Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? (2014)

Welcome back to the Atlas Shrugged retrospective! Today we’ll be looking at the third and (mercifully) final entry in the franchise, Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? After the dumpster fires that were the first two films in this series, Aglialoro and company were back with another entirely new cast and a smaller budget than ever! Could they see this series out on a high note? Read on to find out…

Oh, and as with the last 2 entries, be sure to check out my friend Matt’s review at his blog, The M, as we both chose to suffer through this series together!


…I’m not sure if they could have gone with a more boring, non-descript and unrelated poster for this film. After several looks at the poster it appears to be a railroad, which is fair enough, but it would actually fit the first film better as there are barely any scenes on the tracks in this one. I also love how Hank gets to cameo in it in the little airplane in the corner, which unintentionally fits well into his purpose in this film.


PRODUCTION

After Aglialoro and his production team poured even more money and effort into marketing Part II, only to be met with resounding financial and critical failure, it looked questionable whether the final chapter of Atlas Shrugged would ever get off the ground. However, the filmmakers were true believers and were not going to be dissuaded. Aglialoro, along with fellow franchise producer Harmon Kaslow, set about seeing this project through and by late March 2013 it was announced that filming would begin in the fall. They were looking for a director, cast and crew at the time and Aglialoro said that “I don’t care if I’ve got to fire five directors — that’s fine. We’re going to get it right.” So, after a declaration like that, who did they ultimately hire? The answer is James Manera, who literally had one directing credit to his name on IMDb at the time, a single episode of Nash Bridges almost 20 years earlier (although he also had directed a couple small documentaries which don’t appear there). Truly Aglialoro and company had to sort through the cream of the crop to see this film series through! Duncan Scott (who had co-written the screenplay for Part II) and Brian O’Toole (who had also written the screenplays for both previous films) were tapped to return to write the screenplay for Part III. While it was announced that both would be returning to write Part III, neither are credited in the final film. Instead, writing credits go to producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow, along with director James Manera. I wasn’t able to find an answer regarding if Scott and O’Toole’s original screenplay was heavily rewritten by the producers, or if the producers just wrote their own from scratch for (presumably) budgetary reasons, but the fact that they’re the only ones who are credited in the finished product is rather interesting. Also, a fun tidbit – back before Part I was released, Aglialoro had toyed with the idea of having Part III suddenly be a musical, but this idea never got anywhere near the final product. It’s just funny to see that Aglialoro had ideas that could have made this franchise’s continuity even more baffling.

As for the obligatory recasting, the role of Dagny was filled by Laura Regan, probably best known for a short stint on Mad Men, some minor horror movie roles and a number of guest TV appearances. The esteemed role of John Galt went to Kristoffer Polaha, who was similarly best known for a short stint on Mad Men and a number of guest TV appearances (my first thoughts on seeing him in this film were that he looked like a Hallmark channel love interest and, lo and behold, he’s been in 6 Hallmark channel movies since this film came out). Hank Rearden was played in this film by Rob Morrow, who had earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his roles in Northern Exposure and then had a successful run leading Numb3rs, making him probably the biggest name in the cast. The next biggest name in the cast was veteran character actor Joaquim de Almeida, known for big roles in Clear and Present Danger, Desperado and Fast Five among many, many others. De Almeida was cast to play Francisco D’Anconia. James Taggart was played by Greg Germann, who was probably best known for Ally McBeal, but seems to have been confined to minor roles ever since. Rounding out the notable recast characters was Peter Mackenzie as Head of State Thompson, who was a pretty decent character actor in his own right, but was never going to live up to Ray Wise’s portrayal from the last film. Finally, Part III also introduces us to Ragnar Danneskjöld, played by Eric Allan Kramer, who had some big roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and True Romance early in his career but had been confined to character roles and guest appearances ever since. Oh and it’s also worth noting that, like Part II, Part III also features conservative celebrity cameos from the likes of Presidential candidate Ron Paul, along with Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, all providing the “voice of reason” in the film.



While filming was intended to start in the fall of 2013, it did not actually begin until mid-January 2014. This was likely because the producers’ fundraising came up shorter than they had expected (around $10 million split evenly between the filming and marketing budgets) and so they launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign on September 23, 2013! This Kickstarter makes for a very interesting relic to pour over for a retrospective. $446,907 was raised during the campaign by 3,554 backers… but if you look closer at how the numbers break down, at least $100,000 of this was raised by the 10 highest-donating backers! Another 12 contributed a further $65,000+ and then 65 more contributed another $65,000+, meaning that more than half of the funds were supplied by 87 people – a measly 2% of the total backers! Clearly there were lots of rich people who had nothing better to do with their money than to throw it at this film… and, funnily enough, we actually know who some of these people are because 16 people who donated a staggering $7,500 or more had their names very crudely carved into a piece of wood and appear prominently on screen (it’s jarring and funny to see in the finished film though because these rough carvings are flanking carvings which were clearly done with some professional tools beforehand, so their names just look like they were done by angsty teens).


Of course, this Kickstarter ended up generating a number of justifiably snarky comments about how the filmmakers sure were relying on altruism from their libertarian audience to bring about this film after it failed so spectacularly on the free market. Anticipating this response, the Kickstarter featured not one, but two FAQs about how it was not against Ayn Rand’s philosophy to ask people for money, even going so far as to dedicate a whole other article on this topic on The Atlas Society as well. Having learned more about Objectivism from this retrospectives series, I actually do understand their argument, which is summed up pretty well by the FAQ response:

“Kickstarter is not charity and we do not seek charity. We are offering a voluntary value-for-value exchange. If you see no value in any of the reward levels, you should not back the project. Regarding the idea of charity however, Ayn Rand had no problem with someone giving money to a cause they care about. If someone deems a cause worthy and wants to donate money, they should be free to do it. What Ayn Rand had a problem with is altruism for the sake of altruism as a moral duty, or being compelled, or forced, to ‘give.'”

While I do understand their argument, it comes across as a fairly arbitrary distinction to me – whenever they ask for a handout, they’re exonerated because they will say that it’s a value exchange (although charging $7,500 to get your name crudely carved onto a piece of wood sounds closer to a “scam” to me, especially when the film had already been financed and was going to happen regardless). However, whenever anyone else asks for a handout, they’ll characterize them as moochers and looters. Add in the fact that they ignore that even when they’re “forced” to give, there’s still value being created in having a society that functions properly, which would be even more valuable if they weren’t such crusty bastards who hate the idea of other people living at a reasonable standard. So, yeah, I can see how they can justify this Kickstarter within their own philosophy, but it just feels like another convenience to allow Objectivists to do what they want while looking down on people with less means for doing the same.

Interestingly, Rand devotees and fans of the movie franchise were invited to an event at the Atlas Summit in order to help determine the final edit of the film. I wasn’t able to determine how exactly this event went, how involved it was or how it might have affected the final film, but it’s a really interesting detail which shows how the filmmakers were attempting to get directly involved with the public on this particular film. The film was released on September 12, 2014 to a much smaller opening of 242 screens, grossing a measly $851,690 against its $10 million filming and marketing budget. This means that, if you add together the marketing and production budgets of all three films (including the ~$15 million which was spent on Part I before it went into full production), the Atlas Shrugged franchise lost almost $45 million dollars!!! HOLY SHIT!!! Even if you just factor in the costs which went directly into these three films, that’s still a huge, $30 million dollar loss that could have been prevented if the filmmakers weren’t so proud or dogmatic that they insisted on pushing on, ballooning their losses with each misstep.


Start the video at 16:06, it conveys how this news makes me feel more clearly than my own words could.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens by recounting the events which caused John Galt to quit the Twentieth Century Motor Company and declare that he would “stop the engine of the world”. It then picks up where the last movie left off, with Galt rescuing Dagny from her plane crash. He then shows her around his hidden valley, where the greatest minds in the country have gone for refuge from the outside world. They have established a secret utopia here, with their own currency and a radical libertarian social structure straight out of the philosophy of Rand. Galt and the locals try to convince Dagny to stay with them, but she refuses to abandon the rest of the world. Over the course of a month, a romance begins to spark between Galt and Dagny, but they are forced to part as he takes her back to the outside world.


When she returns, Dagny finds that James has mismanaged Taggart Transcontinental even worse than before, having negotiated deals which would nationalize the railroad and cut off food supplies to the east coast. The government has also gotten increasingly militaristic, building lethal sonic weapons to enforce martial law. Dagny manages to prevent a disaster on the railroad due to her ingenuity and, when she realizes that John Galt has been watching her do this, the pair’s passion finally boils over into a railroad closet bang-session. Shortly thereafter, the head of state arranges a televised speech, but it is interrupted when Galt intercepts the signal and relays his own speech instead, laying out his philosophy and urging the people to join him in his strike. This act of defiance finally causes the government to go looking for Galt to recruit or eliminate him, and he is found when Dagny inadvertently leads agents to his location. Dagny pretends to have done this intentionally and Galt is brought before Head of State Thompson. Thompson offers Galt the highest position he can, with the ability to set his economic ideals how he sees fit, but Galt refuses, saying that no man should have that kind of power. In response, the government decides to torture him for his defiance. Dagny, along with a few supporters from Galt’s refuge, break in and rescue him and the group fly away as the power grid across America shuts down, signalling the collapse of Thompson’s ineffective rule.


REVIEW

Watching Part III is an experience, to the point where I wasn’t more than 2 seconds in when I had to pause the movie to make my first note. The first frame of the film opens with a title sequence that says “The day after tomorrow…”, which just caused a cascade of thoughts. First of all, it shows that the filmmakers really do believe that everything that happens in this film could happen – the cartoonish characters and insane politics on display in these films aren’t just done for illustrative purposes, they really do think that this is what non-libertarians think, believe and behave like. Secondly, this title inadvertently causes confusion, because it immediately got me thinking about the equally-preposterous Roland Emmerich disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Both films share similar flaws. Both are just fundamentally dumb – in The Day After Tomorrow‘s case, it’s like a particularly dumb environmentalist’s take on climate change, whereas Atlas Shrugged is like a particularly dumb conservative’s take on economics and politics. Again, we’re not even 10 seconds into this film and the first freaking thing we see is causing me to dunk on this film.

Honestly, actual act of watching Part III took me more than twice the film’s runtime to complete because I was pausing to take notes constantly. There were just so many unbelievably dumb things packed into this movie that I could not stop writing. Compared to the inept passion on display in Part II and even Part I, Part III is a clear step backwards because it is so embarrassingly shoddy. I feel like Aglialoro and Kaslow were devoted enough to Rand’s ideology that they felt like they had to complete the trilogy, but after losing tens of millions of dollars on the project already, it feels like this final film was half-assed it to get it over with because it definitely wasn’t going to earn them any more money back. I mean, sure, the other two films sucked, but they at least felt like the filmmakers believed in them and wanted them to transcend their limited budgets. Part III just feels like they gave up and wrapped up the ending of this trilogy as fast and as cheaply as they could. I mean, look at that plot synopsis – it’s so short! I’m not skipping over huge chunks of the plot either, because most of the shit that happens in this film doesn’t matter, it’s just about preaching to the audience and spinning the wheels until the film ends unceremoniously. I have so much to talk about with this film, so strap in, we’re going to tear this thing apart.


Here’s Francisco looking appropriately drained in response to watching this film.


First off, let’s start with how cheap this film looks. Cheapness pervades the sets throughout the film. Remember how I said that they loved showing off the bigger sets in Part II, as if they were proud of their improved production quality? Part III ignores scale and set dressing as much as possible, filling a scene with the bare minimum of props and, ideally, seems to just shoot on location as much as possible to save cash. This is immediately apparent from the very first scene. We get a flashback to the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, in which the heads of the company call a meeting about their new salary structure and John Galt’s strike begins. This scene clearly appears to have been filmed in a worn-out high school gym, rather than a factory, complete with sports line markings on the floor and paint peeling on the walls (this can’t even be for thematic reasons either, because up until this point the company has been run under a Randian ideal so it should look pristine). Even the company’s banner isn’t wide enough to fit between a pair of support columns, so it’s awkwardly pinned at a strange angle, like they didn’t take a proper measurement before they got this thing made up and couldn’t afford a replacement. And this is just the first scene! From there we get bland corporate spaces for Taggart Transcontinental and the government’s offices, and Galt’s valley, which is just a bunch of expensive cottages (note: I’m going to call it “the valley” from here on out – no one ever refers to it as “Galt’s Gulch” or anything like that, they just say it’s “the valley” so that’s the term I’m going to go with).


To top off the cheap sets, the lighting in this film is terrible. It’s usually fine during scenes in the valley – these scenes are brightly lit and colourful, but this feels like it’s only the case because they could get natural sunlight in these scenes to avoid having to pay for a full lighting setup. However, every scene outside of the valley is lit like the inside of my ass. Everything is just so poorly lit and desaturated, made duller by colour grading which turns everything to a cold shade of blue. While this may have arisen from a need to cut down on lighting costs, it has clearly been factored in as a stylistic choice to contrast the “real world” against the vibrancy of the valley. I feel like this might have been somewhat effective if they had been more judicious in its usage and/or reined the effect in somewhat, but when half of the movie ends up looking like a bland, muddied mess, it makes it a stylistic choice which was ill-advised.



Oh and speaking of ill-advised stylistic choices, here are a couple other fantastic moments of cheapness in this film. When Dagny arrives in the valley, she’s taken to a party to meet everyone and the road is lined with paper lanterns… which would be cool, but then you notice that they are literally made of paper sandwich bags with a (probably faux) candle inside! Not exactly the sort of product you’d expect from the “greatest minds in the world”, especially considering that they have an enormous holographic dome covering the entire valley, right? Even worse, they cut to close-ups on these sandwich bag lanterns… twice!!! Oh, and take a look at the screenshot above – they couldn’t even line up these lantern bags straight! It’s such a meaningless moment, but they screw pointless shit like this up at such an alarming rate that you can surely see why I was pausing the film so much to laugh and take notes. Another such moment comes late in the film when the much-hyped, nefarious, secret government torture device, Project F, is finally revealed to the audience and… it’s a car battery parrilla device, like what you’ve seen in pretty much any dark and gritty post-9/11 action movie. This is the sort of radical ingenuity which had to be plundered from the greatest minds in the world? The filmmakers clearly just didn’t give a shit and just went with the cheapest, most boring option they possibly could have, which is especially disappointing considering that Part II leaned more into the sci-fi aspect of the story.


The cheapness of this film goes hand-in-hand with its rushed plot and contrived, heavy-handed storytelling. Let’s say you want to open your film in such a way that the audience will view John Galt as not only a revolutionary figure, but also mysterious. So they start the film at a staff meeting for the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation and show Galt’s initial declaration to “stop the engine of the world”, which makes sense… but then, to hammer home their desire to make him “mysterious”, they have some guy ham-fistedly shout “who is that guy!?”, despite the fact that Galt has been working very successfully at this factory for years now, so everyone here should know him. That’s less than 2 minutes into the film, but it’s a bit of narrative convenience so obvious that I had to stop and laugh at it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even mention it if this film wasn’t so ham-fisted throughout – for example, later in the film they need to have the government bad guys convey information to the audience: the government is working on something awful called Project F and they’re planning on having a national televised speech. Rather than doing so organically, they literally just have all of the bad guys have a secret meeting about Project F without going into any details and then someone says “we need to make sure the speech is on all the networks” and then the scene literally ends! No information on what Project F might be, no indication about what “the speech” even is about, just conveying the bare minimum of what they want us to know and that’s it. The film has also been setting up that the railroad has become so mismanaged that Taggart bridge will eventually collapse, a prediction that Dagny has said could never happen. Then, right before the film ends, Francisco just comes out of nowhere and then says “Did you hear? The Taggart bridge collapsed!” It’s just so uneventful and matter-of-fact and Dagny’s non-reaction just makes it a hilarious moment.



However, the strangest bit of narrative convenience definitely revolves around Cheryl Taggart. She had basically no purpose in Part II so I assumed that that meant she must do something important in Part III, but nope. We literally find out that she died when a character casually holds a newspaper up in front of the screen!!! I had to do a double-take, it was such a strange way to write a character out unceremoniously. The film then decides that they have to do a flashback to explain all of this, so with a dream filter over the screen they explain that Cheryl found out that her husband was a fraud, which causes her to apologize to Dagny at some undefined time and then… just died. They don’t say how, but the way that they don’t say how suggests that James had her offed. From what I understand of this character’s fate in the books, we’re supposed to realize that she commits suicide in shame, but that doesn’t come across in this film at all. The filmmakers clearly don’t care about her, they just check off this character’s “arc” as fast as possible and then rush to the next plot point.


Another bit of narrative convenience is that the film cuts to voice-over exposition throughout to let the audience know what is going on. These exposition dumps interrupt the film constantly and are so disconnected from the actual events going on on-screen. Even worse, they gloss over events which probably deserved to be given more importance, such as when it is announced that Hank Rearden has “disappeared” and then his factory workers who were left behind were killed by the government strike-breakers, holy shit!!! Were Hank’s workers a bunch of moochers? Why would he leave them behind to literally die!? And why was this told to the audience impassively? I kept thinking that these exposition dumps were going to tie into the ending, where it would reveal that someone would be recounting what happened in the past during these segments, but no, the whole thing gets dropped by the time the third act rolls around. Personally, I think that this awful ham-fisted writing is probably down to John Agalioro’s screenwriting “talents”. He co-wrote the screenplay for Part I, which had similarly bad writing at times, but it was tempered in by Brian Patrick O’Toole. Part II didn’t really suffer in this regard, presumably since Aglialoro didn’t write it (its writing issues were more a problem of wheel-spinning and bad philosophy). However, Part III gaves Aglialoro and Kaslow full writing credits and it’s clear from the final product that neither of them are qualified to write a screenplay. Like… there’s a part in this film where super-genius John Galt outsmarts the bad guys by getting arrested and then using his cell phone during a meeting with Head of State Thompson to call Dagny and let her in on their evil plans!!! Why the hell would they not confiscate his phone!?! That’s Tommy Wiseau-levels of screenwriting talent!



The bad screenwriting leads to all sorts of unintentional hilarity, such as how it makes Galt’s whole movement look like a dangerous cult. Like, a hidden commune in the mountains living by their own set of rules is already sounding pretty Jonestown, so you’d think that they’d do something to avoid coming across that way. Well, moments after crash landing, Dagny is informed by Galt that there are certain rules to living in the valley. He tells her that, most importantly, no one gets a free pass at someone else’s expense. The whole exchange is shot and staged in such a way that it feels like Galt is heavily implying “you’re gonna have to fuck me if you stay here”. Then there are the oaths that everyone in the valley are forced to make in order to stay, the way that this community has been isolated from differing opinions, and how all of Dagny’s old friends plead with her to throw away her life, ideals and very identity to join this lovely little movement. This is best shown in two different scenes. The first is when Dagny’s friends identify that she just wants some acknowledgement for the things she has accomplished and so they give her adulation for a job well done to try to goad her into staying. The second comes when we see that all of Dagny’s friends have carved personalized messages over her bed for her to read when she goes to sleep!!! Read this way, it ultimately turns Part III into a depressing story about how a cult tears away Dagny’s support system until she loses her will to help people and then joins the cult herself. It reminds me of The Endless, and if this film had even an ounce of self-awareness we could have gotten an awesome film about Dagny fighting back against this cult which has been leeching away the stability of the world’s economy.


