Atlas Shrugged: Is it the movie, or is it me? (SPOILERS)

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Atlas Shrugged, Part One. If you’re planning on seeing it, and want to leave it as confused as I did, please stop reading now.

Also, a secondary warning, this diary entry may come off a bit disjointed.  The main reason for this is that I am still trying to sort out how I feel about Atlas Shrugged, Part One, which I went to view on its opening day this weekend.

I guess I’ll start with how I went into it. I have never read through Ayn Rand’s iconic novel, but I did know going in the premise of the story, a general idea about how the plot progresses, and perhaps regrettably, I have spoiled myself on the ending, including who John Galt turns out to be. I came in with some mild optimism that I would find the movie a guilty pleasure. After all, who among us in Red State America haven’t fantasized at least a little about telling the government where to shove its onerous and often misguided laws and regulations passed in the name of “fairness” or “the common good”? Who among us, just to pick one example, didn’t smirk as New York governor David Paterson tried lamely to make it sound like it was worth losing all the taxes Rush Limbaugh paid his state to have finally driven Rush’s media empire from his domain?

So I guess that was the kind of thing I hoped to see a lot of in Atlas Shrugged, Part One.  A bunch of Take Thats as the hopelessly bureaucratic government ate karmic breakfast as a result of its own misguided actions.

After the movie, when I asked around on Twitter about things about the movie I didn’t quite understand, I noticed a definite pattern in the responses.  Basically, they boiled down to “Wait for the next two parts”. What was the deal with the pirate? Wait for the sequel. Why does nobody seem to have a proximate motivation for anything they do? The sequels will explain it. Can’t anyone beside Dagny express the least bit of outrage over anything? (Apart from Mr. Wyatt’s mid-film tirade, which he manages to direct at the only person in the film who doesn’t deserve it.)  It’s coming… apparently.

Let’s go to straight to the ending (last chance to avoid spoilers!), where, in response to Wesley Mouch piling on legislative atrocity after legislative atrocity, Mr. Wyatt decides (off-screen, of course) that enough is enough and he runs off with everyone else, burning his oil fields as he goes. Okay, first things first, the Big No from Dagny, I could have done without. Simple stunned disbelief or even a look of horror as she read the sign would have worked so much better in my book. Next, I have to say that it’s an artifact of the book’s 1950’s setting that burning the oil fields was even necessary. This is because in the 1950’s we still had a government that might have had the nerve to “get its hands dirty” in the actual operation of an oil field. Today, Wyatt could have dropped his oil fields into the government’s lap fully intact and they’d have them run into the ground if not burnt down within a matter of weeks, all in the name of promoting alternative energy.

But I think maybe what really bugs me is how hopeless the ending feels. Sure, there have been trilogy installments with relatively “downer” endings, but even then they usually manage to placate the viewer with a small victory. The Empire Strikes Back is a major example of this. Yes, the rebels are still trying to regroup after being flushed out of their base, and Han Solo is in a world of hurt, but at least Luke got away from Darth Vader and will fight another day. But where is the “at least” in Atlas Shrugged Part One? Dagny looks totally defeated, Hank Rearden can’t be bothered to look up from his work long enough to care about the governmental noose tightening around his neck, and as for the government itself, it looks like it will just roll on, oblivious to the damage its actions are causing, just as it does to a slightly lesser extent in the real world.

I guess maybe I’m supposed to assume that Wyatt’s oil fields are something truly irreplaceable, that without them America’s now really, really in big trouble. Except, from what we saw on the streets, things looked like they sucked about as much as they possibly could already. Will gasoline going from $37.50/gallon to, say, $100/gallon mean all that much when even $37.50 was too much for any but the wealthy to afford anyway?

Another thing that bugged me was all the one-scene characters that we’re nevertheless expected to take to be really, really important. One scene, where someone we don’t know is approached by the mysterious figure and is then reported missing is fine, just to demonstrate what’s happening, but two or three more such scenes and it starts feeling superfluous. Why can’t we have someone we halfway care about, like maybe Dagny’s right hand man Eddie, decide to defect? I know, because that’s not how the story goes, but frankly I’d almost welcome a deviation from the source material if it would help me care about what’s going on more.

Then there was the big conflict that took up the bulk of Part One, the whole question of whether Rearden Metal was a miracle invention capable of single-handedly saving the nation or the biggest deathtrap since the Ford Pinto. Naturally, the possibility that the truth might lie anywhere in between isn’t even a consideration. Nor, apparently, does Rearden have any way of demonstrating its product’s value to the public outside of a full-scale, real-world project. And even that triumph quickly felt hollow. What was stopping anyone from arguing — quite plausibly — that a single successful run proves nothing about how well those rails will be holding up after a year or two of regular use?

Maybe the problem is that, despite my political leanings, I’m not really the target audience for Atlas Shrugged, Part One.  Message-wise, the movie really has very little to tell me that I don’t already know already about the self-serving nature of modern government and the deleterious effects of runaway legislation and regulation.  But it’s hardly targeted at the left, who probably look at this movie and wonder “why is any of this being portrayed as a bad thing?” The great middle, then, perhaps?  Maybe if you can find one that’s paying enough attention to know how invasive the government is in everything, even those things which the media blithely blames on Big Whatever-Other-Than-Government, but normally we call such people Conservatives and Libertarians.

That said, I do take one piece of Atlas Shrugged-related amusement away from current headlines, wherein the president of AFSCME essentially claims that unionized public sector workers are the true Atlases of this world, and that America would truly know suffering if they ever decided to go on strike… er, again. (If you really need the jokes in response to that, just read the linked article’s comment section.)

Atlas Shrugged, Part One is a movie I really wanted to like. In fact, it’s a movie that I really feel that I should have liked, which is why I’ve spent 1200 words scratching my head over why it is that I didn’t. Maybe it all goes back to those tweets I got advising me to wait for the sequels and then things will start making more sense. The problem is, sequels are supposed to answer the question, “what happens next?”, not “what just happened?”.