Welcome back to part two of the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the second entry in this “series”, Atlas Shrugged: Part II. After a dull, cheap and morally-objectionable first chapter, could the producers finally get the quality adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that they so desperately wanted? Read on to find out…
Oh, and like the last entry, if you’re looking to read a review of the film from someone who has read the book, check out Matt’s review at The M as well!
After Atlas Shrugged: Part I‘s release, the producers went about planning Part II. However, the free market rejected the first Atlas Shrugged film and it failed to turn a profit, the producers were forced to find other avenues in order to finance a sequel. Funding took until the start of February of 2012, when a private debt sale was conducted which raised $16 million dollars for the film (presumably this was debt owned by John Aglialoro himself and perhaps other members of the production team). With financing complete, pre-production could wrap up and the film would begin shooting in April of 2012.
While the producers handwaved much of the criticism of the first film as being ideologically-motivated, they did acknowledge that the first film was not as good as they would have liked and proceeded to do a clean sweep of the cast and crew. Given the rushed production schedule of the first film, none of the cast had been negotiated to return for Part II anyway… which was probably the biggest break for Taylor Schilling ever, as she instead landed major roles in The Lucky One and freaking Argo, before going on to take the lead role in Orange is the New Black! Suffice to say, she dodged a bullet by not shackling herself to Atlas Shrugged sequels.
For the principal cast, veteran actress Samantha Mathis was cast as Dagny, former Scientologist Jason Beghe was cast as Hank Rearden, Timothy Olyphant look-alike Esai Morales was cast as Francisco d’Antonia and Patrick Fabian was cast as James Taggart (not a DOA vertan? Boooo!!!). Also worth noting is that Retrospectives veteran Ray Wise makes a cameo appearance as the freaking President of the United States! Once again, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn film, but considering that he’s in this and God’s Not Dead 2, it makes me seriously wonder what the man’s political affiliations are. Unfortunately, The Atlas Society founder David Kelley admitted up-front that the producers were planning on once again recasting everyone in the film for Part III. This was an absolutely bone-headed idea in my opinion, since they had more time and money to negotiate with the actors this time around to prevent this from happening again. Kelley tried to play it off, saying that “in the end, the central character of the films is the world Rand created. In notes she made while writing the novel, she made the arresting assertion that the focus was to be about the world, not about the characters as individuals”, which is just baffling when put in the context of the importance of individualism in Objectivist philosophy. The producers decided to gamble on the idea that the story of Atlas Shrugged would hold up even if the cast changed every time, and that the change of actors each time might even put more focus on the world.
The film was shot over the course of 31 days, slightly more than Part I. A number of activists in libertarian and right-wing bubbles made cameos in the film, including Sean Hannity. The production started taking on a evangelistic atmosphere, with the entire cast and crew being incentivized through a reward points system to read Rand’s works, as if to turn them into disciples of Objectivism rather than just employees. The producers aimed to release the film in October of 2012, giving them up to five months of post-production and marketing. Their hope was that the film’s release would have an effect on the 2012 presidential election between Obama and Mitt Romney, which was already being coloured by discussions of wealth disparity due to Occupy Wall Street and with the Great Recession still fresh in everyone’s minds. These events felt very relevant to Aglialoro, who stated that “We’ve got generations of people on welfare. That’s not because there weren’t job opportunities, or education, or anything like that. We’ve got a problem of greed on the level of the entitlement class. Not the producers and the entrepreneurs that are creating the tax revenue. They’re the 53 percent. If we get to the tipping point, 57, 58 percent, then you’re going to see people saying: How do I go on strike?” …yeah, Aglialoro believed that 47% of Americans were just unwilling to work. It shouldn’t be too surprising considering that the man had spent almost 20 years trying to get this book onto screen, but Aglialoro clearly considers himself a Randian hero and shares their awful philosophies – he’s the CEO of Cybex (a fitness equipment company), mayor of a tiny golf-course community in Tavistock, New Jersey, and now a wannabe screenwriter and movie producer who clearly isn’t hurting as he was able to scrounge up a good deal of the $16 million which financed this movie himself. Poor John Aglialoro, he must be practically destitute from all the leechers who have robbed him of his fortunes…
Anyway, in hopes of not repeating the first film’s box office failure, the marketing budget for Part II was significantly increased to $10 million. Approximately $1 million of this was raised by The Atlas Society as part of “The Atlas Campaign”, which would promote the film trilogy and Objectivism in general through movie premieres and student outreach programs (blehhhhh), among other things. This was quite laughable as Rand famously hated altruism. Considering that the first film had failed to support itself, by the very philosophy they were promoting, they should have realized that they were being self-defeating by having to rely on donations to promote the film. Not that this has stopped the two major Objectivist organizations, The Atlas Society or The Ayn Rand Institute, both of which rely on donations in order to operate. The absolute best part is that The Atlas Campaign incentivized bigger donations with arbitrary “donation levels”, so you could feel secure in your $5000 donation knowing that you were now officially “John Galt”, hero of donations.