Of course, Aglialoro and Kaslow can’t even hit the important parts of Atlas Shrugged well. Perhaps most tellingly, the romance between Dagny and Galt feels totally forced and unnatural. Sure, the film tries to tell us that they’re totally into each other from the first time that they lock eyes, but it never feels convincing. Considering that Ayn Rand herself said that Atlas Shrugged was ultimately nothing more than a love story, this is pretty damning criticism. Dagny’s insistence on aiding the world is totally at odds with Galt’s insistence on allowing things to get worse. Maybe if he grew and changed his opinion this could have worked, which seems to be implied when Dagny and Galt have an impromptu fuck-session after Dagny organizes a plan to prevent a rail disaster from occurring (which, by the way, is definitely the funniest scene in the film – they don’t even know if the plan worked or if there are people dying out there, they just need to get their rocks off pronto). However, it turns out that Galt’s values haven’t changed at all, and in fact it’s Dagny’s which are cast away by the end. Other than that, we’re given a bunch of boilerplate Hallmark movie moments where Dagny and Galt sight-see around the valley, which apparently is a shorthand for blossoming romance without having to do any real groundwork to convince us that they actually like each other.


Then there’s Galt’s big speech, which is ~60 pages long in the original text (or over 3 hours if spoken aloud!!!). Like d’Anconia’s “money speech” in Part II, this speech has been pared down considerably, running in at just under 5 minutes. Personally, I feel like it comes across better than d’Anconia’s speech did, but that’s for a couple of unintentional reasons. First of all, it’s significantly less nasty and confrontational than d’Anconia’s speech was. Secondly, the text has been cut down so much that you could interpret it as a call to stand up against exploitative businessmen, rather than just the government, which is probably way more communist than they were intending. It also doesn’t help that this exact same message has been hammered into the audience’s head all through the first half of the film, so by the time it comes it’s just 5 minutes of more-of-the-same rather than a revolutionary statement. The plot also just halts entirely during this 5 minute sequence, so the fact that it’s conveying information we already have been told repeatedly does it no favours. Maybe if they had cut out all the lectures when Dagny was in the valley this could have landed stronger, but coming long after them just feels like more wheel-spinning in a film filled with it.



The dialogue is also just baffling at times, to the point where I don’t know if they’re just lifting lines awkwardly from the text or if they’re using the first take from each shot, mis-remembered lines and all. Like, just look at that line above – I had to rewind the film several times to make sure I wasn’t mishearing or misunderstanding that line, because it sounds like it went through Google translate. What the hell is “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” even supposed to mean? I guess that Francisco was under the impression that Dagny was dead based on the news of her disappearance, but wouldn’t he say “I thought you were dead!” instead? “I can’t believe you’re alive” would even be better, if still a really awkward line. “It’s like I can’t believe you’re alive” just makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not the only line like that though. Later, John Galt takes Dagny to the power source for the valley and there is an oath emblazoned above it. He then says “Everyone has taken that oath who lives in this valley.” …what? Again, I don’t know if this is some important line from the book or Aglialoro and Kaslow’s writing, but it just sounds wrong. I had to look up active vs passive voice just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting some grammatical rule, but even that makes this seem totally wrong – the people in the valley should be the subject and the oath is the verb, so shouldn’t this be “Everyone who lives in this valley has taken that oath”? That’s way less awkward and gets the point across more succinctly, in my opinion… but what do I know, I’m not some rich super-genius now am I?


Of course, it’s not just the actual writing which is awful in this film, the editing is also terrible. This wouldn’t be an Atlas Shrugged film without an insane amount of narrative padding, and boy is there ever a lot of wasted time in this film. The first time we see this is when John Galt takes Dagny to his home after her plane crash. This sequence involves a long shot of Galt’s car driving down a road, the car driving to his house, Galt getting out of the car, walking around it to open the door and then pick up Dagny to take her into the house… hell, they even had to show him closing the car door, just so we wouldn’t be left wondering if he did. All told, this whole sequence takes 45 seconds to do something that could have been done in 10-15 by a professional editor. Sure, that’s just one 45 second sequence, but it’s emblematic of the film itself, as it is just loaded with sequences that don’t actually add anything to drive the plot or characters forward. This kind of editing is a trend throughout the film, as there are numerous pointless establishing shots of nature and people travelling to places, almost like something from the Left Behind books. It got to the point where I was laughing at every new nature montage, but by the time I was learning to expect them, they escalate into a sequence which is truly special. When Dagny chooses to leave the valley, John Galt takes her to his plane and starts it up, resulting in a flying nature montage as they leave… then, moments after they land and say their goodbyes, we get another shot of the plane starting up and then leaving, and then we get a train nature montage as Dagny returns to civilization (gotta waste another 2 minutes of this film somehow)! Now, to be fair, these nature shots are probably the best shots in the film due to the inherent beauty of mountains and wilderness, but they’re also completely pointless to the plot, so what does that tell you about the film itself… oh, and there’s also a good chance that most of them are stock footage, so double yikes! It’s like they don’t think we’ll understand how characters get from place-to-place without showing several seconds of unnecessary travel and unimportant nature footage. (EDIT: Actually, I think that the filmmakers might just think that we’re all stupid. I was going back through the film to freshen up on some of the details and noticed a scene transition which is literally a extended shot centered on a wine bottle’s label – this would be notable even if it was just bad product placement, but this was for a fictional vineyard for one of the characters. Then I realized that this shot was from some other footage from this scene, zoomed in significantly to show off the blurry bottle so we know where this scene is supposed to be taking place, and then put into slow motion as well for no discernible reason!!! They didn’t think that this wine bottle, which is present during the entire scene, wouldn’t be enough of a context clue within the scene? Holy shit this film is just a treasure trove that never stops giving back to me!)


While the constant time wasting is probably the most obvious example of bad editing in this film, there are other instances peppered throughout. The next most obvious example would have to be when a railworker calls Eddie to warn him that the rails are so mismanaged that there is going to be an imminent disaster. It’s a classic set-up for a potentially tense scene, reminding me of the train crash from Part II. Will Dagny be able to stop the disaster in time? Hah, just kidding, nothing happens after this phone call. I was really confused at first – weren’t they playing this thing up like people were literally about to die? What happened to the urgency? But then it turns out that the disaster was actually going to happen a few days later (several minutes later in the film), but it makes the urgency of this initial warning so strange. Why did they not just have this worker warn them of the disaster right before it was going to happen instead of doing nothing about it, moving the story forward, and then coming back to it later? It would have made for a much more tense sequence, but instead it just deflates the tension. There’s another editing choice near the end of the film which just left me baffled. I’m not even sure where else to put this because it’s so strange – the bad guys get mad because Project F breaks and then when they’re leaving the room there’s this completely random and pointless slow motion sequence where one of the bad guys yells “We’ll be back, you son of a bitch!” I cannot understand this editing choice at all… Like, it’s random enough that I really hope it was something that was suggested at that Atlas Society meeting I mentioned earlier though, where “the fans” got to provide input on the final cut of the film. I hope that there was just some dude there who yelled “Needs more slow motion!” and they decided that this was the only moment tense enough to work. I need an explanation because this is possibly the most baffling moment in the whole movie!



Then we come to the fact that the filmmakers once again recast all of the characters in this film. Even moreso than Part II, Part III demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to recast after every film. There are so many moments in the early parts of the film which rely on Dagny reuniting with familiar faces that had disappeared, but every time they would introduce them I would go “am I supposed to know you?” Hell, I was even getting characters mixed up because of this; early in the film I kept thinking that Akston was Quentin Daniels from Part II, because characters constantly flit in and out of this series and I didn’t have any visual reference for the character any more (it’s bad enough that I didn’t even remember who Akston was supposed to be until I went back to edit my review of Part I). It’s also a particular issue with the bad guys, because the film then has to pause and waste another 15 seconds telling us who everyone is with freeze frames and pop-up text. It also doesn’t help that characters who were important in the previous two films are shunted aside in this film. Hank Rearden is the most obvious and perplexing example of this. In the previous two films, he was the co-lead and second point-of-view character along with Dagny. He had also had some pretty big character moments in Part II, between his victory in court and being coerced into signing away his patents to Rearden Metal. Clearly they were setting him up to have some sort of big role in the third film, right? Nope, he gets about 10 seconds of screen time, leaves a voicemail and then is unceremoniously dumped from the story! What the hell!?! I can’t help but feel that he had a bigger role in the original story but they didn’t have time or budget for him and so wrote him out. All that said, he’s so absent in this film that I’ve read that he’s involved in the rescue mission to save John Galt at the end of the movie and had no idea – he’s not highlighted, nor have we seen enough of him in this film to even realize that it was him anyway. While not quite as important, Wesley Mouch is another prime example of this shunting issue. In the previous two films, he was arguably the primary antagonist, but in this one he barely shows up and his purpose is replaced almost entirely by Head of State Thompson. It doesn’t help that the actor who was cast to play him is very indistinct and looks very similar to Head of State Thompson, to the point where I cannot remember even seeing him beyond his introductory scene (and even then, only because they literally put text on the screen to say that he was Mouch).


As for the comparisons of the cast, Part III has by far the worst cast of the series. The only actor who might have put in the best performance of his character would be Greg Germann as James Taggart, but that’s just because the character is such a cartoon that I can’t really say that there was a “definitive” take on him. Greg Germann tries to take him in a somewhat more serious route, but there’s only so much you can do with James Taggart. The rest of the cast are just the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know if Laura Regan is a good actress or not, but she is just terrible as Dagny. Her line deliveries are flat and unconvincing throughout and her facial expressions don’t match the tone she’s trying to convey. It’s such a shame, especially after Samantha Mathis made me actually care somewhat about this character in Part II. Oh and speaking of which, Laura Regan is 8 years younger than Mathis, but looks even younger, providing a bit more whiplash about the recasting (especially when her former lover, Francisco, shows up looking like he’s 69 years old now). John Galt wasn’t really much of a presence in the previous films, but he always had some sort of mystery to him. Fully unmasked, Kristoffer Polaha’s Galt is just a Hallmark channel boy hunk, not the genius architect of the revolution that’s crippling society. I never found him particularly convincing, although compared to Laura Regan he was certainly the better of the two leads. In some ways, it’s probably best that Hank Rearden got written out, because the one line Rob Morrow delivers for him is so bad. I miss Grant Bowler’s more charming take on the character. And, as I alluded earlier, Joaquim de Almeida looks waaaay too old to be Francisco d’Anconia – he’s 20 years older than Laura Regan, and considering that she looks younger than she actually is, it suddenly begs the question of when exactly Dagny and Francisco were supposed to be a couple. De Almeida is a good enough actor that he’s fine in general in the role, but he’s clearly not stretching his acting muscles any. As douchey and sinister as he was, Esai Morales’ take on d’Anconia was probably the best, because at least he brought some energy to the role. Lastly, considering that Head of State Thompson only had a cameo appearance in Part II, you’d think that Peter Mackenzie would have an easier time becoming the definitive performance for the role… however, considering that that cameo appearance was portrayed by freaking Ray Wise, Mackenzie was screwed from the start. He’s fine as a scenery-chewing villain, but when you’re competing in that role against Ray Wise, you’re never going to win. The cast is bad across the board, with only a couple performances reaching the level of “fine”.


 

Whew, all of that said, we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy and politics in this film! Aglialoro and The Atlas Society had complained about people saying that John Galt’s strike was just a big temper tantrum, but the fact that they open this film by essentially confirming it feels like a big blunder to me. Seriously, the film opens with the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation announcing that they’ve adopted a wage scale, which causes Galt to freak out. Instead of just quitting, he declares that he is going to destroy the entire world economy, all because his job got restructured in a way that didn’t benefit him directly! I’m sorry, based on how you have portrayed this character, how is that not equivalent to a child throwing a temper tantrum and taking away his toys?

For a story that’s supposed to be extolling the virtue of selfishness, Part III does the worst job of trying to justify this. During what might be the most offensive moment in the entire trilogy, Hugh Akston tries to change Dagny’s view of conventional morality. He claims that believing that you have to help people is wrong because it causes unworthy people to get into positions of power. He claims that, in conventional morality, you are considered virtuous for what you do for others rather than what you achieve. This is a patently false assertion. Just look at people like Oprah, Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps, Daniel Day Lewis, or Stephen Hawking – people who are known and praised for their personal successes. Bill Gates might be the most obvious denial of this whole idea, since he’s a self-made uber-billionare in the Randian mould, except that he’s famous for his personal successes and praised for his altruism. Still, that’s not even the worst part of this scene. Akston claims that, because of this view on conventional morality, the unworthy will forcibly take from “those who have earned their money” in order to help the less fortunate if they will not comply. He then delivers this line:

“You’ve heard them say that people have a right to a living just because they’re human. And that’s not the right to earn a living, that’s the right to a living, which you are required to give to them.”

Woooooow. The filmmakers tried to explain Randian philosophy in the most reasonable-sounding way possible, but it still comes across as fucking evil. Akston straight-up admits that he doesn’t believe that people have a right to a living just because they exist. As far as he’s concerned, if you’re not doing something to “provide value” then you might as well die because you’re doing nothing to deserve your life. The serious ethical concerns of this should be obvious and numerous:

  • What about those who are injured while working? Sure, they were providing value for a time, but might as well let them and all of their dependants starve to death now! Or what about if, due to the negligence or unethical practices of a company, people are injured? Should there not be a legal right to a living for these people, considering that they were robbed of it by the actions of someone trying to enrich themselves?
  • What about the elderly who can’t work anymore, especially if they never had enough means to have any savings for retirement? Better just to set them loose in the woods during the winter.
  • What about freaking kids? When does this philosophy even come into effect anyway? Kids are not only going to be providing no “value” for several years, but they are going to be actively draining their parents’ resources as well, meaning that only those who are very well established will be able to actually afford to have children within this economic framework!
  • What about those who actually are working but still aren’t able to get by? Live in a hovel, you moochers!

Rand was very intentionally going against conventional morality here, because she viewed it as a framework which enabled the “oppression” of the great minds in society. Central to this was that religious principles were nothing more than another tool of the people in power. In order to show this, the filmmakers considered including a scene where Dagny meets a priest. I can already imagine this scene playing out in my head, but the fact that it was cut from the final film is pretty telling. Many of the libertarians who parrot Rand’s talking points are Christian, including the right-wing celebrities who cameo in this film such as Sean Hannity and Ron Paul (and Glenn Beck, who is Mormon). There’s already some significant cognitive dissonance required to call yourself a follower of Christ while also claiming that people who can’t provide value don’t deserve to live, but imagine if the filmmakers had included a scene where they explicitly stated that religion goes against their worldview. Half of this film’s meagre audience would be outraged at their audacity. This whole attempt to redefine morality just pisses me off though, and is by far the worst segment in the entire trilogy. When Akston dismissively states that “their philosophy is based how much you sacrifice to other people, not on what you achieve”, I could not help but think of Jesus’ words about how the rich donate large amounts to show off how generous they are, but the poor widow who donates gave everything she had and was therefore viewed as more generous. Contrast that to Galt and his followers, who are throwing a hissy fit because the government is forcing them to skim some of their wealth in order to help other people? Fuck you all.


Galt’s explanation to this criticism is that “We honour charity and benevolence, but it must be provided on the giver’s terms, voluntarily and not by force.” While I can see some value in the argument that they’re making here, it ignores a couple of things. First of all, Galt and his followers will staunchly refuse to give to any cause, no matter how worthwhile, if there is any force involved or implied. They could merely volunteer to give to a cause that they think is worthy, but we never see anyone actually do this (in Part I, Hank makes a donation to a cause he doesn’t agree with, but this is done out of a feeling of obligation).


Secondly, the actions of the characters contradict any notion that they might care about charity or benevolence. Seconds after Galt makes that statement, Dagny asks “What about what you left behind?”, referring to the rest of the world and all of the people who are suffering under the economic collapse Galt engineered. Galt simply says “We left nothing behind, Dagny. We took with us the only real thing of value. Dagny, this is a strike of our minds.” So clearly they don’t see anything of value in the outside world – everyone there is a moocher and it doesn’t matter to Galt if they suffer or die without them. This is barely even subtext either – it’s not like the people in the valley don’t realize what is happening in the outside world, they just don’t care. Part of the oath that everyone in the valley must take is that they will not “live for someone else”. Galt himself tells Dagny that, because there is no one competent to run the railroads, Taggart bridge will collapse imminently, showing that he doesn’t really care that innocent people are literally dying because of his strike.


Thirdly, there are several moments in the film where characters reveal that they have technology that could revolutionize the world, but have chosen not to for no discernible reason. For example, Dr. Hendricks inspects Dagny’s injuries using a handheld diagnostic device, similar to a handheld x-ray, and says “every doctor should have one”. Well, gee doc, if that’s what you think, what’s stopping you from giving one to every doctor? It’s not like he’s even going and selling them either! He has life-changing technology at his disposal and he’s choosing not to give it to anyone else. Or there’s the fact that Galt has a car in this film. It took me a little bit to realize “wait, no one drives cars in this universe, what the hell?” Considering that gasoline is extremely expensive in Atlas Shrugged and can’t really be being refined in the valley, it’s likely that they have come up with some sort of alternative fuel source… which, one again, they’re just hording here and not providing to all of the people being forced to deal with the increasingly-deadly rail lines. Perhaps the biggest “fuck you” in the whole film though comes when Galt reveals his working motor which has been hyped up in the previous two films. He reveals that it costs virtually nothing to maintain it and it’s so powerful that just one motor held in a space the size of a shed could power the entire West Coast!!! Again, this is so cheap that he could literally give it away – can you imagine unlimited, free, clean power for everyone and the sorts of changes that that would make in society? Hell, he could even sell it at an unrealistic mark-up and still change the world for the better. But, again, John Galt chooses to horde this because all he wants is appreciation and the ability to refuse people who don’t kowtow to his way of thinking. Tell me again about how you value benevolence Galt, because you sure as shit don’t demonstrate it in your actions.



Galt makes the claim that he is not imposing his values on the rest of the world, merely leaving the moochers to go about their own business, but this is also demonstrably false. Crippling the world’s economy in protest and hijacking the airwaves in order to convey your manifesto are hardly unimposing gestures, but what really contradicts this is that Galt is in league with Ragnar Danneskjöld, a literal pirate. Ragnar has been raiding shipping lines, stealing raw goods which (in his view) have been forcibly taken by governments so he’s just stealing them back. It’s one thing to, say, have Ellis Wyatt burn his oil fields and then disappear for good, but it would be another thing entirely if he kept coming back to burn down any reconstruction attempts, which is basically what Ragnar is doing here. Hell, at one point in the film, Dagny laments that there isn’t enough copper wire left to keep the trains running, which prompted me to say “hey, maybe tell your friend Ragnar to lay off then, he’s the one causing this shortage”, especially since it’s literally leading to the starvation of chunks of the population. At what point do these brainwashed Galt cultists think that goods have been acquired fairly? They are clearly trying to hasten the economic collapse, no matter how innocuous and innocent the film wants to portray them to be.


