What It's About: A couple of humorless dicks face many boring obstacles in the course of building a slightly faster and safer light-rail system.
Who It's For: Assholes and metallurgy buffs.
Hold up. This is what Atlas Shrugged is about? So many people tried to sell me on this book in college, and I avoided it because my busy schedule of drinking beers and eating sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches (my, how things have changed) did not allow time for reading a 900-page novel about how it's good to work hard at your job or whatever. (I also avoided it because the people selling me on it tended to be the sort of people who would start sentences with "I'm not racist, but ...") I never did get around to reading it, but I thought watching the recent definitive movie adaptation of the first half would turn me on to Ayn Rand's -ism. If a novel can inspire an entire movement based around something with as boring a name as Objectivism, it must be pretty good, right? When I was a kid and saw ads for Dianetics, I thought it was a book about lava, and that seemed very exciting. If only it were that simple.
To whomever it was that told me many years ago that Atlas Shrugged is basically a superhero story, you are basically an idiot. The movie is about how hard businessmen work, how lazy people are lazy, and how bureaucracy gets in the way of making a good train. Cool plot, and definitely one I really connected with. What kid wouldn't love a good superhero story about how an average entrepreneur transforms into a powerful mining CEO after being bitten by the bug of corporate ingenuity? It reminds me a lot of Batman, another popular and compelling superhero story. "Some people just want to watch the railway burn." (Keep in mind that it's entirely possible that the book Atlas Shrugged is just so great and perfect. I am not reviewing the book; I'm reviewing the movie based on its first half. But I also have a feeling the book is not great and perfect.)
The year is 2016, and America is in disarray: Gas is $37.50 a gallon, trains keep crashing (trains are so important, FYI), and somebody named Ragnar the Pirate is raiding things, as pirates do. "Ragnar the Pirate" is an intriguing name. I wonder if he has dreads in his beard, a wooden leg, or a hook hand. There's no way to know, because we never once get to see Ragnar the Pirate. What a tease, to throw out something so fun. "Ragnar the Pirate keeps hijacking ships and stealing treasure and recruiting adventurers to his cause, but first: tons of board meetings."
The Taggart Transcontinental Railroad is crumbling under the mismanagement of the lazy and incompetent James Taggart, and it's up to his sister Dagny Taggart to save the company through bold and fearless action. She is a likable hero, especially when she says things like, "I've never felt anything at all." There is a warm current of real human emotion flowing through the entire story. You get the feeling that Ayn Rand was a really chill person, fun to be around and to be loved by. James Taggart keeps buying inferior metal for his railways, but Dagny knows that the future is in partnering with similarly bold and fearless Hank Reardon, CEO of Reardon Metals.
Hank has a new metal that is stronger and lighter than anything else in the world. The one bright spot of this movie is how often characters refer to this "new metal," because it's easy to imagine they are talking about "nu metal." "My nu metal will change the world." "Your nu metal is unlike anything the world has ever seen." Are nu metal bands secretly super libertarian? I hope so. It really makes you think about their lyrics in a different way, like the chorus of that P.O.D. song that goes, "We are, we are, the youth of the nation / productive achievement is the noblest activity, and reason is our only absolute."
Meanwhile, a mysterious and shadowy stranger is abducting forward-thinking executives across the country. He looks like Carmen Sandiego, except instead of stealing Hans Christian Andersen’s writing desk, he's stealing banking CEOs who are tired of letting others feed off the profit of their hard work. Characters keep asking, "Who is John Galt?" I do not know who John Galt is, and the question comes to represent what you say when people are asking questions that have no answers, such as "Am I supposed to like Hank Reardon?" and "Who would enjoy this book?"
Together, Hank and Dagny discover the evidence of a new type of motor that could change the world, one left behind at a factory that closed because it was too collectivist. (You know how factories are, closing down when they are too good to their workers.) Hank and Dagny go on a hunt for this motor, while executives keep disappearing and the government continues to pass legislation to limit the success of independent business owners. The Equalization of Opportunity bill makes Hank Reardon give up all his other companies, and that injustice is nearly the final straw.
That's about all I could piece together of the story. This movie is confusing, and perhaps super-fans of the book can follow all the characters and backstabbing and changing corporate and political loyalties. The film is mostly a series of scenes of people in wood-paneled rooms drinking wine and complaining and talking about metal and railroads. Everyone is super rich and a piece of shit. I thought Dagny and Hank were the villains until about three minutes before the end of the movie. Excuse me if my heart was not moved by Dagny's plea to a billionaire, "If I ever meant anything to you, loan me the money that I need." She's so mad when she doesn't get the billions she needs to start John Galt Railroad. The Mexican rail line gets nationalized, and everyone is so upset, even though who knows what that means? It's hard to differentiate between the smart and the stupid characters when every quote is horrendous. "Happiness is the delusion of those who are superficial" is as gross to me as "My metal, your railway, it's us who will move the world." "My coffee, your ground beef, it's us who will move our bowels."
In the end, we find that these executives are being taken to Atlantis, a place where the individual is respected by his government. Is it underwater? Isn't Atlantis underwater? I hope all these executives have been taken underwater, a place where there is no air, so they drown. That is where Part 1 stops. I'll have to wait for Part 2 to find out if John Galt's "strike of the mind," or whatever he calls it, works. I just really hope the CEOs show the world how important CEOs are. We're all pulling for them. It's important to note that literally the only characters in this movie are executives, politicians, and rich relatives of the executives. You know: all the types of people.
When You Should Watch This Movie: When you (a tycoon) and your friends (also tycoons) want to watch a film about Real People struggles, struggles like exerting enough monetary influence on your people in Washington to get legislation passed that deregulates your business and increases your bottom line; when you want to see an 11-minute scene of a train successfully crossing a bridge.