Part II was not screened for critics, as John Aglialoro questioned “the integrity of the critics” presumably because they didn’t give it a fair shake and must have conspired to bring down Part I and bring about its failure. Part II was instead screened for conservative and libertarian groups before its wide release. The film opened on more than 1,000 screens, more than twice as many as the first film did. However, despite having a much wider release and more money put into marketing, the film only made $1.7 million on its opening weekend, barely surpassing Part I and earning it the distinction of having one of the worst wide-openings in recent memory. Its numbers then dropped precipitously, bringing in less than $3.5 million by the end of its theatrical run, even less than the first film did and on a larger budget too.
The film opens in media res with Dagny in a high-speed jet pursuit. When the jet she’s following seems to vanish into Wakanda in front of her eyes she desperately asks “Who is John Galt?” before the screen fades to black. The plot then flashes back nine months earlier as Dagny secretly works with scientists to try to figure out how to get the engine she discovered at the Twentieth Century Motor Company working. She finds a scientist called Quentin Daniels who agrees to try to work with it, since it would provide unlimited power and revolutionize the world if it could be made functional. However, he acknowledges that they might need to get the person who built it in the first place because Daniels doubts his own abilities.
Meanwhile, James Taggart meets a store clerk named Cherryl Brooks one day and decides to take her on a date after she compliments him. They apparently hit it off, because next thing we know, they’re getting married. Francisco d’Anconia crashes the wedding when he goes on a rant about the value of money and then secretly informs Hank Rearden that there are going to be explosions at his copper mines the next day. Hank then continues his affair with Dagny, but is confronted by his wife Lillian who refuses to accept a divorce from him because she doesn’t want to lose the life she has built with Hank.
Later, Hank acts in defiance of the Fair Share law by selling additional Rearden Metal to Ken Danagger’s coal mining company, since they need each other’s support in order to stay operational. He also refuses to sell any Rearden metal to the government. These actions cause both men to be charged under the Fair Share law, but Danagger disappears like many of the other “men of talent” have been for years after Dagny confronts him. Hank then manages to get the public on his side by extolling the virtues of pursuing profit, which causes the court to only fine him rather than making him a martyr. With Taggart Transcontinental’s profits shrinking, the railroad is forced to dismantle the John Galt Line, as Ellis Wyatt’s disappearance has made it irrelevant.
The government then enacts Directive 10-289, which basically attempts to freeze the economy in place by not allowing anyone to leave their jobs and forcing them to spend the same amount of money every year, among other insane demands. The directive also forces everyone to hand over all patents to the government. Hank once again refuses to hand over Rearden metal, but relents when he is blackmailed with photos of his affair with Dagny, choosing not to have her reputation besmirched. When Dagny finds out that he has handed over his patents, she quits Taggart Transcontinental. However, her absence leads to a major disaster after two trains collide and collapse a mountain tunnel, and she comes back to clean up the mess. Along the way, she meets a former engineer from the Twentieth Century Motor Company who reveals that John Galt was a former co-worker of his who vowed to “stop the motor of the world” after the company enacted a communist-like pay structure. Dagny then calls Daniels to check in on his progress with the motor, but realizes that he has been confronted by John Galt and is going to disappear. She buys an airplane to try to intercept him, finding him escaping on a plane as she comes in to land.
The film then picks up where it opened as Dagny’s plane crashes in a hidden valley. Dagny escapes the wreckage and is greeted by John Galt.