And how about these “greatest minds” that Galt has been taking to his valley? One of the first we’re introduced to is Midas Mulligan, owner of America’s largest bank. This struck me as a particularly odd choice, since isn’t banking largely the manipulation of money which d’Anconia was raging about in the previous film? Apparently it doesn’t count when private citizens do it, because Mulligan gets a whole monologue about how he’s been “wronged”. According to Mulligan, he made his fortune by lending money to people to buy homes and build businesses, saying that “I only loaned to those people I was confident could repay me” (eg, the people who were already rich and well off). However, then the government forced him to make slightly less of a profit by lending to people who couldn’t repay him, so he immediately threw a hissy fit and left for the valley. So… he couldn’t collect years of additional interest payments on the people who couldn’t pay him back? I wonder how many fans of this film also would cite It’s a Wonderful Life as their favourite Christmas movie, because Mulligan sounds exactly like that film’s villain, Mr. Potter. In that film, George Bailey bends over backwards to try to help the poor and disenfranchised in order to give them a chance at a life they otherwise may not have, and most people would indeed say he is virtuous for doing so. Can you imagine someone trying to claim that Mr. Potter was the one who was actually virtuous and that we need to be more like him? That’s basically the message Part III tries to hammer into you during its entire runtime.


One of the other notable “great minds” we get introduced to is Dr. Hendricks, who claims that he got sick of the government telling him how to treat his patients, so he ran off to the valley to treat them using “his own professional judgement”. This immediately got me thinking of Dr. Suchong from Bioshock, along with basically every other mad doctor trope. The film even unintentionally endorses this theory since Hendricks claims that his handheld diagnostic device was only made possible because there was “no red tape” to stop him… which begs the question of just how many people were killed, irradiated and/or sterilized to make this thing possible. Most doctors will tell you that regulations exist for a damn good reason and there’s also a reason why travelling to places with loose regulations is both a punchline and incredibly dangerous. But, just like in Part I, Hendricks is “worthy” so there shouldn’t be any restrictions on him, because he’s always right about everything (besides, if he did kill someone then that would mean that he wasn’t worthy after all).



This film also brushes up against so many issues which could have challenged the cartoonish take on reality that they’ve constructed, but which are just ignored. One such example is that Dagny meets a mother in the valley who is homeschooling her children. This scene feels like it was just thrown in to pander to conservatives who have a boner for homeschooling their kids, but in practice it raises so many more questions: if she’s homeschooling them, then how is she managing to pay her own way in the valley? Or how are the kids creating any value for that matter? Is wanting to homeschool your kids all that it takes to have John Galt invite you to his valley? Who knows! The film just introduces the concept in order to let all those conservative mommies know that they’re doing a Good Thing™ and then moves on without addressing any complications.


Or what about the fact that Dagny is expected to pay for her own medical treatment after the plane crash, revealing that there is (obviously) no healthcare in the valley? How many people have become ill and died in the valley because of this? Why don’t we see any of the people who have become destitute because they can’t pay their medical bills anymore? Oh, right, those don’t exist because Part III exists in a fantasy reality.


Or what about the fact that the valley seems to have a number of menial workers providing everyone with food and labour? We see restaurant workers, a farmer’s market, and a coal mine (amongst other things) while in the valley, but who is actually manning these? Did John Galt convince the greatest minds in the country to come to the valley and then make them start doing coal mining to stay alive? Or was he so comprehensive that he found the best coal miners in the world and then promised them a better life where they can mine even more coal? And if that’s the case, why didn’t they bring Hank Rearden’s factory workers with him when he left (because presumably Hank would have only retained workers who were up to his standards) instead of leaving them to be killed by strikebreakers? That’s the thing that’s being overlooked here – in order to work, the valley can’t just be a collection of the greatest minds in the world, there still has to be a much larger class of menial workers whose labour is being exploited to prop up those “great minds”. Such a reality is completely overlooked by this film though and instead Dagny spends all of her time interacting with the “important people”, much like she would have been doing back in the real world anyway. It makes you wonder why these “greatest minds” never get into positions of power in the “real world” of Rand’s fiction, and instead it’s always the unworthy. That seems to be something that people overlook.



It’s also worth noting the demographics of the people in the valley. I went in figuring that it was probably going to be mostly white men, but I was surprised to see that, in the crowded scenes in the valley, there was almost a 50-50 split between men and women. It only occurred to me during the writing of this retrospective that that might be because these women are mostly the wives of the great minds, but I’ll stick with my charitable first impression and assume that they at least gave women some consideration for their achievements. However, I can’t say that I saw anyone who wasn’t white and am not surprised about that little revelation at all. Can you imagine the filmmakers even thinking to diversify their extras to avoid troubling implications? Funnily enough though, at the very end of the film, the franchise’s only notable minority character, Eddie, is apparently rescued by Galt’s followers. His makes him not only the token black guy of the franchise, but the token black guy of Galt’s movement too, how fortunate! Even funnier is the fact that I found out that Eddie was changed into a black character for Part I and that this change was maintained in each subsequent film. Considering that characters change drastically in the franchise (including other race-swapped characters reverting to their whiteness from the book) and that Eddie’s rescue at the end changes him into someone who is deemed “worthy” to come to the valley, this suggests that Eddie was literally changed in order to make him their token black guy to avoid claims of racism. After all, they couldn’t possibly be racist for implying that only whites are the greatest minds in world and the only people worthy of success, and that therefore all other races have no right to a living unless they earn it! But who knows, maybe I just missed out on deleted scenes where there were a ton of black people in the valley who were off in Akston’s farm picking cotton or something…


 

And so finally we come to the most insane scene in the entire movie. You know how I said that Akston claiming that it’s not moral to say that people have a fundamental right to a living only might be the most offensive moment in the whole series? That’s only a might because this scene may actually be even worse, somehow. It comes when Dagny breaks into the government’s torture facility in order to free John Galt. She comes across a lone guard and corners him with a gun. The guard seems confused about the whole situation so Dagny gives him to the count of three to choose: get out of the way, or die. Instead of just running away like a normal human being, this complete fucking idiot starts going on a panicked rant about how he’s not supposed to make decisions and just stands there!!! Seriously, as Dagny is counting down, he literally says “I’m just an average guy, I’m not supposed to make decisions about my life! I haven’t said I will, I haven’t said I won’t!” And then she fucking shoots him to death!!!!!! HOLY SHIT, MOVIE!!!!!!!!! We’re clearly not meant to sympathize with this cartoonish buffoon of a character, hell we’re meant to give him our outright scorn. The line about being an “average guy” is pretty telling too – this is what the filmmakers believe that most people are like and this is the level of sympathy that “great people” should give to anyone who gets in their way. This is just offensive on so many levels, not least of all that this “character” doesn’t resemble an actual human being in the slightest and that it marks the moment where we’re supposed to congratulate Dagny for finally shedding her notion of conventional morality. Fuck. This. Movie.

Having learned more about Objectivism from watching these movies and researching Rand’s philosophy for these reviews, I must say that it’s a strange ideology to cling to. This story always lifts up the inherently superior “great minds” that apparently push our society forward, but they have little basis in reality. These great minds are always portrayed as being the heads of companies, but that’s rarely the case now is it? Modern companies are governed by complex structures which might steer the direction of the company, but they rarely are the source of innovation, not to mention that it’s questionable whether they deserve to make dozens, if not hundreds, of times more annual salary than the people who actually work on the frontlines of their business. We’ve seen just how alien the world of these three films is and how cartoonishly black and white it has to make the world if it wants Objectivism to make any sort of sense. If anything, in a modern context Galt’s strike sounds like a call for workers to rise up against the bourgeois, a notion which Rand would have considered repugnant. The only real aspect of Objectivism which seems to have any real basis is the desire to not be forced into doing anything, but that’s hardly a strong enough idea to cling a whole ideology off of. If anything, the deregulation that they have wanted so badly just seems to turn their closest analogues of “great minds” into something closer to the manipulators and moochers that they despise so much.


Part III is easily one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The politics and philosophy are bad, with some of the most sincerely offensive messages I have ever witnessed in a film (and this is coming from someone who only slept through half of Triumph of the Will). However, for the most part, these elements aren’t significantly worse than they were in the previous two films, just more repetitive and long-winded if anything. What really makes Part III into a trainwreck is the bafflingly shoddy craftsmanship on display from start to finish. It just permeates throughout every element of the movie, turning otherwise-banal moments into comedic bits. It’s almost as if The Room was trying to be a political thriller, that’s the level of ineptitude that this film rises to. As a result, while it is a truly horrendous film, it reaches a level of badness so far beyond the previous two entries in the franchise that it becomes an experience unto itself. Like, I’ve already recommended this film to a few friends who like bad movies, just because it does manage to hit that special level of crap. So, while it fails in pretty much every intended regard, at least Aglialoro finally managed to make a film that someone might actually get some enjoyment out of.

But seriously, fuck this franchise and the people who made it.


1/10


And now that we’re through the Atlas Shrugged retrospective, it’s time to rank the films from best to worst!


1. Atlas Shrugged – Part II – 3/10 (I had a reeeeally hard time picking between this and Part I, but I ultimately gave Part II the edge because at least Dagny comes across as a good character, even if it wasn’t in the way they actually intended.)

2. Atlas Shrugged – Part I – 3/10 (Again, it’s basically a toss-up – do you like your films boring or offensive?)
3. Atlas Shrugged Part III – Who Is John Galt? – 1/10 (While it is by far the worst film in the series, it is also the only one I would actually recommend, because it’s so bad that it’s an experience.)
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Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part II (2012)

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!

Certainly a more interesting poster than the first film, conveys a more epic and grandiose scale than the cute little clip art graphic the first one had.

PRODUCTION
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.

No, we’re laughing with you. Also, there will be no refunds.

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.

PLOT SYNOPSIS
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.

I’ll get to it in detail later, but man, look at how awkward that arch is! It almost distracts you away from the obvious matte painting!

REVIEW
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.

This screenshot makes it look like Hank is concerned about this flaming employee, but no, he’s actually just yelling at everyone else in the factory and telling them what to do about the ore leak. I don’t need to make shit up to have a laugh at this movie’s expense.

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.

Things go truly off the rails when the government introduces Directive 10-289, which is probably the most batshit insane law that people actually believe will happen. The basic idea is that the economy is in such a tailspin that the government institutes regulations to freeze it in place and prevent any further downturn… but holy shit, the way that they go about it is so obviously stupid that it could never, ever happen. Like, it is so stupid that I have to go through it point-by-point to show how paper-thin this idea is:
  • 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!!!!!!
As the specifics of Directive 10-289 show, this film’s plot starts becoming insulting to the intelligence of its audience, having to contrive impossible scenarios to make its ideology seem even somewhat logical. I mean, Part I had a hard enough time justifying Objectivism, but Part II makes it impossible for these so-called “rational minds” to claim this could ever happen. This might just be at its most cringe-inducing during Francisco d’Anconia’s big “money speech” during James Taggart’s wedding, an event which has no real importance on the story other than to allow d’Anconia to go on his rant and preach to the audience. In the novel, this speech goes on for literally 20 minutes worth of pages, but the film manages to boil it down into just a couple minutes. Here’s the first part:

(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.

3/10
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt?!
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Retrospective: Atlas Shrugged – Part I (2011)

Hey it’s the 4th of July people, so what better way to celebrate than with a retrospectives series! Last time we went through a fantastic slasher film and it’s chaotic web of sequels, but I try to shake things up a bit every time. I could easily make every retrospective about laughably bad horror franchises or slasher flicks, but there has been another franchise that I’ve been wanting to dive into for years. That “franchise” would be the Atlas Shrugged trilogy, the production of which was notoriously troubled throughout. Will that make for entertaining viewing, writing and reading? Having not seen any of them at the time of writing this part, I sure as hell hope so!

Also, I’ll be up-front going into this series: I haven’t read any Ayn Rand works. Going into this series, most of my knowledge about her philosophy comes through light research, Bioshock, cultural osmosis and unpleasant encounters with libertarians. While I can’t call myself an expert on Rand or Atlas Shrugged as a text, I can certainly still analyze this film trilogy based on its own merits (in fact, not knowing the book can reveal whether the film requires prior knowledge of it to maintain narrative coherency). That said, as I go on with each subsequent entry in this retrospective, I learn more about her philosophy through watching the films and subsequent research, so keep that in perspective. If you don’t know anything about Objectivism, don’t worry, I’ll try to explain it succinctly as we go along. “Well if you don’t know anything about Rand then how can you review Atlas Shrugged properly!” you may say – luckily for you, I convinced my good friend Matt at The M, who is more familiar with Rand’s philosophy and has read the book, to watch these films with me and come to his own conclusions. Be sure to check out his reviews as well for some contrasting perspectives!

I don’t really know what to say about this poster. It’s fine, but it looks like something you’d see promoting some keynote speaker at a dinner conference rather than a theatrical movie release.

PRODUCTION
After years of modest success as a novelist and screenwriter, Russian-American authour Ayn Rand wrote and published her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to great success. To put it very simply, The Fountainhead dealt with themes of collective societal oppression and stagnation, which stifle creative minds and prevent progress from occurring. The Fountainhead‘s success helped spur philosophical debate about the novel’s themes, providing an early core for Rand’s ideas going forward. Rand herself began taking a greater interest in political activism, campaigning in favour of the free market and against communism. This growing philosophical interest and political activism coalesced in her next novel, 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, a massive, nearly 1,200 page epic which was equal parts narrative and philosophical treatise. The novel explicitly lays out the foundations of Rand’s philosophy which would become known as “Objectivism”.

Before we go any further, it’s important that we get an idea of what Objectivism means. According to the Atlas Society:

“Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.”

Rand would further develop the philosophy of Objectivism for the rest of her writing career. Perhaps because of this philosophical focus, the novel was not received very well. This is possibly due to the notion that Objectivism can be boiled down to “excuses to continue to be an asshole“. However, the novel found a receptive audience of those who agreed with Rand’s philosophy and found it extremely compelling. The influence of Objectivism upon libertarian and American conservative movements can be felt to this day (even if they don’t necessarily understand her). Naturally, the political and ideological importance that this novel has garnered after its publication would lead libertarians and Objectivist adherents to want to see a film adaptation.

There had been several attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a film or television series, but none came to fruition for one reason or another (including an attempt by Ayn Rand herself, which ended when she died with only a third of the screenplay completed). The roots of the film which would eventually come about began when John Aglialoro bought the film rights for Atlas Shrugged from the Rand estate in 1992. He then started optioning the film to various studios. After a proposed four-hour miniseries with TNT fell through, the project was taken to Lions Gate to be turned into a two-part film series (which was eventually shaved down into one screenplay). Vadim Perelman was going to direct the film and various high-profile actresses were in negotiation for the film, including Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts and Anne Hathaway (according to the Atlas Society, Jolie was likely going to be playing the female lead, Dagny Taggart). As interest in the film fizzled, Lions Gate then started work on a miniseries, but could not come up with an adequate script. After spending nearly $20 million on various Atlas Shrugged projects, Lions Gate scrapped the whole thing in March of 2010 and nothing came to fruition.

All of these false starts left John Aglialoro in a bind. After 18 years of nothing, his rights to the film were set to expire in June of 2010 if he was not filming an adaptation by then. So, in early April with barely two and a half months of pre-production time, Aglialoro and producer Harmon Kaslow threw a production company together, hastily wrote a script, hired the production team and crew, cast the film and got all of their locations sorted out. Many of the crew were fans of Rand’s work and took pay cuts in order to be a part of the film. The cast were largely unknowns or D-list talent, including Taylor Schilling (who would get her big break right after this film by starring in Orange is the New Black) as Dagny Taggart, Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden and Matthew Marsden (from the DOA: Dead or Alive movie!!!) as James Taggart. Stephen Polk was initially hired to direct, but was fired and Paul Johansson was signed on as director just nine days before filming began. Filming began on June 13, just two days before the rights would have reverted to Rand’s estate, and lasted for five weeks on a budget somewhere between $10-20 million dollars (although this number is debated; it might be including all of the costs of the false starts at Lions Gate, because I’ve seen estimates as low as $5 million). However, due to the rushed production, John Agliarloro and Harmon Kaslow weren’t able to afford to negotiate and secure any of their actors to appear in the next two entries in the series, meaning that they would be forced to start fresh and recast when it came time to begin Part II. This rushed schedule may also have been why the film takes place in a near-future setting, despite maintaining the novel’s 1950s trappings, in order to save on production costs.

The film’s release date was set, symbolically, on “tax day“, April 15, 2011 – only a year after production began. The film’s marketing budget was low and promotion was largely done in an evangelizing manner, similar to Christian films. The film was promoted not only by Randian organizations, such as The Atlas Society, but also through political organizations, such as Fox News and the Tea Party movement and its affiliates, explicitly playing up the film’s political status in order to draw interest. One of these affiliates, FreedomWorks, went so far as to try to get the film into more theatres and to promote it at the Conservative Political Action Conference. However, apparently none of this mattered because, despite playing in 465 theatres across the country, the film was a total bomb. It’s opening weekend haul of $1,676,917 was good for the 14th highest gross of the weekend, and it ended up earning less than $5 million by the end of its theatrical run. For whatever reason, the film’s political marketing campaign didn’t translate to a ticket bump as it often does for Christian films.


PLOT SYNOPSIS
The film opens in 2016, with America in a serious economic depression due to intense oil shortages after the Middle East stops supplying the superpower with the oil it needs (this is the last time this bit of context will ever be mentioned, for the record). Further exacerbating matters is catastrophic oil spills and skyrocketing gasoline prices, which cause the rail lines to become the most important transportation method for people and goods. However, the rail lines are in poor repair and there are several derailments on the Taggart Transcontinental railroad after CEO James Taggart tries to get the lines replaced with cheap, shoddy material.

His sister, Dagny Taggart, forcibly takes control of the situation, saying that she’s negotiated a deal with Rearden Steel to replace the tracks with a new metal that has been invented by Hank Rearden, which is supposed to be considerably stronger and lighter than any other metal on the market. Rearden gives a bracelet made of the first batch of Rearden metal to his wife as an anniversary gift, but she and the rest of their family openly mock him for it, while another insults Hank while asking for a $100,000 donation. Meanwhile, James Taggart negotiates a deal with lobbyists to secure Taggart Transcontinental a rail monopoly in Colorado. This angers an oil baron named Ellis Wyatt who is now forced to do business with Taggart, but Dagny assures him that they will provide him with the service that he needs.

While Dagny and Hank are working to get the railroads replaced on time, talented individuals in their companies keep disappearing with their only explanation being a cryptic question: “Who is John Galt?” A former lover of Dagny’s, Francisco d’Anconia, creates further difficulty for Taggart when his copper mines are revealed to be worthless, costing Taggart and various other investors billions of dollars (it is heavily implied that he did this just to screw them over). To make things worse, the State Science Institute reports that they believe that Rearden metal is not safe for public use, a claim which Hank scoffs at. In response to this, Dagny forms her own company in order to finish the rail line and keep the pressure off of Taggart Transcontinental, calling it the “John Galt Line”.

As Dagny and Hank continue working desperately to complete the rail line, even more pressure is put upon them when a new law forces Hank to sell off all but one of his businesses, leaving him only with Rearden Steel to finish the John Galt Line. Despite all this opposition, the John Galt Line is completed ahead of schedule and the first test is wildly successful, setting a new speed record for a locomotive. Wyatt is overjoyed and invites Dagny and Hank to celebrate at his home. Dagny and Hank end up having an affair that night as John Galt confronts Wyatt in secret and convinces him to disappear along with the other men of talent.

