The first installment of Atlas Shrugged made headlines last year, and not for its supposedly incendiary subject matter. Instead, it was just because it was very, very bad. The film was so poorly made on every conceivable level that, regardless of your thoughts on Ayn Rand or her philosophies, it seemed impossible to consider the film itself any kind of success. Bland performances, shoddy visual storytelling and a tragic tendency to explain its argument rather than actually convey it through a compelling narrative resulted in a laughably absurd motion picture that wound up tying the Adam Sandler atrocity Jack & Jill for “The Worst Film of the 2011” right here at CraveOnline. For Atlas Shrugged: Part 2, producer John Aglialoro has scrapped the entire cast and most of the crew – that, or they simply refused to come back – and the result is a far superior film, smartly shot and better acted. It’s still kinda bad, but at least this movie won’t be an industry punchline for years to come.
Dagny Taggart, now played by Samantha Mathis (remember her?), finds the noose tightening around her in this new installment. The government, oppressively focused on “the greater good,” is in the process of regulating private industry to death, leaving Taggart and her married lover Henry Rearden, now played by the perpetually hoarse Jason Beghe, the only two people in the country with the power and sense of personal responsibility necessary to fight the fascistic socialization of the economy. In the meantime, they continue to seek answers to the ubiquitous question “Who is John Galt?” and attempt to fix the prototype perpetual energy machine they found locked away in a disused factory over the course of the last film.
I still haven’t read the novel Atlas Shrugged, largely because the original film made it look so boring, but the result is that certain elements of this movie trilogy elude me. I’m particularly hazy on when it’s an appropriate time to ask “Who is John Galt?” in casual conversation. Depending on the scene, the query can either be a fatalistic exclamation, a damning expletive or a casual punctuation. This willy-nilly application of an obvious catch phrase robs it of its dramatic power. Despite his overwhelming influence, John Galt’s identity is a much less enticing mystery after two whole films than Keyser Soze’s was after just half of The Usual Suspects.
But otherwise, it must be said that new director John Putch (who previously brought you the straight-to-video American Pie Presents: The Book of Love) knows how to elevate this material. The workmanlike cinematography and editing of Atlas Shrugged: Part One has been replaced with some canny visual storytelling, and the acting is an enormous improvement across the board, particularly Esai Morales, who seems more engaged than I’ve ever seen him, and Mathis, who surpasses the performance of Dagny Taggart in the first film by experiencing genuine human emotions. Putch’s film, aided no doubt by a faster-paced screenplay, manages to actually engage you once in a while in Atlas Shrugged’s constant backdoor dealings, obfuscating the film’s extreme simplification of its greater argument to the extent that it almost seems to work.
But they’re still telling the same story, and that story still plays like an outlandish parable. The protagonists, Taggart and Rearden, remain paragons of incorruptibility while the antagonists, basically the government as a whole, remain committed to absurd political policies that nobody in reality is actually suggesting, or that even seem like a plausible extrapolation of current regulatory policy. The history of mankind is littered with corruption on the part of both politicians and purely capitalistic industrialists, but at least their motivations make sense. It certainly was cheaper to ignore the rat meat and human fingers in our canned food, and it certainly benefits politicians (on some level) to take care of their rich campaign donors over their constituents. It's immoral, illegal and possibly outright evil, sure, but it makes a modicum of sense. Atlas Shrugged never allows its bad guys to make a legitimate argument for their curious decisions beyond weak arguments for, again, “the greater good,” robbing their actions of any validity. It’s easy to seem like you’re making a valid argument when your opposition is completely unprepared to defend their position. (Insert recent presidential debate joke here.)
But this does make the antagonists seem appropriately frustrating, and that frustration is something Atlas Shrugged: Part 2 conveys in spades. Ironically, that’s a good thing: Dagny and Henry are surrounded by such incompetent naysayers that it’s easy to feel their pain and, for once, the pain of the rich and brilliant minds that are disappearing the world over in protest of shifting political attitudes against capitalism. The previous film painted these characters as unsympathetic and petty, taking their balls and going home rather than play with others by society’s agreed-upon rules. Putch’s direction helps make these frustrations palpable the second time out, and yes, it’s finally easy to see why someone would give up on the world at large in a huff. Not very respectable, perhaps, since they’re obviously taking the easy way out, but at least a little sympathetic this time, helping the film’s argument immensely. Hardly slam-dunking it, mind you, but helping.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One failed to make its argument due to a larger failure to put together an engaging, watchable film regardless of its politics. Atlas Shrugged: Part 2 is competent enough to allow the argument to play out in front of us, giving naysayers something to actually think about. An actual argument has been made and can be judged by its narrative merits, and while it still falls short, treads water for most of the second act and continues to rely on oversimplifications of grander ideas, it’s now kind of interesting and, occasionally, even involving in its propagandistic flamboyance. Oh, what a difference competence makes.