In nearly every way, Atlas Shrugged: Part II feels completely different from Part I, to the point where you could be forgiven for not realizing that this is a direct follow-up to Part I. Literally the only visual reference point which is shared by both films is that a shot of Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt is shown to reference the character’s disappearance. However, this just draws even more attention to the fact that the rest of the cast has been replaced and it’s not like Beckel actually appears on-screen either. The completely overhauled cast is probably the most obvious sign of the changes between Part I and Part II, but nearly every aspect of the film feels completely different. Whereas Part I opens with stock news footage and a high school film student-level train crash, Part II opens with melodramatic music and a high speed jet pursuit, complete with PS2-quality CGI. While Paul Johansson’s direction in Part I feels static and workmanlike (perhaps to try to draw attention away from the cheap sets), John Putch’s direction in Part II moves the camera all over the place and tries to show off the larger spaces and bigger sets they’re working with. These larger sets also look completely unlike their previously-established locations in the first film, necessitating that every location we’ve already visited in Part I be completely reintroduced to the audience (not to mention that even key props, such as the prototype motor, look nothing like they did before). Part I was also very dull throughout, whereas Part II makes a conscious effort to throw in action sequences to break up all the discussions of politics and economics.
As I’ve already alluded to, John Putch’s direction is much different than Paul Johansson’s was. Some of this comes down to a difference in vision, ambition and talent. Sure, John Putch is best known for the fourth direct-to-DVD American Pie spin-off, The Book of Love, but it’s still a step up from Johansson’s 14 episodes of One Tree Hill (truly, these are the levels of talent worthy of handling a production like Atlas Shrugged). It’s also worth noting that with the additional pre-production time and increased budget, the production values have increased substantially. It’s really a night-and-day difference – compare the pathetic office hallway green screen I made fun of in Part I that is supposed to be the Rearden Steel building to the larger, more majestic factory floor we see in Part II and there’s really no comparison. If anything, this film makes Part I feel even worse in retrospect. Putch also plays up the sci-fi elements of the source material which had been neglected in the first film (again, because that movie was cheap as hell). Within the first few minutes, we have hi-tech jets, holograms, fancy gadgets and neon lighting suggesting a more futuristic tone to the film which was practically absent before.
However, while the directing and production have improved, that’s not to say that they’re necessarily “good”. In some ways, the ambition to make Part II bigger and better backfires, because I laughed at this film waaaay more than I did with Part I. On the directing side, there are still some baffling choices, such as when a panel of Taggart Transcontinental board members we’ve never met before and won’t see again are introduced by way of electronic music, slow-mo Reservoir Dogs-style walking and then a text overlay after like 10 seconds that says “Emergency Board Meeting”… why the hell does this even exist? Why did they not just cut into the board meeting and let context clues and dialogue do the rest? There’s also a moment where the direction turns what is supposed to be an intense action scene into accidental comedy. When there’s an explosion in the Rearden Steel factory and someone gets hurt, Hank rushes down to help and drag him away… while a guy who’s literally on fire runs by into the background. I assume that the filmmakers wanted to make the scene more exciting and dramatic, so they threw that guy in because they have seen it in other movies and thought it was cool, but man, it unintentionally makes Hank look like an asshole (…well, okay, more of an asshole) for not caring about this flaming employee. It’s almost like something out of The Naked Gun, but meant to be entirely serious.
Greater ambition and attempts to make the story more exciting also meant that Part II needed more special effects work. However, it’s possibly the worst CGI I have ever seen in a film, especially when you consider that it was made for over $10 million!!! On the one hand, we have the two biggest action sequences of the film, the train crash and the jet pursuit, which look like they’re rendered with PS2-quality graphics. Seriously, the jet chase looks like an Ace Combat replay, or (if you’re being generous) the most boring episode of Dogfights. However, these are intercut with really unconvincing shots of Dagny in the cockpit which are both horribly acted and inconsistent with the speed and movement of the planes during the CGI shots. Worst of all though are the awful clip-art quality explosions when Francisco blows up his mines, including obviously freezing the stock footage of the mine so that it looks like the trucks driving there are reacting to the explosions (instead of slowing them down, they just suddenly stop, making this incredibly obvious). This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Birdemic. Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out this short clip and laugh along (but be warned if you’re on mobile, it’s a pretty big .gif file). Hell, even the matte painting of the bridge from the first film looks worse here (seen above the review heading if you’re curious). It looks very unnatural and even changes slightly between shots. It’s really too bad because, for the most part, Part II is a much better looking film than its predecessor but it’s filled with so many bad special effects that it’s incredibly distracting.