The next morning, Dagny and Hank follow-up on a lead that Hank had found about a revolutionary new motor that was developed at the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation but never released, as the company went under before it could be produced. They find the incomplete motor in the abandoned factory and try to track down its inventor. Dagny traces it back to Dr. Hugh Akston, but he is unwilling to reveal the identity of the inventor, saying that the inventor might track her down.

However, a new law is then passed which limits the speed of trains on the John Galt Line and puts a special tax on Colorado. Dagny then discovers that Wyatt’s oil fields are on fire and rushes to the scene. When she arrives, she is distraught by the scene, where she finds a sign left by Wyatt which reads “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”


REVIEW
Atlas Shrugged: Part I pulled a number of emotions out of me during its runtime, but unquestionably the most prominent one was soul-crushing boredom. Most of the film boils down to discussions about railway construction and the politics surrounding it. Mind you, that doesn’t have to be boring! The story of the founding of Facebook sounds soul-crushingly dull, but The Social Network made it a gripping drama. And who cares about the story of the franchising of McDonalds? Me, apparently, because The Founder ended up being one of my favourite films of the past decade. Unfortunately, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does very little to make any of this business and politicking engaging for the audience. This is in part because most of the scenes boil down to:

  1. Characters talking about something they’re going to do off-screen (eg, Dagny talking about forming her own company to finish the rail line, Washington lobbyists talking about all the bills they’re going to pass to screw over Rearden Steel, etc).
  2. Characters reacting to something that happened off-screen (every time one of these laws gets passed, the reveal that d’Anconia’s copper mines are worthless, etc).
  3. Exposition dumps (Hank’s speech about the fall of the Twentieth Century Motor Corporation, scenes where someone says “Who is John Galt?”, etc).

As a result of these building blocks, the vast majority of this film feels stuffy and boring. There’s very rarely any sort of payoff, which actually makes the big, triumphant test run of the John Galt Line probably the best scene in the whole film since it’s a rare moment of excitement. Hell, even when Dagny and Hank have sex, they can’t even get down to business until they have first talked about wanting to have sex with each other, holy shit. God forbid we not realize that they’re into each other unless someone explicitly states it first.

Another failed source of tension in the film is the constant setbacks that Dagny and Hank’s efforts encounter, from the laws put in place to oppose them, to the employees being whisked away by John Galt. In a competent film, like The Martian, each setback provides the audience with mounting tension as they wonder how the characters can possibly overcome the obstacles in front of them. In Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the characters… just do it. Like, seriously, there is very rarely any sort of explanation for how or why Dagny and Hank manage to not only overcome all of the impossibly difficult roadblocks that get put in front of them, but also complete the project ahead of schedule. You’re telling me that, despite losing their most talented employees to John Galt, having Rearden Steel’s suppliers get sold off mid-project and having Dagny break off and form her own company from scratch to manage the project (again, in the middle of the process) wouldn’t affect their schedule any? Again, there isn’t really any explanation for it, it’s just handwaved away like “well they’re super talented, so they pulled it off”.

Right before they pulled each other off.

The film also has a central mystery surrounding the phrase “Who is John Galt?” which could also have provided some intrigue for the audience. However, this also falls flat on its face because, somehow, the characters aren’t even interested in the mystery! Imagine this: your best, most talented employees are resigning one-by-one, can’t be persuaded stay and they all give the same, cryptic explanation – “Who is John Galt?” You’d think that someone would try to figure out what this conspiracy is all about, but Dagny and Hank don’t even bother to look into it. WHY!? This might have been explained in the novel, but here it’s left untouched for no discernible reason, time after time. This even ruins scenes which were actually building up their own tension, such as when Owen Kellogg resigns from Taggart Transcontinental. The scene has Dagny asking Owen every question except why he’s leaving, so when she finally does, the camera zooms in on his face for a close-up, there’s a pregnant pause and then he answers with… “Who is John Galt?” Cue ominous music, black and white freeze-frame and then a pop-up that says that he’s gone missing. End scene. What the actual fuck was that? That’s like the cinematic equivalent of prematurely ejaculating into your girlfriend’s hair right when things were getting interesting. And, again, Dagny doesn’t even look into what happened! She just whines to Hank later about “why are so many great men disappearing?” I guess we’ll never know with that attitude! Oh, and to make matters worse, it’s not like we’re given an answer to any of this, not in this film anyway. The film certainly hints that there’s some sort of cult surrounding John Galt, who is doing something to whisk away the talented people in society, but there is no payoff to the subplot in this film.

That actually brings us to another issue with Atlas Shrugged: Part I – it is very much an extended first act, rather than a stand-alone film. Sure, you’re probably supposed to experience all three parts back-to-back, but that doesn’t change that this was released stand-alone and that, at one point, you would not have been able to view the complete package (not to mention that you may not have the time to do so anyway). It’s not really rocket science though, they had two options available. One: knowing that they needed each part to be satisfying in its own right, they could have made this film’s railroad drama more interesting and provided some more payoff to all the plot threads they introduced. Or, two: a number of scenes could easily have been trimmed down to move the plot further ahead and not leave so many unanswered threads just dangling in the wind. I could easily see Atlas Shrugged as a two-part film, but instead they chose to stretch it out over three films to the detriment of this film’s enjoyment (hey, where have I heard that before?). I mean, the film ends with Dagny not finding the inventor of the new motor she and Hank rediscovered and having Wyatt’s oil fields burn to the ground. That’s about as much of a non-ending as you could possibly have.

Another notable aspect of Atlas Shrugged: Part I is just how cheap it feels, despite the fact that this film’s budget was somewhere between $10-20 million dollars. Sure, that’s a low amount, but it’s certainly a workable number of a film which is largely about people talking about railroads. Like, DOA: Dead or Alive‘s budget was $21 million, and that film had to incorporate bigger sets, fight choreography, more special effects and more expensive actors, all while looking much better than Atlas Shrugged: Part I. All of The Purge films have had similar budgets as well and are considerably better looking and feature plenty of exciting action sequences. Hell, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is one of the greatest horror films of the twenty-first century and it was filmed on a budget under $10 million. It all comes down to the producers, director and crew and unfortunately there are moments when Atlas Shrugged: Part I literally looks like a micro-budget fan film. This cheapness stands in stark contrast to the supposed opulence of the characters inhabiting the film. Like, there’s a part of the film where Hank’s upper-class meal involves him eating a baked potato and some slices of bread. The sets suffer somewhat from this as well. Sometimes we’ll get an expansive exterior shot of a big mansion or a rail line, and then in others we’ll a character’s office which could have easily been left over from some legal drama. Perhaps my absolute favourite moment though comes during Hank Rearden’s introduction. Check this image out:

As you can probably see, they couldn’t film the scene in a proper factory, so they went into some office building, green screened the windows and then keyed in stock footage of a rail factory and hoped no one would notice. This was so bad that I had to pause the film and rewind it several times to make sure I was seeing this right, because it made me laugh for several minutes. I’ll admit, it’s a clever workaround for their problem, but the office that they chose to film it in makes it glaringly obvious. I mean, look at the placement of the doors, which don’t make any spacial sense compared to the factory (especially the exit which is apparently right next to the factory floor). The lack of lighting in this dark office also doesn’t help make this any more convincing. There is also some horrible, 90s-quality CGI during the train sequences – the train itself looks unconvincing, but the railroad tracks are the worst part, having been painted this bright, contrast-less chrome colour in order to convey how “special” Rearden metal is. The opening shots of the film are also really bad – they need to show a train derailment, but they can’t afford the CGI to do it, so they just take some (obviously-darkened) stock footage of trains, cut between shots of broken rails and then have some guy screaming to imply that the train crashes. It’s the sort of work-around that feels even less like a fan film and more like high school students running around in the backyard with a camera. I can’t help but think that the cheapness of this is partially due to the film’s rushed production schedule, which squeezed out any time to secure proper on-location shooting or dress sets properly, squandering a budget that many other films could put to much better use. Like, with a proper pre-production schedule, they could have secured filming rights at a factory, but when they had to slap a whole film together in two and a half months, that wasn’t a luxury they could afford.

On a somewhat-related note, man, the writing in this film is not good. Having not read the novel, I’m not sure if this is a Rand issue or if it’s because of the breakneck production speed, but at the very least screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole have to bear some fault for co-writing the film that we got. In addition to the unengaging plot that I’ve already mentioned, the characters are poorly conceived and come across more like propagandistic mouthpieces than actual people. Our “heroes”, Dagny and Hank, are both infallible business people who look down on the people around them and take control of everything because they know best. And, hey, the film agrees with them, despite never really showing how or why we are supposed to believe that they should have this confidence. They just succeed at everything regardless, so we’re meant to believe that this makes them hyper-competent and deserving of having opportunities just fall into their laps (such as the experimental engine Hank just stumbles across). Despite all this, there isn’t much to actually make you like Hank or Dagny unless you’re already an Objectivist, because holy shit they are dicks. Hank states, outright, that his only goal is to make money and that he hates giving to the “less privileged”, while Dagny whines about altruism and cancels a rail project in an undeveloped part of Mexico because she doesn’t see how it benefits her in any way. Meanwhile, all of the other characters are portrayed as scummy, conniving, incompetent and underhanded, particularly James Taggart who relies on political favours to advance his company (which this film views as illegitimate business compared to Dagny’s “actual work”) and Wesley Mouch (Mouch? …Mooch? Real subtle there, Rand…), who lobbies Washington to try to break up Rearden’s monopoly on the steel market. Probably worst of all is Hank’s wife, Lillian, who is possibly the biggest shrew of a female character that I have ever seen. In Rand’s eyes, there’s no emotional value to anything, no love between these characters – she sees a bracelet made of Rearden metal given to her as a sign of ego rather than a sentimental gift and complains about it constantly, while also being portrayed as leeching off of Hank’s success unworthily. When Dagny offers to trade it for a diamond necklace, Lillian jumps at the opportunity since it’s worth more in terms of real value. Holy crap, is that the kind of worldview that Rand believes exists, which justifies her own brand of assholes?

That, of course, brings us to one of the film’s biggest issues – it’s ultimately all about trying to extol the necessity of Objectivism. Normally I try to avoid getting too much into objectionable ideology within a work, for fear of having the whole review turn into a rant and so that people who agree with that ideology can’t just write off my arguments wholesale. Trust me, as I have already stated above, there are plenty of reasons why Atlas Shrugged: Part I fails just on a film-making level. However, considering that this film’s story is inextricably intended to be a case-study for the necessity of Objectivism, ignoring this fact in a review would be like tip-toeing around the existence of sports in Air Bud. With that said, Atlas Shrugged: Part I does a piss-poor job of convincing anyone that Objectivism is a good idea. Part of the issue is that the aforementioned characters don’t act like real human beings. Characters like James Taggart, Wesley Mouch and Lillian Rearden are transparent strawmen whose whose entire purpose is to antagonize our perfect “heroes” and single-mindedly leech off of the success of others rather than do work themselves. It’s pretty hard to make a case for your ideology in a film when the world that it’s presented in looks and feels completely unlike our own. Even then it’s hard to identify with our “heroes”, because when Dagny and Hank suddenly start complaining about how much they hate having to give money to people they deem unworthy, it flies in the face of conventional morality. Like, in basically any other movie, having a character say that they don’t like helping the underprivileged would be a line given to the villains, but in this one case we’re meant to think “yeah, that’s right! Fuck the poor!” As far as the film is concerned, only the “best people” in society drive us forward and everyone else just leeches off of their success undeservedly.

The merits of Dagny and Hank’s “worthiness” is also rather questionable to me. The entire plot is put into motion because Taggart Transcontinental’s trains start derailing after James Taggart makes a deal with another steel company to expand their rail lines. When that fails, Dagny announces that her solution to this massive PR issue is… to bank everything on an untested, experimental metal that she intends to use to re-rail their entire line in 9 months!? When your company is still reeling from disaster after disaster you’d think that, I dunno, they’d perform rigorous safety checks first, right? Apparently that doesn’t matter though, because Dagny is worthy and therefore always right. After all, if she wasn’t always right, then she wouldn’t be worthy, would she! Then, in our introduction to Hank, he’s just as much of a smug dick – he’s introduced crumpling up and laughing at requests to meet with experts and metalworking guilds about his new metal, denoting that he doesn’t need to prove that his metal is the good because he already knows it is. Guys, he’s worthy, he doesn’t need to explain or justify himself! But, like… is he really? Dagny and Hank talk up about how great Rearden metal is throughout the film, but we’re never really told or (more importantly) shown why it’s such a big deal or how Hank developed this seemingly-magical product. Even when the science institute says that Rearden metal is unsafe, Dagny and Hank insist that they’re wrong. It comes across that government and science are just conspiring to screw over big businesses, which only want to progress human achievement. Of course, their claims about how good Rearden metal is are to “proven” when they finally get the chance to test it… once. This all just comes across to me as the film insisting that Dagny and Hank are so great and smart, and that their arrogance is totally merited because they’re just that good. Nevermind all the people like Billy McFarland who exude all the confidence in the world and who everyone around him claims is a visionary building great things, who ends up being a massive con artist when it all crumbles – the only difference is that Dagny and Hank manage to actually accomplish what they say they’ll do, inexplicably.

There’s also a big exposition dump near the end of the film, when Dagny and Hank are headed to the abandoned Twentieth Century Motor Corporation to find the experimental engine they were developing. Hank explains that the company went out of business because of “bad ideas”: they paid everyone according to a wage scale, paying everyone according to their needs rather than their contributions. Dagny is vehemently opposed to this and says: “Why all these stupid altruistic urges? It’s not being charitable or fair. What is it with people today?” Hank then says that, because of this, “no surprise, the smart managers and the better workers left the company. But hundreds of remaining staff couldn’t handle it alone. Service dropped, quality in their once-great products was gone, and that was that.” This is, of course, what Objectivists thinks happens when companies don’t reward their workers according to their contributions, but it seems way too simplified to me. For one thing, who is it that’s determining the proper pay for contributions? The workers on the ground are the ones keeping the company going, but the managers are the ones who are going to set the pay – you know that they’re the higher-ups are going to be taking the credit and making the most, regardless of the success or failure of the company. It sure is convincing when we’ve got a pair of super-rich people complaining about how they’re not able to make even more money when that system has already gotten us into a state of radical wealth inequality. Furthermore, are you telling me that these “smart managers” didn’t get replaced by similarly-capable workers or that the company wasn’t grooming new employees to move into their positions? Probably strangest of all, all of the company’s innovations were then lost and left behind!?

This Randian philosophy at the heart of the narrative ultimately results in a film that doesn’t fit into any conventional sense of morality. It advocates for a dog-eat-dog world where the rich don’t have to have any sort of obligation to society. At best, it suggests that they will use this freedom to help drive society forward (as we see with Dagny and Hank’s efforts to revolutionize the railroads and motors), but this is a laughably simplistic notion to apply to real life. In the years since the publication of Atlas Shrugged, its libertarian message has taken root in the United States and has led to insane wealth inequality where people can’t succeed no matter how “worthy” they are. Of course, the people at the top will maintain that they deserve to be, despite making more than the vast majority of the employees under their purview, combined.

So, yeah – Atlas Shrugged: Part I sucks. It advocates for an immoral ideology at its core and then has to resort to strawmen and plot contrivances to make it even seem reasonable within its own fiction. Even then, the film itself is poorly made and uncompelling to watch. Similarly to the Christian films I mentioned earlier, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is the sort of film which is only going to appeal to the people who already agree with its worldview and feel validated by its existence. For basically everyone else, it’s a total slog with an unsatisfying non-conclusion.

3/10

Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II!

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The Cost of Isolationism

I recently watched Alt-Right: Age of Rage on Netflix. If you’re not really familiar with the alt-right and their connections with white supremacists (and holy shit, it’s 2019, you should be) then it’s a good primer. There’s a segment near the end though that has really gotten me thinking since I watched the documentary. During a montage there is a voice-over which goes on a conspiracy rant about how the alt-right is preparing society to accept mass genocides which are going to happen as a result of ecological and economic disasters. While I feel like the idea that this is the true intent of the alt-right, as if they’re being controlled by some shadowy puppet master, is a bit much, there are elements of this notion that ring true.

With the rise in nationalist movements, xenophobia has become a serious wedge issue which politicians are keen to latch onto. Governments which try to take a stand in favour of immigration seem to be on the brink of political collapse as populist movements push back, surged by xenophobic fervour. While there are certainly reasonable levels immigration restrictions (no one wants dangerous criminals in their country after all), the degree of xenophobia and straight-up racism which dominates this conversation now is deplorable. Syrian refugees are fleeing war? They must be hiding terrorists amongst them, or they’re going to become the majority and institute sharia law, so we can’t afford to let any in. We need merit-based immigration, the kind which most of our existing citizens couldn’t even qualify for! And hey, why can’t we get more immigrants from white countries instead of shit-holes? Ugh… Don’t even get me started on America’s disgusting campaign against illegal immigration, Dreamers and asylum seekers. It’s clear that the aim is to circle the wagons: keep the “right” people in the country and not let any more “others” in.

So what are these people so afraid of? How does it affect the average citizen at all for immigrants and refugees to get a slice of the American pie? Putting aside racism (which is a major factor), it comes down to the old parlance, “they’re stealing our jobs!” There’s this idea that if you let immigrants in, then they’re going to vacuum up money which could have gone to “real” citizens (you always get some idiot chiming in with something along the lines of “why aren’t you giving money to veterans instead of immigrants?”). Naturally, this ignores that immigrants are essential to a healthy economy, especially considering that our workforce is ageing and that the birth rate is declining. Regardless, there’s a notion that immigrants are a drain on our resources, one which is fuelled by disingenuous anti-immigration propaganda farms on social media. I’ve talked about it many times in the past, but this is a perfect example of the dangers of voter ignorance, where political activists are manipulating people into a frenzy in order to get them to vote the way that they want.

Like this bullshit right here.

As bad as the xenophobic trend is now, you also have to factor in the effects that climate change is going to have in the coming years. Climate change will affect everyone, but it’s going to be felt most keenly by poor people, especially in impoverished regions. This, in turn, is going to lead to even more refugees as time goes on and as people become displaced by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Make no mistake – this creates an environment in which people are going to be displaced and die en masse. Considering that industrialized nations have contributed to this environmental crisis and refuse to do anything serious to combat it, the notion that we can just wash our hands of the human impact of climate change is unacceptable. People will certainly die, but we can mitigate the death toll if we’re willing to allow refugees into our countries. If we refuse to act due to racial prejudice, this will be essentially genocide against anyone who isn’t one of “us”.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this to me is that evangelical Christians, the self-described “pro-life” types and the ones who believe that they are the moral bastion of society, are also the ones most likely to deny climate change and oppose immigration. This isolationist bent is, of course, in blatant opposition to The Bible that they claim to follow. Christians should be leading the charge to welcome refugees, to shelter Dreamers from ICE agents and denounce the disturbing trend towards fascism across the globe. Instead, I question whether they’ll even have the self-awareness to say “I didn’t know” when their apathy towards climate change and refusal to welcome immigrants leads to deaths across the globe.

Like I said at the start, I don’t believe that white supremacy is being trotted out once again in order to prepare us for this depressing future. I do, however, believe that if racism and anti-immigration sentiment continues, we’re not going to be able to do anything when there are people literally dying to find safety within our borders. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but we can’t call ourselves moral people if we’re going to stand by and allow people to suffer so that we can live just a little more comfortably.

