Born as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia to a middle-class family, philosopher and writer, Ayn Rand, would soon see her father, a successful pharmacist, lose his business following the Bolshevik Revolution. With her family punished for past successes, Rand moved to the United States, where she’d fall in love with capitalism and ultimately, pen several controversial novels including The Fountainhead, a slick melodrama centering on a young architect, Howard Roark, who’d rather cope with obscurity and critical vituperations than conform to the collective, and We the Living, a semi-autobiographical piece chronicling a family residing within the Soviet Union. Her magnum opus, however, came with her last piece, Atlas Shrugged, a tale that encompassed the Objectivist movement she’d started whilst presenting a grim representation of the United States — one that many Libertarians, Republicans, and Fox News correspondents have come to accept as prophetic.
But when a piece of literature becomes popular (and the original author is dead), corporate Hollywood is forced into action. Escaping development hell and Rand’s personal disdain (King Vidor, the director of 1949’s version of The Fountainhead, was scolded several times for thinning out a long-winded monologue, which Rand demanded be kept in full), the story has, after 50+ years of rewrites and broken deals, finally reached the big-screen with Paul Johansson’s Atlas Shrugged: Part I.
The setting is in the not-so distant future: The Dow Jones average has taken a drastic dip, all gas imports are cut due to shortages, oil spills run rampant, and rail travel is the only reliable transport left. In protest, Americans carry signs that read, “Capitalism doesn’t work,” before running home to learn that yet another cruise ship has been hijacked — a last ditch effort to survive. Amidst the confusion and destruction, James Taggart (Matthew Marsden), CEO of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, is one of the few wealthy businessmen remaining; however, he neglects the responsibility, blaming a lack of generosity from his investors, rather than his ineptitude in acting and rusty railroad tracks. Fortunately for him, his sister, Dagny (Taylor Schilling) has found the solution: Rearden Metal.
Developed by Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), the experimental alloy, said to be lighter and stronger than steel, remains untested, thus sending the steel industry out for Dagny’s head. This is just an added roadblock for their partnership, which is further strained by the disappearance of several of the world’s most progressive thinkers, all of them leaving following a run-in with the enigmatic John Galt (Johansson himself).
If nothing else, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is faithful — for better and for worse. Despite being a low-budget effort, the production isn’t too cheap, however, John Aglialoro’s muddled and ultimately incohesive script dampens the project. Without Rand’s beautiful exposition, the story becomes laughable — her words, every letter crowned with conviction, being what made the tale powerful. To add insult to injury, the cast, consisting almost entirely of unknowns, is visibly uncomfortable in front of the camera — adding no charisma or complexity to their assigned roles.
Schilling and Bowler are the most embarrassing — the latter more so, a byproduct of obnoxious soap opera-esque close-ups (demonstrating his chiseled jaw). And in spite of a romance between them being constantly hinted, the duo shares no chemistry. In addition, their deliveries are pathetic: A poor mix of elitism and false gusto. However, the rest of the crew, including Michael O’ Keefe (as Hugh Akston), Edi Gathegi (Eddie Willers), Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt) and even Marsden, also can’t muster the talent for even one likable performance. Even the trench coat wearing, Johansson is no exception; as Galt, arguably the story’s most important character — a man who promises Atlantis, a place where individuals can prosper — the actor is a mockery.
Politics aside (and there is a lot of it), Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a poorly executed mess. With minimal direction, even the all-time question, “Who is John Galt?” loses its mystique. And although her hands-off approach to society will always be debatable, one thing isn’t: Both fans and critics of the novel will agree that this adaptation would make Ayn rant.