The film also really struggles to fill out its two hour runtime, especially when it’s the middle portion of a book that has been split into three parts. There’s just so much wheel-spinning in this film to fill out the runtime. There’s so much fat that should have been excised: scenes get repeated (such as all the times that the government tries to take Hank’s patents and he rants at them), or exist only to preach to the audience (James Taggart’s wedding is a prime example of this, it doesn’t move the plot forward at all, it just provides an excuse to ham-fistedly shove in some Objectivist ideology). After Part I I thought that they might have been able to pull off Atlas Shrugged as a two-part story rather than a trilogy, but after seeing this film I’m confident that you could easily make it into one film. Just condense these first two films into a very lean and dense 30-40 minutes and then have Part III fill out the rest. If you have to spend entire scenes doing nothing but preaching your points to the audience, then you’re not doing a very good job of conveying your message. It’s kind of like how the Twilight and 50 Shades movies were such slogs because they were too faithful to the source material, not wanting to change or take out any of the boring bullshit to make for a more entertaining film.
Then there’s the big cast overhaul, which is great low-hanging fruit to make fun of this film’s production, but makes for some interesting analysis in a retrospective. In Part I, Taylor Schilling’s Dagny was youthful, driven and confident with a take-no-shit attitude whenever people tried to boss her around. Samantha Mathis’ Dagny is completely different in Part II. For one thing, Mathis is older than Schilling by 15 years (seriously, there are no attempts at consistency between these films)! Mathis plays Dagny as someone who is desperate and weary, someone who is trying to keep improving the world while everything is going to hell around her. For this, I actually kind of prefer Mathis’ portrayal of the character, but her line deliveries are really bad sometimes. Her acting in the jet pursuit is particularly embarrassing. However, she’s more of an active, driving character in this film – she’s trying to solve the reason behind the disappearances and comes across as trying to improve the world instead of just being profit-driven. She’s more of an “actions, not words” character in this film and these traits make her far easier to like, even if the acting isn’t always up to snuff.
In Part I, Grant Bowler’s Hank Rearden was professional, warm and even somewhat classy, someone who would do what was necessary even if he didn’t exactly like it. I found him fairly likeable whenever he wasn’t spouting off anti-altruistism bullshit. However, holy shit I hated Jason Beghe’s Hank so much in Part II. Beghe’s Rearden is a smug, know-it-all piece of shit, like everyone’s annoying uncle who won’t shut the hell up at family gatherings when he starts talking about politics. He’s like the worst version of the American “hero” archetype – individualistic, unyielding, disdainful of authority, sure of himself, etc. It feels like every single scene with this character has to reiterate that he’s this totally awesome badass that we all should wish that we were like, except that the filmmakers don’t realize that they’ve accidentally made him into an unlikeable arsewipe. We get three separate scenes of Rearden intimidating government representatives who come into his office, calling them “looters” and lording his rhetorical superiority over them. These scenes don’t really reiterate anything new, and it’s not like we didn’t already get scenes just like this in Part I. The only real difference is that, in the last scene like this, Hank finally relents when the government threatens to blackmail him over his affair with Dagny in order to ruin her reputation. There’s also a scene where his wife, Lillian, she confronts him about his affair with Dagny. In this scene, Lillian decides to let him continue having the affair, but only because Hank wields so much power over her that she can’t really do anything about it without losing her home and the life that she has built with him. The fact that we’re supposed to see this as a flaw in Lillian rather than Hank being a monster is unbelievable.
The absolute worst example though is in the film’s centrepiece scene, when Hank goes on trial for violating the Fair Share law. His opening defence is “I do not recognize this court’s right to try me, nor do I recognize any of my actions as a crime”… goddammit Hank, you absolute idiot, you basically just acknowledged guilt in front of the court. He comes across like one of those insufferable sovereign citizens and, if there was any true justice in this film, the court would have prosecuted him then and there. Then, in order to remind us how much of a badass Hank is, he tells the court that they’re going to have to send armed men to get him because he won’t be arrested voluntarily. When he then says that the court is stealing his liberty, the entire gallery applauds him!!! Apparently that was enough to get them onto his side, because according to this film, the common man secretly agrees with the ideals of Objectivism. Anyway, Rearden then reiterates that all he cares about is making money: “I do not recognize the good of others as a justification for my existence. If their fair share demands that I get nothing for my labours, that it requires me to be a victim, then I say public good be damned. I’ll have no part in it.” …get nothing for your labours? Hank, you’re an insanely rich man living lavishly in the middle of a major recession. You’re not getting nothing for your labours! Again, this guy is being portrayed as the hero, and this is enough to earn the man an enthusiastic standing ovation which forces the court to let him off lightly to avoid turning him into an ideological martyr. Holy shit I hate Hank so much in this film, he single-handedly makes the recasting in this film into a blunder.