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15 Best Movie Posters of 2018

If you’ve read any of my movie reviews, you might have noticed that I always have a whole blurb at the start of the review critiquing the design of the film’s poster. I really love a good movie poster, it’s a piece of art unto itself. Films that treat their poster as more than just a piece of marketing deserve special recognition, so what better way to do that than a year-end countdown?

Also… man, it’s hard to believe that the last time I did a movie posters best-of was 5 freaking years ago! I’ve always wanted to turn it into an annual thing, but it has never actually happened for whatever reason. Hell, I even had a folder with notable movie posters saved in 2015 or 2017, but the countdown just never materialized. So, with any luck, this will be commencement of the first annual IC2S Best Movie Poster countdown!

(Images come courtesy of the film poster database Internet Movie Poster Awards.)

Honourable Mention: The Predator

This poster deserves special mention just because of how weird it is. This is one of a series of stylized posters featuring the Predator living a “cool” lifestyle of playing basketball, skateboarding and break-dancing. It’s such a bonkers design, made even weirder by the tongue-in-cheek “ALIEN” brand on their computer and basketball jersey. The neon graffiti aesthetic is also so at odds with Predator that this whole thing becomes really interesting. I mean, it’s more respectful to the franchise than The Predator was at the very least.
15) Acrimony

Acrimony has a couple really cool posters, but in my opinion this one is the best of them. Maybe I’m somewhat biased (red and black are my favourite colour combination), but the poster itself is just quite striking and says a lot about the film and the dangerous nature of its protagonist through its use of imagery. Plus, if Acrimony‘s Tomatometer is anything to go by, its posters are higher art than the film itself.

14) Isle of Dogs

This poster works on a few different levels, any one of which could be enough to get someone to want to see the film. First of all, it shows off the film’s unique artstyle with each of its colourful characters on display. It also hints at Wes Anderson’s particular “flat” style of directing, something which would excite anyone who had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. Furthermore, it also shows the film’s Japanese setting, not only with the title and sole human character, but with the way that the dogs are arranged vertically as if they were kanji. Character posters are an overdone trope with major releases these days (one that Isle of Dogs is not immune to), but it’s nice to get a poster like this which shows off all of the characters in the film in an equal light, from the major to the minor, while also conveying that the film’s style is as important as any singular element.

13) Goodland

This poster mainly makes the list because, I mean look at it, it’s a gorgeous composition. The reflection in the water also has some thematic significance for the film, representing how the events of the film turn everything upside down. It’s just a cool, visually striking poster, one that could easily be considered art unto itself.

12) Active Measures

Visually, this isn’t a particularly complex poster. Rather, this one succeeds for just how effectively it conveys the idea of the film through simple images. The sheer scale of the maze also goes to show that this isn’t a simple affair, rather things have been progressing and going in Putin’s favour for a long time to get them to the point where they could potentially have influence in the highest levels of the White House.

11) Ant-man and the Wasp

A list of the best movie posters of the year is never complete without one good Drew Stuzan-style poster and I had a few candidates to go with this year. While Black Panther, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War all had posters competing for a spot, I ultimately went with Ant-man and the Wasp. I just thought that the red, gold and white looked far more striking than any of its competitors. The equal prominence of Ant-man and Wasp as the co-leads also helped as it lent the poster just a bit more flavour to the composition, splitting the cast in half down the middle. Ultimately, it just makes the film look like a ton of fun, which is exactly what the Ant-man franchise is going for, moreso than any other Marvel franchise.

10) The American Meme

This poster for The American Meme goes to show why taglines are so important. There are a few different posters for this documentary, but this one is definitely the most eye-catching of the bunch. The tagline and image alone are enough to convey the idea that one should be cautious on social media, which is enough to make me intrigued on what sort of angle the filmmakers are going to take. In fact, of the films on this list that I haven’t seen, this is one that I am definitely going to check out entirely because of the poster. I’m not sure what higher praise you could give a film poster than that.

9) Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

This is another one of those posters on this list which earns its place mostly by just being really cool and well-composed. It does get some points as well for managing to convey that this isn’t “just another Spider-man movie”, with its animation style, different costume for Miles Morales and the clothing he’s wearing over the costume which helps convey his character. Oh, and to top it off, the poster just makes this film look like a ton of fun.

8) Beats of Rage

…and speaking of fun, we’ve got Beats of Rage. There were a couple films in 2018 with 80s arcade-inspired posters, but Beats of Rage takes the cake in my opinion. I have absolutely no idea what this film is about, but the poster is making me interested just due to how insane it looks. Is this like a mash-up between Mad Max and Dance Dance Revolution? I almost want to watch it to find out, but I feel like there’s no way it can live up to the insanity in my head.

7) The Endless

This is one gorgeously haunting poster. It almost looks like it could be a pretty cool desktop background, but the poster is also designed in such a way as to make it simultaneously unsettling to look at. The darkness encroaching throughout the image, the gigantic cosmic portal dwarfing the human characters and the humans all getting sucked into the vortex all make for a creepy image. This is another one of those posters that gets me interested on its own and having looked into the film more as a result, it sounds enthralling.


6) The Meg

The Meg had some of the funnest and most impressive marketing campaigns of the year, promising an entertaining popcorn film with a shark bigger than any other (whether the film delivered on that promise is up for debate). The posters helped to build up that hype, that this was a shark movie for the modern blockbuster age. I liked this poster the most, as it shows off the scale along with some humour in the process, while also riffing on Jaws.

5) Avengers: Infinity War

There were quite a few cool posters for Infinity War (even the obligatory, normally-boring character posters were pretty great), but this series of five posters were by far the best and most stylish. Thanos takes the center poster, but the two posters to either side of him feature stylized versions of all of the major characters in Infinity War. It just goes to show just how epically unprecedented the scale of this film is, while also just looking super cool in its own right.

4) Deadpool 2

Unsurprisingly, Deadpool 2 had a slew of great posters to choose from, but this one was definitely my favourite. For one thing, it just looks really stylish and eye-catching. Most importantly though, the meta aspect of it is just pure Deadpool, made even better with all the random extras in the audience super excited to see the movie and Deadpool’s own enthralled expression. The marketing really shows off the character’s unique sense of humour and why this isn’t “just another superhero movie”.

3) Truth or Dare

Man, it was super hard to pick between the top 3 entries on this list, they were all super close. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this poster is that it’s for freaking Truth or Dare. Look at that thing, it makes you flinch and promises a far more brutal film than what you would be actually getting into. Furthermore, the neon green and pink style of the poster is really interesting and eye-catching. If there’s one thing I don’t like about this poster, it’s the stupid “Truth or Dare” grin on the corners of the skull’s face, but that’s more of a failing of the people who made this movie rather than the poster itself. I really wish that this was a poster for a better movie, it it does go to show that sometimes the marketing can transcend the film it’s trying to sell.

2) The Clovehitch Killer

Everything about this poster is so unsettling, from the sleeping victim to the masked killer, the washed out colours, the incongruous domestic setting, the voyeuristic framing, even the title which contextualizes everything and makes it even creepier. This is another one of those films that I am definitely going to check out this year based on nothing more than this extremely unsettling poster. I mean, if the poster is this artfully disturbing, you’d hope that the film itself can capture some of that energy right? I look forward to finding out!

And now for our winner of the 2018 IC2S Movie Poster awards… Drum roll please!

1) Free Solo

OH GOD. If ever there was a poster that conveyed exactly what the film was about, this has to be up there among the most evocative. Like… how. How do you manage to make that climb? Can you even take breaks on the way up? How does he survive? Good God, how high is that cliff!? Has a poster alone ever given someone vertigo before? I have so many questions because of this poster and the only way I can get my answers in a satisfactory manner is to watch Free Solo. Again, there is absolutely no greater praise you can give to a poster than that and I have seen few posters that have pulled that off greater than this.

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Five Finger Death Punch and the Machismo of Submission

For the past couple months I’ve been working on a follow-up to my album rankings of 2017 and one of the bands that is going to feature on that list is (spoiler alert) Five Finger Death Punch. I have really disliked Five Finger Death Punch since I first checked them out – they tend to have a few good songs per album but most of their music is utter trash. The main issue is their lyrics, which are usually toxically masculine, raging at the whole world, threatening to beat everyone up, swearing constantly, and which throw in casual misogyny and homophobia for good measure. For a band that is clearly aiming to be badass, their incessant whining makes them look like a bunch of children and this has turned me off of all but a handful of their songs.

For this year’s album rankings though I decided to look into Five Finger Death Punch a little bit closer though to see if my impression of the band was accurate. For the most part, yes I was pretty spot on. Most distressingly, the band’s nasty, misogynistic lyrics spill over into real life; lead singer Ivan Moody (seriously, that’s his actual last name) has been in legal trouble on at least two occasions for assault against women, in part due to alcoholism which he has apparently been trying to get a handle on. One thing you kind of have to give the band some credit on though is their unequivocal support of the military and police. The level to which this support goes might be questionable, but the respect that they show to the actual individuals is admirable and has likely contributed to the growth in their popularity.

Most of the band doesn’t seem to be openly political, with the major exception being guitarist Zoltan Bathory who has, err, opinions on Donald Trump, gun control and communism. He seems like a really odd character all on his own. In addition to Five Finger Death Punch, he claims to be a civilian combat instructor for the US military, although I feel like I need to add that I’ve seen comments from multiple soldiers while researching him who said that they had never heard of him and that they were skeptical of his claims. Considering that the article cited on his Wikipedia page which is meant to back up this claim also has Bathory claiming that the band has been shot at while performing for the troops in Iraq and Kuwait, I’m also somewhat skeptical (I certainly don’t doubt that he’s a skilled martial artist, but “one of the few civilians certified by the US Army as an L1 Modern Army Combatives Instructor – Close Quarter Combat”? Sorry Zoltan, I need a bit more proof than your word).

Zoltan also apparently writes for a magazine called Skillset. Skillset’s website states quite boldly that it’s all about “redefining the alpha lifestyle”, with features that “[spotlight] men and women with undeniable talents and abilities. We are VETERAN OWNED AND OPERATED and changing the face of ‘men’s interest’ magazines on newsstands.” The magazine boasts that it does so through articles on “rock stars, athletes, car builders and gun culture” and is plastered with ridiculously over-the-top images of men pointing guns at the camera. Basically it’s a douchey, redneck version of Playboy. Not all that surprising that a member of Five Finger Death Punch would be drawn to such a publication, although it sounds less like they’re “redefining” the alpha lifestyle than they are simply reinforcing traditional American machismo, although perhaps with some consideration that women can be badass too.

Finding out that Zoltan writes for Skillset really helped to crystalize my disparate feelings about Five Finger Death Punch, because I feel like it really is a great, unintentional illustration of the band’s philosophy. One could say that Skillset is all about people who are apparently better than the rest of us because they take control, the ways they present themselves, etc. Similarly, Five Finger Death Punch’s music is all about aggressive posturing, the constant threats about kicking peoples’ asses are meant to make them seem like badasses even though they end up making them seem like whiny, overcompensating pansies. This is just so obvious on songs like “Burn MF” where they unironically claim that the weight of the world is on their shoulders and then in the next verse rage that people fake that the world is on their shoulders. I’m not the only one who notices this either; in a review of their most recent album Michael Hann writes that Ivan Moody “reflects on his troubled past couple of years […] with a level of self-pity that wouldn’t disgrace a child who’d been bought Pro Evo instead of Fifa for Christmas: ‘Everybody seems like they’re waiting for me to die / Talk shit behind my back, can’t look me in the eye.’ When, on ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, he hollers ‘You’re so self-righteous, and you’re never going to change,’ you want to inquire if Mr Pot and Mr Kettle have made each other’s acquaintance.” It’s like they see the world in a hierarchical way, where their troubles are more legitimate than those of the people beneath them, in a manner not dissimilar to incels with their self-perception of being “inferior” beta males who are literally unloveable and worthless.

Is anyone surprised that Five Finger Death Punch fans are this pleasant? (Source)

This hierarchy also ties into the band’s support of the military and Zoltan’s support of Donald Trump. The way Five Finger Death Punch sees the military is not dissimilar from the manner many American nationalist/patriots are raised to – men who are braver and better than the rest of society and deserving of unquestioning respect. You can see this idealization pretty clearly in some of their songs, such as “Death Before Dishonour”, where they claim that everyone’s living a fake life except for the soldiers who die with their dignity. There’s a common trope amongst conservative types that soldiers are basically always right, from atheist professor variations, to God’s Not Dead 2 making a point of having the evil atheists kick a marine off the jury, to the portrayals of soldiers as morally and intellectually infallible in American Sniper and (especially) 13 Hours.

Soldiers obviously do deserve respect – they are serving their people and are often away from their families as a result of that, not to mention the inherent risk involved in the job. However, the level of lionization is just plain ridiculous sometimes and they even get used as a symbolic cudgel to beat down any sort of opposition to nationalism. Considering that no one in Five Finger Death Punch has actually served in the military, it’s a little bit odd that they fetishize them as much as they do. The band even goes so far as to collect dog tags from their fans to display behind them at concerts, almost as if they’re trying to gain that legitimacy through association. When you consider that, for conservative types, “the military is romanticized and portrayed as an institution of national pride [which] focuses on the prestige associated with enlisting in the Marines and serving one’s country”, it’s really not that surprising that you can have a band that punches down in their music and submits to authority because they fall in line when someone more powerful than them comes along.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with cultivating a military following with your music. Ivan Moody has a story he tells about a soldier who died in Iraq while listening to one of their songs, which is undeniably moving. Other bands, such as Disturbed, have written music with the expressed intent of encouraging the troops. I just find it really interesting that Five Finger Death Punch can rage uncontrolled at the whole world and posture like they’re ultimate badasses, but then make so much of a show about being submissive to authority. It seems to run counter to their message until you understand their ethos a little better.

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Quick Fix: Mandatory Voting

Hey everyone, I am pleased to announce that I became a father on the 29th of October! This is super exciting, but if my writing schedule becomes more inconsistent, that’s my excuse. I’ve actually got a lot of content underway, some of which will definitely be done by the end of the year, but I’m just a bit crunched for time as you can probably understand.

Anyway, with the midterm elections now on the books and the Democrats thankfully winning Congress, hopefully the signs are pointing towards this global fascist nightmare finally losing momentum. All of the voting talk was making me think about my many articles about voting and how I kind of wish that people had to earn the right to vote (if there was a way to make that notion not totally evil). Upon some reflection after seeing the midterm campaigns unfold, I occurs to me that this idea doesn’t really fit into the modern American democratic process very well (let alone the Canadian one). Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of fake news and propaganda on hyper-partisan media. If the truth wasn’t being actively obscured by malicious agents that would be one thing, but when we have one side skewing the truth so much that its adherents are basically living in an entirely different world, that makes them have a false sense of confidence that they know what the issues really are that they’re voting for. Plus, these malicious influencers are driving people to vote through outrage, meaning that the parties are incentivized to be political scum in order to have a chance to win. It’s just a race to the bottom due to the way that the system is set up.

But… what if it didn’t have to be that way? I saw the following Tweet while browsing voting threads and I found its argument extremely interesting:

Aussie here: one thing that is oft repeated by Australian commentators on the USA is that because USA lacks mandatory voting the Republicans must rely on churches to get people to vote. Which is why your Conservative party is a lot more right wing tha ours.

— A.Z.M.B (@Voodooqueen126) November 4, 2018

I definitely think that AZMB is hitting on some truth here, as the Republican party and most influential evangelical leaders have been inextricably, publically tied together since at least the time of the Moral Majority. This, of course, hits on what I said earlier – pander to voting blocs to overpower opposing parties’ numbers, because all that really matters is that you get into power when you’re in politics.

I don’t know how you would enforce it, but mandatory voting definitely does stymie some of these issues and incentivizes parties to actually serve the interests of the majority of the public, rather than just voting blocs. To make this more effective, the government would either make voting significantly easier for citizens, or make voting days into national holidays. As we saw in America, this is not the case, as it plays to the strengths of those in power (the major parties in America are in bed with corporate interests, so they don’t want their employees not working) and suppresses the poor, working class from engaging in politics. Simply put, the system as it works now is rigging the fact that less than 60% of the population is actually likely to vote by being very selective on the ones who actually will get a political voice.

Hell, while we’re at it, getting rid of a first past the post system would also serve the public greatly. Justin Trudeau flirted with the idea, promising it in his election campaign, but when the time came to act he backed down, making the excuse that it gives extremists a voice. Unless the majority of Canadians secretly harbour a preference for extremist parties, I don’t think that this would be the case. In fact, I’d think that proportional voting would incentivize less extremism, as the parties are going to want to appeal to more voters.

Basically, I just wish that politics were actually in the interests of the people, rather than corporate interests as they mainly are now. Steve Bannon is an evil piece of shit, but he kind of has a point regarding populism being the way of the future – however, his nationalist, xenophobic bent makes this unconscionable. However, populism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, merely that it is often co-opted by people like Bannon. Bernie Sanders was kind of a proof of this, as he was a populist and a socialist. I don’t think that the winds of change have gone out of the sails of populism and if progressives want to survive this fascist nightmare then they would do well to harness it for good. A progressive, populist movement could do some serious good and would hopefully have some real value to voters.

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead – A Light in Darkness (2018)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry we’re covering the latest, and possibly last, entry in the franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. After the garbage fire that was the previous film, could it be possible for this series to get even more insulting? Read on to find out…

The poster carries on the same design aesthetic as the previous films in the franchise. I like it a lot more than the previous one – visually, it’s a far more interesting design.


God’s Not Dead 2 released on April 1st, 2016 and was (unfortunately) only an April Fool’s joke if you paid to see it. That said, it landed in the year that evangelicals would help to put Donald Trump into office as the 45th President of the United States, a result which has been… contentious to put it lightly and which has shed a light on how brutishly tribal, steadfastly political and stunningly hypocritical the evangelical church is in America. I do not think it an exaggeration to suggest that the God’s Not Dead franchise helped to bring about these turn of events in their own small way. These films were just reflections of things that evangelicals already believed, but (as per Sean Paul Murphy) Pure Flix was drawn to creating inflammatory content to generate more ticket sales, which fanned the flames and drove evangelicals to act.


Even before November 2016 rolled around, a third God’s Not Dead film had been confirmed, although the premise was not set. David A. R. White stated that “We’ve just been in a lot of prayer and trying to figure out exactly what God wants number 3 to be. Because you know we don’t just want to just do what we want to do, we really want to follow where God is leading on these movies.” Now, details on what exactly happened are hard to come by, but Harold Cronk (who directed the previous 2 films), Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the writers of the previous 2 films) were not brought back to work on the new film. Instead, an unknown writer/director by the name of “Michael Mason” was brought on to spearhead the third entry in the franchise, signalling a new direction for the franchise.


David A. R. White returns as Pastor Dave, this time taking on the film’s leading role. Benjamin Onyango would return as Pastor Jude and Shane Harper would also return as Josh Wheaton, but they both appear in relatively small roles and none of the other major characters from the series (such as Amy, Martin or Ayisha… sigh, so much for my Josh/Ayisha shipping) make any appearance. The new major roles are filled out by John Corbett as Dave’s estranged brother, Ted McGinley as the university chancellor and Jennifer Taylor as Dave’s love interest. The filmmakers also made a big deal about securing Academy Award winning actress Tatum O’Neal in a role, but it ends up being a very minor as one of the board members at the university.

