
If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.