Of the other recast characters, the two most important are James Taggart and Francisco d’Anconia. Matthew Marsden’s James in Part I was a smarmy, greasy character (which seems to be Marsden’s modus operandi if DOA is any indication). Patrick Fabian’s James in Part II is just cartoonishly stupid. He constantly seeks public approval, to the point where he marries a Wal-Mart knock-off employee just so he can say that he’s bridging wealth gaps (again, we’re supposed to view this as really bad, both doing it for show and for marrying “beneath” himself). He also ridiculously unqualified for his job – when Dagny temporarily quits Taggart Transcontinental, he promotes a random employee to fill her position because he has no idea how to do it himself… this, of course, leads to an avoidable disaster. Meanwhile, Jsu Garcia’s Francisco in Part I was… there. I dunno, he left absolutely no impression on me. He basically just popped up a couple times as a playboy character who enjoyed messing with people. In Part II, Esai Morales plays Francisco with a very sinister air about him. He almost feels like a villain, although I don’t think that this was intentional since he’s the mouthpiece of a number of Objectivist talking-points (particularly during the wedding scene, which is completely pointless except to provide a platform for Francisco to rant about how greed is actually a good thing). Seriously, in any other movie, this character would be revealed to be the bad guy all along in a third act twist. The other recast characters don’t matter quite as much. Some are less cartoonish than their counterparts in Part I (eg, Lillian, who has been turned into a real MILF), whereas others don’t look anything like their previous incarnation and just get confusing as a result (eg, Eddie was a skinny, somewhat nerdy guy in Part I, but in Part II he’s now played by a Michael Clarke Duncan-looking mofo).
If weird recasting, bad CGI and improved production were all that differentiated Part II from Part I, then this film might have been a little better than the first film. However, there is one very fundamental difference which I haven’t really gone into yet. The biggest difference between the first two parts of Atlas Shrugged is that Part II is way more upfront about its philosophical framework and politics. In Part I, the film demonstrates Randian philosophy primarily through the events of the plot, which made the rare occasions where Hank and Dagny start talking about how they just want to make money and hate altruism kind of jarring. That’s not to say that Part I did a great job of making Objectivism look reasonable, but it trusted that you would draw the conclusions that they wanted you to. Even then, you could potentially look past the Objectivist ideology and look at it on the surface level, as a boring movie about building a railway. The politics weren’t particularly subtle, but they very rarely came out and said the things that they were inferring, such as that the recession was caused by over-regulation (when it was actually primarily caused by deregulation, the exact thing these films advocate for). However, Part II does away with any pretence of subtly. The characters frequently launch into Objectivist rants which aren’t really important to the actual plot and are instead directed at the audience, in a manner similar to how Pure Flix movies bluntly preach to their viewers to reaffirm their beliefs. It feels very similar to the evolution that occurred between God’s Not Dead andGod’s Not Dead 2, including the fact that both that film and Part II had their political didacticism ratcheted up in an attempt to influence a presidential election. It’s also worth noting that, like God’s Not Dead 2, Part II features a number of right-wing celebrity cameos (most notably Sean Hannity) who show up to reaffirm the ideology of the main characters. This is an obvious tactic to reach for figures that the audience may be familiar with and trust, then have them verbally agree with the characters in an attempt to have the audience then have a positive view of Objectivism.
One of the main messages of the film is that the government is straight-up evil. They exist only to screw with the main characters’ abilities to produce goods and services, which is always portrayed as something which is ultimately ineffectual and just makes things worse. The “good” principles of government programs are also shown to be shams throughout the film. After Hank violates the Fair Share law, which is supposed to be a measure to help keep businesses from growing too powerful and overwhelming the industry, the film even has a government figure outright state to Hank that: “That’s what laws are for Mr. Rearden. If the right people don’t break them, they’re of no use whatsoever.” The implication here of course is that laws are all made to benefit the government in some way, so therefore maximum deregulation is the best policy. According to The Atlas Society, one of the themes of Atlas Shrugged is that fascism comes dressed in finery through these laws which state that they’re for the “public good”. The film also states that science is basically just a tool that the government uses to manipulate the public. According to Quentin, a government employee who works outside the system to help Dagny get the prototype motor running, the State Science Institute doesn’t perform any real science at all, it’s just propaganda. This is particularly rich considering that the biggest businesses are notorious for publishing fake studies to obfuscate the real science about their industries in order to maximize their profits for as long as possible.