Owing to how hard it is to find information about this film’s production, I actually found some intriguing little tidbits. On the minor end of things, I found confirmation that this film was at one point given the subtitle of “A Light in the Darkness”, but that the “the” was subsequently dropped, presumably because they would have thought it was too long a title. This just gives me a bit more insight into Pure Flix’s marketing ideas and why I was probably on the right track when I was thinking about why they didn’t just call this series God is Not Dead, as they clearly should have. Perhaps more intriguing is the identity of “Michael Mason”, as I found some conflicting stories which suggest that this is a pseudonym for an unidentified director. The candidate which had been suggested was Jon Gunn, director of My Date with Drew, Do You Believe? and The Case for Christ and it was postulated that he used the “Michael Mason” pseudonym because it would have been his 3rd Christian film in a row and might have pigeonholed him as a “Christian director”. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s also worth pointing out that a November 2017 interview with Shane Harper had the film’s director listed as “Jonathan Michael”. Perhaps this an early, half-masked psuedonym before Michael Mason was settled on? Regardless, it’s really interesting to speculate on.

Also, one last thing to note before we move onto the story of the film: this movie bombed at the box office. While the first film had made around $60 million domestically and the second had made around $20 million, A Light in Darkness brought in just over $7 million – less than both of the previous films had made in their opening weekends. Ouch. I feel like by this entry the series’ reputation was already tanked, so there was less interest, not to mention that it was yet another unnecessary sequel. Perhaps most importantly though, the Christian film industry had really kicked into full gear since the release of God’s Not Dead, and as a result A Light in Darkness was beaten out at the box office by fellow faith-based films I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, all of which released in a 3 week span around the Easter season (which I commented on at the time). It’s also probably worth mentioning that Black Panther was still tearing up the box office at the time as well.


The film opens with Pastor Dave getting released from jail after the post-credits scene in the last film because… well, we aren’t really told why, but they basically have nothing on him after all. Dave’s jailing creates a controversy about the church being on university grounds. Jude meets with Dave after his release and a couple nights later they hear a brick being thrown through the church window. Dave tries to catch the vandal while Jude goes to turn off the alarm – however, the brick accidentally caused a gas leak which explodes, fatally wounds Jude and burns the church. Dave is left in shock as the university uses this opportunity to try to seize the church grounds in order to build a student union centre, which Dave refuses. As a result, Dave seeks out his estranged brother, Pearce, who is a social justice lawyer and non-believer. With Pearce’s help, Dave goes to court against the university to retain control of the church, while waging a media campaign which inflames further controversy over both sides of the conflict.

Eventually, Dave discovers that a local student named Adam was the one responsible for the gas leak which happened accidentally after taking out his frustrations over the church. Dave has Adam arrested after confronting him, but Dave’s lashing out further hurts his public perception and leads to Pearce dropping out of the case. As Dave’s life begins to spiral out of control, he does some major soul-searching with God and realizes that he’s hurting people with his needless crusade. As a result, he announces that he’s accepting a settlement with the university, drops the charges against Adam, builds a new church elsewhere and just asks everyone to stop fighting one another.

As you can probably tell from this synopsis, A Light in Darkness is… actually a movie for once, not an over-glorified object lesson. It’s truly shocking to see the difference between this film after the last two entries – in fact, a significant chunk of my notes while watching were just me expressing surprise about how plot points are treated with far more nuance than they were previously. I have to give Michael Mason (whoever they are) some credit for just how much better this film is compared to the other two in nearly every way. Harold Cronk was a competent director, but his two films in this series had a very flat, workmanlike quality (and the less said about the scripts, the better). In contrast, this movie immediately demonstrates a considerably more interesting directing style and better cinematography. The script for this film is also miles ahead of the last two entries. In fact, I feel like A Light in Darkness only really has a couple of obvious issues that are worse than in the other films in this series. Worst of all, its pacing is glacial at times and without the batshit insanity or scenery chewing of the previous films, it’s easy to be bored for long stretches of this film. Also, David A. R. White is a decent actor for the most part, but having to carry a whole film on his shoulders seems like a bit of a strenuous effort for him. He had succeeded in the previous two films by being a bit of positive, comic levity combined with strong chemistry with Pastor Jude. However, A Light in Darkness sees Pastor Dave taking on a dark, dramatic role. There are a couple of moments in the film when David needs to display some sort of strong emotion (such as when he’s crying for Jude while the church burns and when he angrily confronts Adam about the fire) but he tends to be unconvincing, like he’s holding back for fear of looking silly. Again, he’s mostly solid though and his chemistry with John Corbett helps to keep things going strong.

I also have to give Pure Flix some credit for actually listening to the criticisms they received this time and using them to actually take a step forward… but just how big was that step? Let’s take a closer look…


One of the first things that will strike you about this movie (assuming you’ve seen the other two entries in the series), is that the portrayals of Christians and atheists are considerably more nuanced. Let’s focus on the portrayal of the Christians first, because that is probably the starkest difference compared to the other films. The Christians in this film are considerably more unsure of themselves and Pastor Dave is even straight-up villainized by the film for most of its second half. When Dave starts a social media campaign to get public support for his cause, this causes an unintended harassment campaign against the university’s chancellor, Elsworth and his family, as he gets doxxed, receives harrassing phone calls, death threats and has his window smashed with a brick. This is an unfortunately realistic example of how Christians can be dicks and how they can cause evil without even intending it. I’m wondering if this was inspired by Christian ugliness that the filmmakers witnessed stemming from their own movies perhaps? To make matters even more complicated, Elsworth is explicitly portrayed as a good friend of Dave’s, and possibly even a Christian too. This doxxing causes Elsworth to violently confront Dave, but the Pastor refuses to relent to help his friend.

Dave just becomes more of a mess from there. Adam texts him anonymously, hoping that Dave will forgive him for starting the fire. Instead, Dave confronts Adam, accosts him, pushes away a security guard and makes a huge stink which is caught on film and tanks his public reputation, but leads to Adam’s arrest… and we’re definitely meant to agree that Dave did the wrong thing here. Again, these should be obvious, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is agreeing with common sense is just so strange to me, they’ve conditioned me to expect the worst. Adam’s girlfriend, Keaton, has been questioning her faith throughout the entire film and it becomes obvious that it’s the actions of the Christians that are eroding that away. She confronts Dave, says that she’s seeing no mercy from the man of God and that Adam is “tired of feeling judged and rejected by the people who should be loving and accepting.” While the film is still clearly on the side of Christians, it at least is able to acknowledge that they’re often their own greatest enemy, rather than the external enemies that the other films leaned into.

The atheist characters are all given far more nuance that in the previous films as well. Dave’s brother Pearce is probably the most compelling character in the film. He has this playful “older brother” routine that he does with Dave in all their interactions, but it’s obvious that there is a tension due to some sort of major falling out with his family’s faith. That said, he helps Dave because they are family. Pearce even gets some digs in on Christians which ring true, such as when he accuses Dave of “playing the victim”. Everything comes to a head towards the end of the film when Dave chews out Pearce for leaving him to care for his parents alone. Pearce reveals that when he was struggling with his faith, no one took the time to help him to sort out his feelings, it left him feeling like no one cared. As a result, he lost his faith, which broke his parents’ hearts. The callousness and inaction of Christians bred tragedy which led to even more tragedies. By the end of the film, Pearce is still an atheist and this isn’t portrayed as some moral failing. He does take his childhood Bible with him, implying that he may go back to searching, but that’s left entirely up to the viewer to speculate.

The other major atheist character is Adam, who is immediately hostile to the church when he’s introduced. This might seem like old hat for God’s Not Dead, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as we are very much intended to sympathize with Adam. At the start of the film, Keaton breaks up with him for belittling her struggles over faith, which leads him to vandalize the church and then accidentally starts the fire when a thrown brick breaks a gas line. He is no Mark from the first film though, Adam is devastated by his part in this and immediately wants to turn himself in to the police. In fact, Keaton is the one who tells him not to for fear of getting into trouble. Later we find out that Adam is so hostile to religion because his mom was beaten by her dad and when she divorced him to get away, the church called her a sinner for it. Once again, we’re given an admission that Christians are the monsters sometimes and that the “rules” aren’t nearly as black and white as some people claim. That said, the pattern with Adam and Pearce is that they are atheists because the church pushed them away from faith, rather than because they have a logical foundation for their belief. Keaton supports this idea when she says that “the whole world knows what the church is against, but it’s getting harder and harder to know what it’s for.” Their experiences certainly don’t represent all atheists or people who fall away from the church, so I’m not sure that the filmmakers “get it” yet – they still don’t seem to understand that the things that the church fights so hard for (eg, homophobia) run counter to the things that it’s supposed to be all about (eg, loving your neighbour). Still, the non-Christian characters are still miles better than anything in the previous two films.

The other non-believing characters are treated in a similarly, mostly-reasonable manner. For example, the university board members actually have a pretty legitimate reason for why they want the church off of the campus – the church was there when the university was founded, but times have changed and now there is an issue of favouring one religion over all the others. That’s a textbook example of Christian “persecution” which is actually just treating them the same way that they would any other religious group. Furthermore, Dave’s arrest had been drawing unfavourable attention and the fire showed that there was violence starting to be committed over the building’s presence on campus. There are even some discussions about whether they might just keep the church on campus for historic reasons, but they decide that it’s better to build a student centre in the long-term. There’s no moustache-twirling, sneering, villainous monologue about how they’re going to kill God this time, they just have a very legitimate concern about favouring Christians over all the other faiths on campus (for an example of why this is reasonable and relevant, take a look at how Christians respond whenever the Church of Satan does anything). On a similar note, it’s also worth pointing out that the conspiracy theorizing of the previous film is mostly gone. In addition to the reasonable motives of the board, Pastor Dave is released before we’re even two minutes into the film because, the franchise has realized, there’s absolutely no reason for them to even arrest him in the first place. This should be obvious to everyone, but the fact that God’s Not Dead is acknowledging it as well goes to show just how different these films has become off the bat.

That said, the film does have some weird, lingering issues when it comes to its non-Christian characters. Early on we have a scene with Keaton and Adam hanging out with their friend Teo and his girlfriend. Teo leads the conversation, chatting about the Mandela Effect at length, which he equates to being as legitimate as the idea of Jesus walking on water. It’s a weird scene, because it’s either completely pointless, or the film is trying to say that the things that non-Christians believe are equally as ridiculous as any supernatural belief in Christianity… except that the Mandela Effect is not in any way a serious scientific belief, so I’m not sure why they had this scene at all. Furthermore, the non-Christian characters specifically get set off whenever Dave says that he believes in “one truth”, which suggests that the filmmakers clearly still believe that non-believers have some sort of knee-jerk hostility to Christians.

In addition to providing more nuance for the atheists and Christian characters, A Light in Darkness also erodes much of the persecution complex that the previous films were cultivating. The acknowledgements that Christians cause issues as well goes some way to establishing this. There is also one famous scene near the end of the film which makes this most starkly clear, where Dave speaks with Pastor Roland at a local, predominantly-black church:

Dave: “What’s important is that Christians stop rolling over all the time, when is it our right to fight? I’m tired of being pushed around. I’m tired of turning the other cheek. […] I’m just saying that I think it’s time that Christians stand up for themselves.” 

Roland: “People were drawn to Jesus because of his love, his patience and kindness. He managed to preach the truth without losing himself in the bargain. He was gentle with the meek and hard as a rock with the arrogant. And when he talked to the foolish, he was patient and never became a fool himself. And he was never proud David.” 

Dave: “This has nothing to do with pride, Roland. And no offence, but maybe you’d understand a little better if you were the one being attacked.” 

Roland: “Brother who do you think you’re talking to? I’m a black preacher in the deep south. I could build you a church with all the bricks been thrown through my windows. […] We cannot respond to hate with more hate. And don’t forget: we are called to be a light in the darkness.”

The message seems clear, even if Dave doesn’t necessarily “get” it at the time: black people have been persecuted for centuries and when the first sign of trouble comes to evangelicals they act like they have a monopoly on suffering. The fact that this film’s title is dropped in this exchange is also proof that this is one of the film’s fundamental messages, and honestly it’s a pretty damn good one. Hearing Pastor Roland talking about not responding to hate with more hate resonates far more effectively than the heavy-handed equating of Grace to Martin Luther King Jr in the previous film. This is also reflected on the God’s Not Dead blog where, after the second film came out, suddenly the tone changed from sensationalist and combative to calm and reflective.

For all the good steps that A Light in Darkness has taken, it still has some major issues gnawing away at it. I’ve alluded a few times now that the filmmakers still don’t quite understand what they were wrong about in the previous two films and, while I give them credit for trying to fix their problems, I can’t ignore how their lingering issues taint this film’s attempts at change. The proof of this is found in this film’s cameos. The only Christian celebrity cameo comes from the Newsboys, who make a very brief appearance on a news program where they make this nonsense metaphor about the symbology of the cross which doesn’t really add anything to the film. Despite this film’s efforts to step up their Christian message, the two main cameos in this film come from the conservative world: Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality. If you have no idea who these people are then you might take this movie’s efforts to improve Christian and non-believers’ relations at face value. However, if you do know them, it undermines this movie’s efforts entirely because they are “two of the most aggressive and combative voices imaginable” and yet are portrayed as the voices of reason throughout the film. The AV Club review of this movie sums the situation up well:

“Frustrated Dave might well be paraphrasing Loesch’s video from last April, where she ranted against Trump protesters who “smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding […] The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” When Loesch appears in the film, it’s to pull a “so much for the tolerant left” line in flagging the university’s decision. Later, Judge Jeanine gets to voice the film’s moral: “It’s a sign of the time: everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening.” What she means is that the left is yelling and not listening to the right”.

The fact that Judge Jeanine is the one saying the film’s other moral stands in stark contrast to what Pastor Roland was saying, which puts this film into a major identity crisis. On the one hand, we have a legitimate effort to bring people together, to portray Christians and non-believers in a more respectful and realistic light and to urge its audience to be less divided. However, on the other hand, we have a film which is still in bed with American far right activists and portrays them as being far more reasonable than they are without any sort of irony. The film makes this even more embarrassing during an exchange between Pearce and Josh. Josh says that he was studying to be a civil rights lawyer and Pearce says that he didn’t strike him as a liberal. Josh replies that “I don’t think standing up for the oppressed is exclusive to a political agenda” and that “my beliefs are the foundation of change” because all humans are made in the image of God. He then lets out the ultimate stinker of a line when he says that “Jesus was the ultimate social justice warrior”… whoo boy. What “oppressed people” are you referring to Josh? Are you in favour of the rights of homosexuals? It should be obvious to anyone watching that evangelicals don’t have a good history of standing up for the oppressed, for even being “social justice warriors” and that conservatism is by its very nature uninterested in the rights of minorities. It’s one thing to make the not untrue statement that Jesus supported social justice, but it’s another to say that evangelicals are a force for social justice. These are, after all, the people who voted in, and continue to support, Trump in spite of everything that they profess to hold good and moral.

Combine all of this with the film’s ending, where Dave sacrifices his crusade for the church in order to stop both sides from fighting with one another, and we’ve got a conclusion which seems to run counter to the message that the film had been building towards. “Let’s stop shouting at each other and start listening. It’s the only way that things will get better” could come across as a legitimate call for Christian peacemaking in a time when the country is divided. However, by putting their message into the mouths of out-of-character conservative activists, I have a hard time seeing the film’s ultimate intent as anything but the following: after eight years of Obama, evangelical get their own candidate into power, decide that there’s no reason for anyone to legitimately protest now and are just trying to shut down all opposing views. After all, “stop shouting, start listening” suggests that the people you’re shouting down have something legitimate to say, which is hard to justify when you consider the surge in racist and nationalist movements, or that America is drawing itself dangerously close to fascism.

A Light in Darkness is a confused film. It’s a bit dull at times, but I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. There are moments that I legitimately liked quite a bit, particularly the shot where Dave prays and the church around him melts away into a view of space, getting across the idea of God’s presence without requiring words. It’s the first time in this series that God appears and is actually a loving deity for once, giving guidance to a lost and grieving soul. However, as I have said at length, the filmmakers’ refusal to break from their right-wing associations completely undermines the sincerity of the film’s message. This has led to some very polarizing reviews from audiences, with some fans of the other films disliking it for not being “inspiring” enough, while others appreciated the strides the film took to improve the series. For my own part, I feel like A Light in Darkness is just short of being a truly good film. I never would have expected to say this, but it’s almost too bad that we’re probably not going to get a fourth film – I’m extremely curious to see how the franchise would have evolved given one more try. Oh well, hopefully Pure Flix doesn’t backslide after this film’s tepid reception.

5/10

And here is my final ranking of these films:
1) God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – 5/10
2) God’s Not Dead – 4/10
3) God’s Not Dead 2 – 2/10

Thanks for tuning in for another retrospective series! This one was a bit more torturous than the others just due to the films involved, but I always love writing them. Until next time!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

Welcome back to the God’s Not Dead retrospective! In today’s entry, we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, the succinctly-titled God’s Not Dead 2 (although I think we all know that it should have been called God’s Still Not Dead, c’mon guys!). After the commercial success of the first film, a sequel was basically guaranteed. However, would the filmmakers be able to overcome their insulting depictions of Christians and non-Christians this time? Read on to find out…

…eh, I don’t really like this poster much. I mean, it’s fine, it gets across the point of the film, but I preferred the more minimalist design of the original.

Considering that God’s Not Dead put Pure Flix on the map and raked in more than thirty times its budget in theaters alone, a sequel was a virtual certainty and was quickly announced by the studio. After the success of the first film, the studio was able to tap some higher-profile actors to fill the main parts, most-notably Melissa Joan Hart (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as the film’s leading lady. Also filling out the main cast were Jesse Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson, Pat Boone and Ray Wise as the mustache-twirling antagonist, in addition to a few returning cast members from the first film (most notably, producer David A. R. White as Pastor Dave). The first film’s success also meant that Pure Flix was able to get some Christian public figures to appear as well, including Lee Strobel (who had been name-dropped in the first film), J. Warner Wallace and Mike Huckabee.

As for the making of God’s Not Dead 2, I’ve been having trouble finding really interesting information about the making of the film and I don’t want to speculate too much, so take the next part with a bit of salt. Unlike the first film, there isn’t as much information about what actually inspired God’s Not Dead 2. However, considering the content of this movie, I would not be surprised if Pure Flix’s association with the Alliance Defending Freedom played a major role in the creation of this film, which is further evidenced by ads for the ADF in the end credits and on the movie’s website. As Sean Paul Murphy had said previously, Pure Flix’s audience were growing more interested in films with political agendas rather than simply “Christian” films.

It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were clearly very aware of the backlash that the first film had inspired from atheists. Responding to claims that the God’s Not Dead films misrepresent Christian persecution, David A. R. White told The Blaze “It’s an interesting thing, because, if it wasn’t real, why do they get so offended by it? […] I don’t think it would annoy people if it wasn’t true.” I… what?

David… you know that people get annoyed by lies too… right? Are you so deep into the evangelical bubble that you can’t see anything else? Sigh… I think I’m starting to understand why the “logical” arguments in these films are so unconvincing.