While the film tries to show that regulation is bad, the actual laws which show up in the film are really questionable and don’t reflect reality. I get that Ayn Rand grew up in Soviet Russia and was strongly opposed to communism as a result of this upbringing. Her anti-communist stance really shows in the film (and presumably the novel as well). In addition to the communist laws in the film, it is revealed that the whole beginning of “The Strike” began when John Galt’s former employer, the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, adopted an explicitly-communist pay structure. This is clearly meant to be a microcosm for America at large and the fact that it provided the seed from which Galt’s strike began is worth noting. However, here’s the thing – America is not communist. In fact, it’s so afraid of the word “socialism” that its citizens lack several social programs that people in developed countries take for granted and can be financially ruined because of this irrational phobia. So, when libertarians and big businesses recoil at the idea of any sort of regulation or social program which would literally be done for the good of the public, it gets shot down for being a path into “tyrannical government overreach”. The fact that Atlas Shrugged has to invent a whole national emergency and several strange laws in order to even justify its plot should be pretty telling that this film should not be applied to real life.
The Fair Share law, which was introduced in the previous film, is just strange. It goes beyond a reasonable monopoly-prevention law and into something which is just transparently stupid. According to this law, producers must supply goods equally to all customers… why??? I think that this is one of those communism parallels Rand was drawing, but it makes absolutely no sense as an economic policy outside of a staunchly ideological system. This whole idea is just inefficient and ignores the idea of supply and demand, not to mention that it might be less sensible to supply customers if they’re further away. Sure, it’ll stop big businesses from leveraging their economic strength and hoover up all the resources, but they could just set a regulation for that. Why go that next step and make it so that everyone has to have the same amount of resources? That’s just idiotic. Again, this isn’t the sort of law which would come about unless lawmakers were staunchly ideological and isn’t even the sort of thing that comes about in socialist countries, let alone America.
- No one is allowed to quit or change their jobs. Geez, I sure hope no one dies, that would be really inconvenient for the workforce and would inevitably drain the economy by itself. Are you even allowed to hire new employees to replace them? It also sure would suck if a job became redundant… Oh and what about contract employees? This is literally the first point of this law and already it’s too stupid to be truly comprehended.
- No business can cease operations and no owner is allowed to quit, retire or sell their business. I assume this was done in response to the strike and the mass disappearances, but it isn’t exactly going to matter because they just disappear anyway. It’s not like they had to ask for permission before vanishing. And for that matter, what do all the employees do when their bosses disappear and they’re expected to continue to comply with Directive 10-289? Again, what happens when a business was failing or becomes redundant?
- Businesses must hand over all patents, copyrights and inventions to the government. This just seems like one of those “the government is evil and is just trying to consolidate power” ideas. I mean, what are they really going to do with these unless they’re planning on nationalizing all industry? In this film at least, that isn’t specified.
- No new inventions or products can be added to the market, starting now. WHAT!?!!! Okay, the preceding ideas were all stupid, but this one really puts this over the top into unthinkably idiotic. I get that you’re trying to keep the economy from collapsing, but is preventing any sort of social advancement really the best answer??? You don’t think that maybe having industry attempt to solve problems in society is a good idea? Holy shit, this movie. Again, people think that this is something that could actually happen!!!
- Businesses must produce the same amount of goods as they did the previous year. Again, this completely ignores the notion of supply and demand. What about seasonal businesses like farms where they can’t reliably make the same amount of products year-on-year? What about the businesses whose owners disappeared as a result of John Galt’s strike and now can’t produce any more? What about mines which run out of resources? My brain can’t take any more of this lunacy, but it just keeps going!!!
- Everyone must spend the exact same amount of money as they did in the previous year. FUCKING WHAT!??!!! I think that this law just broke through the floor of what I thought was the bottom threshold for stupidity. This makes no sense, whatsoever. So, what, if you had to take out loans because you were paying for school, suddenly you have to continue taking out loans and drive yourself deeper into debt (thereby eventually wiping out the economy regardless when everyone defaults)? Or what about people who’ve been saving money for a house, now all of a sudden they can’t spend that money to prop up the housing industry and just have to continue putting money in the bank, out of circulation? Hell, for that matter, what happens if you did buy a house last year and now are expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year!?!
- All wages are frozen at their current levels and cannot be changed (although taxes on these wages can be increased). Bloody hell. The taxes thing straight-up contradicts the idea of an economic freeze and “must spend the same amount as last year” from above, but that’s just obvious. Instituting that no one is allowed to earn any more or less is just the cherry on top of this shit sundae. Let me re-iterate this again: Objectivists think that this is the logical end result of wanting governments to regulate businesses!!!!!!