The story of God’s Not Dead 2 picks up a few months after the last film ended and follows a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley. One of Grace’s students, Brooke, comes to Grace for advice because her brother has recently died and she doesn’t know how to cope with the loss. Grace confides that she trusts in Jesus, which helps to prompt Brooke to explore Christianity after she discovers a Bible that her brother had kept hidden. Brooke then asks a question in class about the non-violent protests of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, relating them to Jesus, which Grace answers and explains. However, one of her students reports her for doing so, which prompts the school board to try to fire Grace. Grace is represented by a young, non-Christian lawyer named Tom Endler who tries to get her to stand down and concede to an apology. Grace refuses because she believes that she did nothing wrong. Brooke’s parents are then approached by Pete Kane of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants to represent them in suing Grace with the explicit intent of stamping out Christianity in America once and for all.

Grace is then put on trial for violation of the separation of church and state, with Pastor Dave managing to end up on the jury for the case. Tom mounts a defence by arguing for the historical authenticity of Jesus with supposed “experts” Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace showing up to explain as much. Brooke is eventually brought in by Tom and Grace to testify, but she ends up giving further evidence to the ACLU’s case by revealing that Grace had spoken to her about Jesus outside of school. Everything’s looking grim for Grace when Tom comes up with a baffling final gambit, putting Grace on the stand as a hostile witness and badgering her to tears about her faith, saying that they’re going to silence, fine and jail all the Christians. Somehow, this causes the jury to rule in her favour, much to the embarrassment of the ACLU. After the credits, Pastor Dave is arrested for not handing over sermon transcripts earlier in the film.

As you can probably tell from the plot summary, God’s Not Dead 2 ditches the previous film’s interconnected storylines in favour of one main plot. There are still a couple subplots, but these are given far less prominence than in the first film and all tie directly into the main plot. This, honestly, is probably to the story’s overall betterment, as I did suggest previously that God’s Not Dead could have used some stronger focus overall. Honestly, in a lot of ways God’s Not Dead 2 is an improved sequel – the production values are a bit better, the performances are all good across the board, the story’s a bit more focused and the scope and stakes get raised enough that this doesn’t just feel like a straight rehash of the first film. There were also some subplots that I thought were legitimately really good – basically everything revolving around Martin (Paul Kwo, reprising his role from the first film) is great as we witness him grow from an awkward and excited young Christian to one who is resolved to preach, even when it costs him the respect of his family. I also found elements of Amy’s subplot (Trisha LaFache, also reprising her role) to be interesting, as she grapples with her faith after her cancer goes into remission. Unfortunately this intriguing aspect of her character gets dropped pretty quickly and, while Amy remains in the film for quite some time thereafter, she doesn’t really add anything interesting in the rest of her screentime.

The only problem is… well, God’s Not Dead 2 sets itself up in such a manner that an objective and detached review of it is basically impossible. Like I just said, technically this film has the pieces needed to be better than the first movie. Story-wise, I found its courtroom melodrama and proselytizing duller than the first movie’s classroom drama, despite the overall tighter focus of the sequel. I think this simply comes down to the rivalry of Josh and Radisson, which was far more interesting than Grace and Tom’s flat characterization and Pete’s scenery chewing. That’s not really the main issue though, as it’s the actual themes of the story that lets this movie down so hard and make the two hour runtime into even more of a slog. Once again, the filmmakers ideological bent is on full display, but this time they really lean into it, to the point where it straight-up ruins their movie from conception. The plot is just plain dumb and stretches credulity to the breaking point. That said, if you’re a part of the conservative evangelical bubble then you might not even notice that there is an ideological bent to this movie at all – or worse, you might even feel validated by it.

Let’s just get right into the portrayal of atheists in this film. It’s clear that the filmmakers were aware of the atheist backlash that the first film inspired, but it seems that it only inspired them to double-down, because God’s Not Dead 2 is way more offensive to atheists than the previous film was. This is evident from the very first scene of the movie through the portrayal of Brooke’s parents, Richard and Catherine. Brooke is clearly struggling and withdrawn because of the death of her brother, but her parents are totally over it and don’t seem to care anymore at all. Right off the bat this is a step beyond anything that the filmmakers had portrayed in the previous film. They imply once again that atheists are incapable of love, but now they also seem to believe that they can’t even care about their own children!? I was watching and wondering if this might just be a coping mechanism for Brooke’s parents, but no, this movie straight-up implies that atheist parents don’t give a shit about their own kids. I’ll be honest, I was floored by the very start of this film, it was unbelievable that the people behind this film would think this of atheists. I mean, as I have reiterated multiple times now, they were aware that atheists were offended by how they were portrayed in the first movie, so you’d think that the right move would be to be more careful in how you represent people going forward to make sure that there are no misunderstandings, right? Well, we’re getting the message loud and clear here, the filmmakers clearly think that atheists are heartless automatons. I had thought that the filmmakers just sucked at portraying non-Christians in the previous film, but here we get to see right off the bat that everyone involved in the production of this movie is totally incapable of empathy. Brooke’s parents never get better throughout this movie. There is no sympathy from or for them. During the trial, Richard is more worked up about his daughter getting “preached to” than the fact that his own son died. Seriously, shouldn’t atheists mourn harder when someone they know and love dies? Hell, at the end of the last movie, we were supposed to think it a good thing that Pastor Dave and Jude were celebrating the death (and last-second conversion) of Radisson. Just… how could they be so lacking in empathy for people who have different views?

Also worth pointing out is Martin’s father who shows up for one brief, but important scene. After Martin converts to Christianity, his father arrives to take him back to China because he believes that Martin is disgracing his family and that Martin is throwing away his future and the sacrifices that his family has made for him. It isn’t really explained why he believes this, but I think that the audience is supposed to understand that China persecutes Christians and implies that this is the end-result of state-sponsored atheism. When Martin refuses to recant, his father slaps him (which now means the God’s Not Dead films are two for two when portraying non-Christians of other nationalities as violent degenerates, hooray!), disowns him and then immediately returns to China. In all honesty, this scene works far better than the domestic abuse sequence in the first film and could have maybe been an affecting scene if there had been any sort of reasoning given for Martin’s father to be so vehemently anti-Christian. Instead, it just comes across as more of the same “atheists are bad and hate Christians just because” message. Give me the God’s Not Dead movie about Martin going back to China to be a minister, that could actually be incredibly interesting if it was written well (although knowing this production team, I have my doubts).

The most prominent atheist character is Pete Kane of the ACLU. For what it’s worth, Ray Wise puts in a deliciously hammy performance, turning every line from Pete into a sneering, sinister proclamation that guarantees that you’ll at least be entertained when he’s on-screen. That said, the material he’s working with is just plain stupid. I’ll get to the fact that the ACLU are the villains in this movie later, but Pete Kane is meant to represent how dastardly and hateful the organization (apparently) is. From his very first scene, Pete is seen as eagerly relishing the chance to make an example out of Grace and to “prove once and for all that God is dead”. He’s not even subtle about it when he’s around Grace and Tom, telling them straight-up that “I hate what people like your client stand for and what they’re doing to our society”. Bloody hell, I know that there are militant atheists who talk like that, but this movie acts like they’re the status quo.

Of course, the film tries to make Pete out to be a hypocrite during the trial when he claims that “Christianity is not on trial here” in his opening statement, despite it being obvious to the audience that this is not the case. To hammer that home, he also makes a big fuss about not wanting to offend any Muslims in the court, dog whistling to the audience the idea that liberals are afraid of offending Islam but hate and attack Christianity. Basically, throughout this movie Pete grins gleefully any time something happens that negatively affects Christians, while looking exasperated any time someone in the defence acknowledges that it’s pretty much a settled fact that Jesus existed. Hell, he looks downright shocked when J. Warner Wallace reveals that he was an atheist and that “I’m a Christian because it’s evidentially true” (in your opinion, sure).

As cartoonishly evil as Pete Kane is, his characterization is echoed in a number of smaller atheist authority figure roles in this film, all of whom are totally hostile to Christians. Whenever the news media gets shown in the film, the newscaster goes on a tirade about how Grace and Christians are zealots, fundamentalists and that the only extremists we need to worry about are the hardcore Christians. This portrayal of the media just felt so weird to me because it has the tenor of a Fox News segment, but with right-wing talking points swapped out for insults that get thrown at conservative evangelicals. Maybe I just don’t know the American media and how sensational their reporting style is, but I feel like this might just be the filmmakers projecting their own media’s style and assuming that that’s how everyone does it.

In addition to the media, the entire school board is immediately against Grace (her union rep even says “What were you thinking?” when asked whether Grace said the “words of Jesus” in class). Principal Kinney is particularly villainous, giving Grace these over the top evil looks and during her testimony against Grace is almost as much of a mustache-twirler as Pete Kane. Kinney is also seen shutting down a student protest led by Brooke in an effort to further silence Christians (that the audience this movie was directed at would be trying to shut down student protests that disagree with their politics less than two years later gives a contemporary viewing some delicious retrospective irony). Meanwhile, when Pastor Dave refuses to hand over sermon transcripts to the prosecutor’s office, the officer overseeing this goes from being fairly casual and routine to something resembling a body snatcher. I’m not kidding, he stands up, stares and ominously asks Dave if he really wants to refuse to comply, before stating that “a nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Now before I get into the next section I need to write about the only sympathetic non-Christian character in the film, Tom. We’re never really given his opinion on faith at any point in this film, other than that he’s a “non-believer” at the time when he agrees to represent Grace. Surprisingly, we don’t even get a big conversion scene by the end, although it’s probably safe to assume that he is totally convinced by the pro-Christian arguments as the film, since the movie seems to think that they “proved the existence of Jesus Christ” as the ACLU puts it at the end. The thing about Tom is that he’s just doing his job without letting personal biases get in the way, which shouldn’t be that unusual but… well, this is God’s Not Dead 2 and it’s shocking whenever this series doesn’t imply that a non-Christian eats babies for breakfast.

Anyway, one of the strangest parts about the portrayal of atheists in this film (Tom aside) is that there’s this uniformity to their actions which suggests that the filmmakers seem to think that there’s some kind of enormous atheist conspiracy unfolding in America looking to silence all the Christians. How else can you explain the uniformity of the atheist characters’ hostility to the Christians, their unspoken agreements about what is “unacceptable”, their encroachment into Christians’ freedoms and their certainty that Grace is going to be destroyed from the outset? The way that this film’s plot gets kicked into motion even suggests conspiracy, as the second Grace mentions Jesus in class, a student secretly gets his phone out and texts… somebody about it (it’s unclear who, it could have been Obama himself for all we know), as if this was a surveillance state like North Korea. At worst, a student might mention that their teacher talked about Jesus in class, but odds are that absolutely none of the students would give a shit. Hell, I live in godless, heathen Canada and when I was in high school we had a history teacher throw on a VHS tape about how the Bible was useful for archaeologists – a couple of students in the class scoffed, but that was about it. I know that’s anecdotal, but c’mon filmmakers, do they really think that students would immediately rat her out?

The whole conspiracy angle of the film gets more obvious when the ACLU become involved, as even before Pete arrives the school board discusses how the ACLU has been waiting for a case like Grace’s for years, as it provides them with the opportunity they need to silence Christians for good. The choice of the ACLU as villains for this film, especially when painting them as hypocritical and evil bastards, is truly baffling and I can only think that it’s a result of the filmmakers’ ideological leanings and their association with the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ACLU often sticks up for the rights of LGBTQ people, access to abortion and the separation of church and state, which turns them into an obvious target for conservative evangelicals, despite the fact that the ACLU defends the rights of pretty much anyone, Christians included. To put it simply, “essentially all of [the ACLU’s] positions irritate social conservatives […] the ACLU supports free speech including the free expression of religion; what they oppose is government funding or lending official (or the perception of official) support to religious activities in violation of the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, the ACLU has defended the rights of religious bigots to espouse those views, although it does not condone the contents of their speech.” Interestingly, the ADF are totally absent in this film, as is any sort of public support for Grace (up until Brooke organizes a protest for her). Does anyone remember Kim Davis, and how her refusal to issue wedding licenses landed her support from public and political figures, such as Mike Huckabee (who shows up in this film to fellate the evangelical audience for a vote)? The film instead makes it seem like no one supports Christians in order to make it look like they’re a minority class.

 
 

Anyway, when the ACLU gets involved in the film, they sway Brooke’s parents to sue Grace by promising that “there is not an Ivy League admissions board that could resist giving Brooke a spot because she was involved in a landmark separation of church and state case”. This was another one of those moments that made my jaw drop at the audacity of this film. So the entire Ivy League is populated by militant atheists who only admit similarly-atheist students? Bloody hell, is it any wonder that evangelicals are accused of being anti-intellectual? Similarly, the prosecutor’s office demanding sermon transcripts is treated like this grand next step on the road to making Christianity illegal, the sort of thing that evangelicals always say is definitely coming. This scene is actually based on something that happened… but it feels like the writers totally jumped the gun, because “Houston mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed sermons from five churches in her city in an ill-advised reading of rules about churches, tax law, and politics. The subpoenas were rescinded a few months later, after widespread outcry and several lawsuits, as well as a national campaign to mail Bibles and sermon notes en masse to the Houston mayoral offices.” Simply put, they take an event that happened, but change the outcome to make it seem like the atheist conspiracy is all-powerful and overreaching in America and that the audience’s freedoms could be snuffed out any day.

This conspiracy theorizing is borderline-hypocritical when you consider that one of this film’s defences of the historical veracity of the gospels is that there wasn’t a conspiracy involved in their authorship. Their justification for this is that since there were too many witness involved, someone would slip up. It’s actually not a particularly great argument, since conspiracy isn’t exactly the issue. I’d definitely recommend diving into the history of the gospels and early church, but in short the text of the gospels we have today were all very likely second-hand accounts, would likely have been coloured somewhat by the burgeoning schools of thought within the young religion about who Jesus was and what he represented, and weren’t even necessarily meant to be what we would now consider as “historical” accounts. Anyway, this conspiracy defence seems odd when you consider that this film is throwing in its own atheist conspiracy theory, although the filmmakers would probably say that it’s self-evident when you look at all the “persecution” in America. I’ll just let Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter comment on this aspect of God’s Not Dead 2: “the premise of both films is nothing more than politicized religion as a vehicle to feed conspiracy theories.” Ouch.

 
 

All of this feeds into the fact that God’s Not Dead 2 is explicitly a more political film than the first was. In his interview with The Blaze about the film, David A. R. White said that this film was “all about making an impact” and that it was an intentional move for the story to shift to the public square. It shouldn’t be surprising that this film was released in the middle of the 2016 presidential leadership race, with the aforementioned Mike Huckabee clearly making a cameo just to appeal to the evangelical vote. By portraying government overreach and painting all authority figures as openly hostile to Christians, the filmmakers also incentivize their audience to mobilize against these institutions in order to “take back America”. After all, Tom’s opening argument in the case is that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution or bill of rights, which seems to imply the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation that has morally eroded over time. Tom’s opening statement is a baffling argument which is only technically true, but the First Amendment makes it crystal clear that not only is separation of church and state enshrined within the law, but it was also a principle of the nation’s founders. Hell, if we’re going to be nitpicking constitutional amendments, then the Second Amendment is free game as well. This is another moment that just feels like the filmmakers won’t understand the people that they’re writing about, because arguing technicalities about church and state separation does not feel like the sort of thing that a non-Christian lawyer would engage in – rather, it sounds like the sort of weak argument an evangelical might espouse impotently to other evangelicals.

In the first film, there were plenty of characters who were atheists or hostile to Christians, but it was always framed as a personal and individual thing. In God’s Not Dead 2, this is reframed into being a political issue. The scene where Grace mentions Jesus in class does so in a manner which also correlates the message of Jesus with that of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. Taken by itself, this is a reasonable comparison to draw. However, the film also very explicitly wants us to see Grace and her situation throughout this film as being a parallel to Jesus (even having her echo the words of Jesus during his crucifixion, asking God if he has forsaken her), and therefore implies that the struggles Christians face in America are on the same level as the Indian independence and black civil rights movements. It should go without saying that this is unthinkably deluded and borderline insulting when you consider that they’re appropriating progressive icons to attempt to justify their conservatism – not to mention that only months after release this movie’s audience would, by and large, be voting for a man who was blatantly racist, xenophobic, authoritarian and immoral.

I also find it quite interesting that, for a movie which so blatantly proclaims the existence of God in its title, He is completely absent in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the characters talk about God all the time, how good He is, how much of an impact He has on their lives, etc… but God doesn’t actually do anything in this movie. At least in God’s Not Dead, God was very clearly present in Dave and Jude’s storyline, even if it did end up portraying him as some sort of Final Destination murder-force. In comparison, Grace’s victory is portrayed as a surprise, but there isn’t any sense that it was some sort of miracle from God. The film also makes arguments about the historical existence of Jesus, but these are far less frequent and given less prominence within the story compared to Josh’s lectures. Furthermore, at least the first film seemed concerned about the fates of its non-Christian characters. In God’s Not Dead 2, the only people that convert are the ones who were immediately receptive to the Christians’ message, and the rest of the non-believers are nothing more than evil, unrepentant obstacles to “the truth”. As a result, God’s Not Dead 2 is arguably not really a “Christian” film in the sense that it’s not about the virtues of the faith – rather, it’s a political film about the imagined struggles of the American brand of evangelicalism.

Add it all up (the disingenuous portrayals of Christians and atheists, the conspiracy theorizing and the political rallying cries) and you have a film which puts the evangelical persecution complex on display greater than just about any other film out there. This also ties into this not really being a “Christian” film at all – after all, the conflict in the movie is entirely driven by the persecution that all of the Christian characters are subjected to by the rest of the world (Amy is the only exception, although her very minor crisis of faith is resolved the next time that we see her). Grace makes this clear in what is clearly intended to be the film’s core message: “I would rather stand with God and be judged by The World, than stand with The World and be judged by God” (“The World” in evangelical nomenclature meaning the necessarily sinful and immoral culture outside of Christianity which clashes with the “true” values of the Bible). This also applies to the numerous court cases listed in the film’s end credits, similarly to the first film. Naturally, the film’s audience takes the presentation of these cases at the filmmakers’ word, although if you look into them closer, it becomes clear that these cases revolve around Christians not understanding discrimination in business settings, Christians refusing their professional obligations as healthcare providers, or involve the filmmakers intentionally leaving out crucial details entirely to make the cases seem like persecution when they clearly aren’t (if you’re curious about all of the cases, The Friendly Atheist has a comprehensive rundown). You can see the persecution complex on full display on the God’s Not Dead website, which for years was documenting similarly one-sided accounts of Christian persecution throughout America, and had this exceptionally nasty, sneering, combative tone that it would apply to everything, even when celebrating the film’s release.