(After someone says that d’Anconia is proof that money is the root of all evil after being a dick at Jame’s wedding.) D’Anconia: “Oh so you think money’s the root of all evil? Have you ever asked yourself ‘What’s the root of money?’ Money is a tool that allows us to trade with one another. Your goods for mine. Your efforts for mine. The keystone of civilization. Having money is not the measure of a man. What matters is how he got it. If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honour. But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honour. Then you’re simply a looter.”
Let’s break this down a little bit. D’Anconia immediately annoys me with his “umm, actually” moment where he apparently needs to explain the basics of money to a room full of wealthy people. Either the filmmakers believe that everyone else is so stupid that they haven’t even thought of this, or (worse) they think that their audience is. However, then he states that money does not make you evil, what does is how it is acquired. That’s right, it doesn’t matter if you use that money immorally, if you earned it the “right” way then it’s your prerogative to use it however you please! According to d’Anconia, the only honourable way to make money is to “create value”, otherwise you’re a dishonourable “looter”. These distinctions are, obviously, fairly arbitrary when applied to the real world. For example, I don’t think that anyone would argue that farmers don’t create value, but their businesses are often propped up by government subsidies, meaning that they are doing both. Or what about basically every major corporation – they create some sort of value with their products, but also build up their profit margins by engaging in lobbying, shady deals, offshore accounts, subsidies, strong-arming municipal governments to give them unfair tax breaks, financial bailouts, etc. Even if Objectivists tried to argue that these companies are exercising “pull”, that’s not because of regulation – it’s because of massive deregulation, the sort of shit that Rand would soak her panties to get more of. Objectivists might also argue that the government is making a value-for-value exchange, since securing the output of the farms is so important… but then that just begs the question of what is the point of this ideology if it can’t be applied to the real world? Reality isn’t a cartoonishly black-and-white Randian fairy tale like it is in this film.
This idea that looters are just evil is also heartless, as there are those in society who rely on “taking from those who produce” in order to survive (eg, the old and infirm, mentally ill, freaking children, etc) and those who need to in order to help keep this society intact at all (eg, stay at home parents). Either way, d’Anconia isn’t refuting the point about money being the root of all evil, he’s just redefining evil in a way he sees fit and which paints him as the good guy and we’re meant to see him as Very Smart™ for doing this. Naturally, no one really picks away at his logic, we just get one woman piping up who says that “money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak”. To this, d’Anconia replies:
“What kind of strength are you talking about? The power to create value? Or the ability to manipulate, to extort money in back room deals, to exercise pull? When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips, chains or dollars. Take your choice. There is no other. And your time is running out.”
Uhh, Frankie-boy, you didn’t address her question at all there. Is he implying that “value creators” don’t exploit other people? Or that their power to create value is totally justified and that everyone who says that they’re exploiting people is just jealous and wants a piece of it? In fact, it seems like he’s practically admitting this and justifying it by the logic that the free market keeps it under control, because he then says that when “pull” gets involved then men will be literally enslaving one another. That’s right, d’Anconia believes that government regulations are akin to fucking slavery!!! Holy shit!!! He then pompously states that people have to pick between the free market or slavery… and no one even argues with him about any of this! Again, this is a film about arguing at the audience, it doesn’t want any real rebuttals that it’s leaving itself wide open to. So what was the sum of this apparently-monumental “money speech”? Not much, if we’re being honest. D’Anconia steps up to the plate to prove that greed is good, then completely redirects the issue so that it fits into his own flimsy definitions of good and evil. Maybe it’s just a byproduct of cutting down a lengthy speech to its fundamentals, but that just leads to another issue. A 20 minute speech in this film would be absolutely insane, but when you condense it all down to a handful of lines it reveals just how superfluous the whole scene is, that this is a philosophical rant rather than an actual character or narrative moment. So, by the necessity of needing to give d’Anconia’s speech brevity, they’ve also basically rendered one of the biggest moments in the novel pointless within the narrative. It would be like if The Lost World: Jurassic Park decided to keep all of Ian Malcolm’s rants about evolution from the books in the film for the sake of faithfulness to the novel, despite it having basically no importance on the adaptation.
This all brings us to the last point I want to get to in this film. D’Anconia defends “value creators”, saying that they deserve their money and playing down the idea that they may exploit their workers. This film is just full of moments where this is just shown to be bullshit though, either through the characters inadvertently being complete dicks or through the narrative implying that most of humanity is worthless. The film opens with references to the Occupy movement, with protesters outside of Taggart Transcontinental asking for a fair share of the riches that these people still have. This is a reminder that this film is taking place in the middle of a crippling recession where the prices of goods are astronomically inflated and gas is so expensive that only the super rich can drive. The film wants us to believe that these protesters are in the wrong, but it’s hard to sympathize with the heroes when we get a whole scene where Dagny is seen driving a car, spending $865 on a tank of gas, then running off to buy a private plane! “Oh boo hoo, everyone’s out to get me, it’s not fair!” And then we get Ken Danagger, the owner of a coal mine, who claims that he fought for every piece of coal he pulled out of the ground… but he didn’t really, did he? He just owns the mine, he pays other people to do it for him, presumably with money that he received from investors to get this entire enterprise up off of the ground. Could we not say that he is the looter by a certain definition? The only thing that gives him the power here is that he happened to be the one who lucked into the ownership of this mine – all the investors and deals worked in his favour and he happened to acquire ownership of land. Literally anyone could have done this if circumstances had gone their way, but Danagger believes that he’s an innately superior and smarter person when he says that the only thing that he has left worth fighting for is his mind. The whole title of the novel comes from a conversation d’Anconia has with Hank, where he asks what he would tell Atlas to do if he saw him struggling to hold up the world. D’Anconia says that he would tell Atlas to shrug, meaning that the people like Danagger, Hank, d’Anconia and Dagny who are “holding the world up” don’t owe the world anything and shouldn’t care about what happens to everyone else – again, these people are just dicks who don’t have any faith in other people. This bleak view of humanity is seen throughout the film in snippets. One example is that Quentin doesn’t believe that anyone could figure out how to complete the prototype engine because it’s so revolutionary, but when he does figure it out that’s when John Galt whisks him away (this ignores that, most of the time, technological advances and “value” are created through incremental updates rather than unprecedented changes). Hell, there’s also a rather ridiculous moment where it’s revealed that Wyatt Ellis’ oil fields are still burning nine months later because there is no one left who is smart enough to put out the fire… man, John Galt was really thorough going through all the skills, trades, arts and firefighters to get the most competent minds, wasn’t he? Presumably he plundered all the sexiest bachelorette firefighters while he was at it.
Here’s the thing though – if all the rich people ran off with their toys to show us who’s in charge, their roles would be replaced. There’s a big world out there full of people educating themselves and/or waiting for their shot to make a difference, not to mention that there are 194 other countries with their own experts and resources that John Galt can’t just snatch up. Now, if the rich took their wealth with them then there would be issues, but that’s less because we’ve lost all of our shining talents and more because of financial bullying. I mean, try taking away ~90% of the total wealth suddenly and see what happens. That’s more or less what Galt’s “strike” has been – a petulant cry from the rich that they matter more than anyone else and that they’re going to throw their weight around to prove it, even if it means economic and ecological disaster. The filmmakers have tried to defend this by comparing Galt’s actions to those of scientists and businesses who refused to support the burgeoning Third Reich, but that also completely of ignores that Galt helped bring about Fair Share and Directive 10-289 in the first place. After all, when he started his “strike”, it was in response to one group of executives deciding to pay all of their workers by scale, which cased Galt to go on a hissy fit before any sort of recession or government crackdown had begun. It’s implied that the awful state that the US is in came about because of Galt’s actions of taking all of the money-makers out of the economy and having them destroy their resources in the process to prevent them from being utilized. That’s not even taking into account his willingness to subject 99.9% of the population to worse and worse conditions which directly led to several deaths (the numerous derailments that we see in these two films), or that the film’s totalitarian government isn’t representative of real life at all. So no, filmmakers, Galt’s actions make him come across like a whiny kid who refuses to participate if he can’t get his way, unlike Dagny who at least wants to continue working in the system to make things better for everyone.
Atlas Shrugged: Part II is certainly not a good film. In some ways, it’s better than Part I, but the increased emphasis on politics and an immoral ideology squander any attempts to try to improve the series. There’s also the fact that most of this film is just wheel-spinning – for a two hour film, barely anything of importance to the plot actually happens. We only really get one sympathetic character to root for in Dagny, because everyone else are complete assholes. As of the time that I’m writing this, I don’t actually know what happens in Part III, but based on the trajectory this narrative is on, I can’t help but think that that film is going to finally beat down her notion that humanity should be saved and then claim it’s a great outcome, which is just the bleakest conclusion this story could have.