If you’ve checked out any of those links to the film’s blog, you might also have noticed how this movie constantly markets itself. God’s Not Dead 2 has more product placement than a Michael Bay or Adam Sandler movie, the only difference being that it’s exclusively advertising for products in the evangelical bubble (a bubble which, might I remind you, heavily commodifies religious adherence and expression). Just look at this list of really obvious plugs throughout this film:

  • We’ve got Lee Strobel showing up during the trial, is placed as an expert we should look up to, literally name-drops his books in a manner that doesn’t make sense within the scene, and then gives us a sales pitch about why he’s an authority on the historical existence of Jesus.
  • We’ve got J. Warner Wallace showing up in a similar manner, name dropping his books and then being poised as a credible expert with evidence that Jesus is God (which he never really gives us, so I guess you’ll have to buy his book).
  • We’ve got the Newsboys who show up to perform a new song and hope that it becomes another #1 hit after their success with the first film.
  • The end credits directly advertise for the Alliance Defending Freedom in the event that you feel persecuted for your faith.
  • In addition, the film advertises itself no less than 3 separate times during its ending, telling the audience to once again text “God’s not dead”, and even offers a handy, prebaked hashtag for everyone to send out on social media in order to generate buzz for the film. Bloody hell…
And, because this is the Christian media industry, this isn’t even the extent of this film’s monetization. In addition to the film itself, this movie has its own branded soundtrack, study guide (including a student version!), 40 day devotional, a novelization, t-shirts, audiobooks, church kits, a series of books based on the movies, even a goddamn silicon bracelet. Movies like this are their own mini-industries within the evangelical bubble, much like Star Wars is to the wider culture.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking to give this movie a final score that I could feel secure in awarding. It’s easy for this film’s audience to say that people who hated this film merely disagreed with its message (in fact, it’s probably playing into the filmmakers’ intent doing so). On the one hand, I have to give the film some points for being fairly professionally made, and Ray Wise is always entertaining to watch. However, the film refuses to present itself in an enjoyable way to anyone outside of a very narrow political worldview – in fact, it’s openly hostile to worldviews that don’t match the filmmakers’ own. As a result, I feel more than justified in saying that this film is straight-up trash which exists only to stoke evangelicals’ persecution complex and to cynically rake in cash and political fervour in doing so. I would rather watch a freaking Bibleman video than this movie again.

2/10

Bibleman, Bibleman! Does whatever a Bible can! This isn’t a joke, it’s real guys! Can’t afford sets? Proselytise! Look out! Here comes a Bibleman!

Be sure to tune in again soon as we come to the final entry in this series: God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness!

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Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

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Conservatives and Pedophile Virtue Signalling

A few months ago I touched lightly upon the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a historical mass hysteria which I find absolutely fascinating. The panic started from a single claim by a mother who insisted that her child was molested at a daycare facility, but quickly snowballed into hundreds of accusations across the world. As it turns out parents were so disturbed by the initial accusation that they worked themselves into a frenzy and coerced their children into saying that their daycare facilities were being run by pedophile satanists who had been secretly committing ritual murders and sexual assault for years. Of course, there wasn’t a shred of physical evidence to corroborate any of this, but lives, reputations and careers were destroyed without cause as a result of the twisted beliefs of the parents spreading the hysteria.

Now, let’s bring this back to the present. In the last month we’ve not only seen the unfolding of the James Gunn smear campaign by alt-right activists, but also the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy (followers of which believe that a high-ranking government official is leaking information about mass pedophile rings run by evil globalists) has reached the mainstream media. Indeed, if the last few weeks in news have brought anything to light, it’s that conservatives are obsessed with pedophilia. It’s not like this is a new thing either – everyone has those conservative friends and relatives who use their Facebook profiles to gleefully declare their desire to kill, castrate or prison-rape pedophiles. Furthermore, in the last few years we’ve had quite a few high profile examples of conservative activism which used the prevention of pedophilia as their primary justification:

  • Pizzagate was a loony conspiracy theory which claimed that Hillary Clinton was behind a (obviously non-existent) pedophile ring run out of a pizzeria. That theory would have been just a total joke to most of the world, until it began a harassment campaign against the pizzaria and its employees which climaxed when some utter moron burst into the pizzeria with an assault rifle, fired shots and demanded that the staff release all of the captive children. Bloody hell.
  • When the Ontario government updated the province’s sex education program, one of the main opposition points for social conservatives was that a man convicted for child pornography had been involved in drafting the curriculum. This, of course, led to some people claiming that he had designed the curriculum to enable easier grooming of future victims or that the references to masturbation or learning about proper terms for genitals were part of his sick jollies. Of course, social conservatives didn’t want those parts in the curriculum at all, but it made for a convenient scapegoat considering that they’re well aware that their own beliefs can’t be forced on society without some sort of flimsy excuse.
  • When trans rights were gaining more recognition within society just prior to the 2016 election, the big battleground for social conservatives involved which bathrooms that trans people would be allowed into. After all, they claimed, a pedophile can just claim that he identifies as a woman and then follow my daughter into the bathroom and stare at/or molest her! This is, of course, the sort of claim which has been levied at all groups gaining civil liberty, from blacks to homosexuals. It should hardly be surprising that it’s been dragged out again, along with violent transphobia.
  • And, on the funnier and smaller-scale side of things, concerned parents accused Pokemon Go of being a means for child predators to lure in victims, because at the time the news cycle was linking in everything with the game, so why not trot out their old favourite hysteria to go along with it?
Sigh… is anyone surprised that this was posted on a Facebook group called “Liberal Logic 101 aka Libtard Insanity V 2.0”?

It’s pretty clear that this is a topic that people on the right have been fixated on for decades now, but why is that the case? While this isn’t a problem in-and-of itself (obviously it’s a good thing to stand against child predators, no one is going to argue against that), why do they feel so willing to believe, once again, that there are cabals of child-rapists out there preying on children in the thousands? While I can’t claim to have the answer, I do have some thoughts and theories on this that I feel hold merit and are worth discussing.

One potential theory for why people on the right are so sensitive to pedophilia right now is that they are using it to unconsciously compensate for the blatant immorality of Trump and the alt-right. For what it’s worth, I don’t give this theory a ton of merit as I believe that it is rooted in an assumption that right-wingers don’t truly believe in the things they stand for (which sounds far too similar to me of the “there are no true atheists” fallacy in evangelical belief… seriously, click that link, it is infuriating), but it is worth bringing into the conversation at least as there are probably some grains of truth in the idea. I feel like it’s more accurate to say that, if there is any sort of moral compensation going on, then it would be for conservatives (particularly the sort which would be suckered into Pizzagate and QAnon) who view pedophiles as the “greater evil” and therefore anything Trump or the alt-right does to get rid of them is justified. We have seen this in the past few years, as anti-Islamic propaganda has shifted away from fear of immigrants spreading terrorism to fear of social and moral decay as they “invade”, supplant our culture and commit violence against our people* – therefore, so the argument goes, we must keep them out of our country. This is also paired with such colourfully hyperbolic language as “white genocide” or “rape gangs” to sell the idea. This was clearly one of the driving forces behind Brexit and we are seeing similar bouts of xenophobia all over Europe and North America. Your average right-winger will tell you that they don’t have an issue with Muslims, or homosexuals, or trans people – “but…” and so the other group’s civil freedom is curbed in the name of preventing a greater evil that they imagine will occur.

A far more compelling theory about why pedophilia is so prominent right now is, quite simply, that it is effective propaganda. As Emma Grey Ellis puts it:

“Alleging that your enemy preys upon children is an ancient propaganda tool that’s been used by everyone from medieval Catholics to the Soviet Union. It’s a powerful indictment because it trades on fundamental human fears. It’s designed to otherize the opposition and sabotage any sympathy you might have for them. It’s a ubiquitous tactic because it works. It’s easy to piece together how this strategy emerged: Someone figured out which crime their society viewed as most morally reprehensible and went with that—the unforgivable act that almost always involves kids.”

Honestly, this one is barely a theory and is more-or-less confirmed through multiple notable examples. Mike Cernovich seems to be the biggest fan of pedophilia out there: in addition to popularizing the Pizzagate conspiracy and dredging up the James Gunn tweets to get back at Gunn for anti-Trump sentiments, Cernovich also has been caught organizing falsified banners at protests to make it seem as if left-wing groups support pedophilia and NAMBLA, and then go viral with the misinformation campaign. Even more cynically, Cernovich made it seem as if they were protesting him by putting his name on the banner to drive even more traffic to himself, the stuck-up fuck. Of course, the average person who comes across one of these accusations isn’t going to know the source or the history of Cernovich, they will just see the propaganda. I would hope that they would be able to discern truth, clearly that is something that Cernovich preys upon with his frankly deplorable tactics.

Cernovich is not the end of it all though of course. As Jim Edwards put it, “my prediction is that we’re about to hear a lot more about fictitious ‘leftist pedophiles’ if Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson are successful in setting up their international European far-right nationalist ‘Movement.’ What is less obvious is that the influential ultra-conservative pushers of this theory do not believe it themselves. They know it’s fake. They just like the outrage it causes.” Edwards also expounds upon the efforts of the alt-right to spread the idea that the end goal of leftists and identity politics is to make pedophilia socially acceptable, engaging in a slippery-slope fallacy to convince people to oppose social advance. A left-wing pedophile manifesto was also leaked onto the internet to considerable furor, until it turned out that it was another right-wing smear campaign meant to make conservatives outraged**. Oh, and let’s not forget that this isn’t all just innocent fun and games either – in addition to numerous harassment campaigns and at least one shooting linked to false pedophile ring accusations, someone has already committed murder because he believed that his father was one of these secret pedophiles. Bloody hell, people. Of course, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, and the rest of that lot continue to demonstrate their lack of any integrity by continuing to knowingly spread falsehoods regardless.

“Wait a second… Mr. Mime’s Pokemon #122, Sharpedo is #319… 1+2+2+3+1+9=18, the legal age of consent set down by God himself. It has been hiding in plain sight all this time, Pokemon are pedophiles. We should have known that a game about devilution and playing with your balls would be secretly grooming children! Pokemon Go? How about Pokemon, no!!!” -Alex Jones in the near future, probably, now that this image is on the Internet.

Clearly it makes sense for influencers and propagandists to spread false claim of pedophilia, but the question still remains – why does this topic resonate with the general right-wing audience so much? I mean, Mike Cernovich and his shitty contemporaries know what content is successful with their audiences, so the fact that they trot out knowingly false pedophilia accusations again and again suggests that they’re aware that their audience laps it up. Hell, even looking back at other examples in this article, the anti-pedophilia memes that conservative-types love have been being posted and shared for years without an organized effort behind them, and the Satanic Panic occurred organically, long before the Internet could allow people to even attempt to weaponize the movement. For this question, I have the following theory: social conservatives tend to be exceptionally prudish about sex, especially here in the west, and tend to focus on what they see as “degeneracy” in society. They also tend to advocate for the protection of their children from whatever they see as “corrupting influences”. With that in mind, it’s not hard to trace each of these back to a common “worst”: after all, pedophiles combine the worst sort of degeneracy along with abhorrent sex and the exploitation of children, so is it any wonder that they would be so sensitive to this topic? Furthermore, with groups such as homosexuals and trans people gaining acceptance and increasingly no longer being considered “degenerate”, the number of other targets that conservatives can acceptably go after are growing smaller.

It’s also fascinating to me how the Satanic Panic and the associated pedophilia hysteria occurred during the Reagan presidency, when America was undergoing a major conservative resurgence, coinciding with social changes which were clearly threatening to the concept of the family unit. Women were entering the workplace in greater numbers (look at Die Hard in that light and consider the perspectives of the writers and you’ll see how these social changes affected that story), divorce was up, religious adherence was dropping, etc. In some ways, the panic felt like a conservative backlash to the changes occurring in society. After all, daycares were the primary target, and they were only being used because mothers were no longer at home, and the Satanic element suggested a society which was being torn apart from the inside by anti-religious evil. Similarly, the modern, growing hysteria is growing off the back of comparable social change – gay rights, trans rights, expanding awareness of racism and identity politics, etc. If the pattern holds the same as last time, then this period that we’re in now is merely the backlash that comes before the tacit acceptance of the social issues of our time.

Naturally, there is a certain amount of partisan hypocrisy to this right-wing fixation. Roy Moore would be the most high-profile example, and while he did lose the election, it was bloody close. 48% of Alabamans who voted would rather have a sexual predator in office than a Democrat it seems. Trump himself has also been dogged with numerous examples of either purported or confirmed lurid behaviour towards underage girls, which doesn’t seem to phase his supporters in the slightest:

“An election year lawsuit, withdrawn at the end of 2016, alleged that he’d raped a 13-year-old girl at one of the ‘infamous sex parties held by billionaire and known pedophile Jeffrey Epstein,’ a longtime pal. A BBC documentary featured multiple people recalling his predatory attitude toward models as young as 17 during the 1980s and 1990s. Five women who had competed in the Miss Teen USA pageant said Trump walked into their dressing room unannounced while girls aged 15 and older were changing. His history of lecherous comments about his own daughter, Ivanka, are legendary — and he even allegedly asked if it was ‘wrong to be more sexually attracted to your own daughter than your wife’ when she was 13.”

Beyond these specific examples though, the things that conservatives stand for are often enabling an environment where children can be preyed upon. One criticism of the Ontario sex ed backlash was that not teaching your kids about proper consent will just make them ignorant and more easily exploited. Furthermore, as much as people like to harp on the mysterious stranger in a dark van or gangs of secret pedophiles, the truth is that the family itself is most often the place where a child predator operates. Religious institutions are also notorious for covering-up child sexual abuse – and I don’t just mean the Catholic church either. Part of the controversy with Josh Dugger’s sexual assaults was that his church helped to cover it up rather than take it to the authorities, which happens distressingly often. And then there’s the general hypocrisy of the right’s desire to see itself as the side which “defends the children”:

“Apart from standing idly by as kids are gunned down in underfunded public schools, the American right denies our youth their life-saving health care, and GOP administrations oversee higher infant mortality. Children are disproportionately at risk from the climate change that Republicans refuse to acknowledge and stand to inherit an inhospitable planet (if they get to exist at all). Every day, we see photos of children kidnapped and thrown in cages by the president’s beloved ICE, who feed them psychotropic drugs, and whose negligence may have killed a toddler this week. QAnon’s vision of an underground child slave economy mirrors what’s happening in plain sight, and that is no coincidence.”

If you’re looking for further hypocrisy, just one article ago I was reading comments by the anti-PC crowd who were bemoaning how SJWs took away their loli-porn.

As much as the right loves to throw around the term “virtue signalling“, how can I view this pedophilia obsession as anything other than that? Especially in light of all the hypocrisy I’ve listed and when nearly all of the causes that I’ve listed in this article, from James Gunn, to Pizzagate, to QAnon, to the pedophile’s manifesto, are literally fake news. At that point, it feels like the outrage is little more than virtue signalling to show how good the person sharing it is and how much better they are than the degenerates in society. Here’s a bit of news: no one is sticking up for child molesters***. At most, some people are trying to raise awareness that pedophilia is a treatable condition, but even then there isn’t any sympathy for the people who actually commit sexual assault against minors.

These are my thoughts and theories on why it seems like conservatives are so sensitive to pedophilia. Perhaps I’m missing the mark or overlooking some things, but I’m confident that I’m hitting on something close to the truth of the matter. As I said near the start of this article, ultimately there isn’t really anything wrong with conservatives being sensitive to this topic – obviously, it’s a serious issue and worthy of being given attention. However, my main concern is with how this sensitivity is becoming weaponized by people without a shred of integrity. I’ll end this article with a quote from Miles Klee, which sums up the worst case scenario I can see this weaponization going in:

“QAnon sets the stage for mass arrests leading directly into fascist rule. When one side is keeping kids in sex dungeons, the QAnon logic goes, they don’t deserve due process — and must be thwarted by any means necessary. Conversely, anyone convicted for child porn or sexual abuse of a minor is part of the conspiracy.”

*For the record, I saw the article here and it instantly resonated to me as bullshit – a thousand sexual assaults and the police didn’t do anything because they were “afraid of being called racists”? As far as I could see, this story was only being reported on in such colourful terms in right-wing tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail and I struggled to find anything of note from credible news sources. It’s almost as if, shocker, the xenophobic-types are churning out anti-Islamic propaganda.
**That link is actually quite interesting to see – you’ve got a lengthy original post by a conservative blogger breaking down how evil this pedophile manifesto is, and then at the end there are just a number of addendums as they come to realize that the document is fabricated, but they attempt to justify their outrage against liberals anyway. That just goes to show the power of both propaganda and hardline-partisanship.
***Unless they’re a Republican, heyo!!!

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Quick Fix: Beta Uprising

In the time period between #GamerGate (ugh) and the rise of Trump (BLEH), I started reading We Hunted the Mammoth to get an idea of the sorts of extreme sexism present in our society which people are largely unaware of. However, as the American election began to ramp up, these stories began to evolve. Small communities in the “manosphere” of men’s rights activists, incels and “red pillers” were becoming more extreme and latching onto other groups. More than a year before neo-nazis came back into the public conscious at Charlottesville, I was seeing how the manosphere was drawing people into the alt-right and neo-nazi beliefs through their insulated communities centered on little more than hatred. That’s why men’s rights activism is a total joke – men face real issues which could be fixed with a concerted effort. However, trying to organize an effort to combat these issues is like trying to throw a white pride parade – the people who latch onto that cause will steer the ship towards the people they hate and blame for their problems.

This brings me to the recent van attack in Toronto, in which 10 people have been killed (so far) and 16 injured. Initially, it appeared that this might be an organized terrorist attack of some sort, as it was clearly premeditated. However, it is now coming out that the perpetrator, Alek Minassian, was likely a member of the manosphere and alt-right, specifically an “incel”, who was radicalized by the group’s hateful rhetoric. To put it simply, this rhetoric has grown from, and appeals to, groups of insecure and sexually frustrated young men who are “involuntary celibates” (hence “incel”). In their version of reality, “Chads” are the successful men who horde all the sex with the “Staceys” (aka, “sluts”, because even in this version of reality, a woman is worthy of scorn if she has sex with somebody). They also have a very social-Darwinist view of the world, where the Chads are alpha males and the incels are all betas (if you ever hear an alt-right dumbass calling you a “beta cuck”, now you know exactly why to laugh at them). Even the name “involuntary celibate” belies a belief that they feel that men are entitled to sex and that it is women who are in the wrong for denying them this right, with some even going so far as to fantasize for a world in which men can force women to have sex with them.

If it seems odd that this might cause someone to go on a killing spree, you’d be right, but the hatred that brews within the alt-right is literally radicalizing people in a manner not unlike that of a more organized terrorist organization such as ISIS. Incels’ fantasies about a world where the betas get their revenge has led to further fantasies of a “beta uprising”, to the point where it has basically become a legend among incels (seriously, that is not hyperbole on my part, just Google beta uprising). To this end, we have had mass killers inspired by this rhetoric, most notably Elliot Rodger of the Isla Vista killings in 2014. Perhaps most disgustingly, some incels have latched onto Elliot Rodger as a hero who started the beta uprising.

Predictably, Alek Minassian is being hailed as a hero once again by some within the incel community. It’s actually kind of a funny situation, I wonder how many of these people would paint all of Islam with the same brush in this situation, but say “hey, not all incels celebrate mass murder” when the finger gets pointed at them. But I digress – as one of my friends put it yesterday, this isn’t a mental health issue, but it’s going to be painted as such because that’s easier than dealing with the serious issues that are funneling young men towards radicalization in our society. People will rail against political correctness and feminism, but sexism is still alive in our society and this attack in Toronto is, as it seems with the evidence we have right now, the sort of result that it leads to at its most extreme. We should remember that it isn’t religion that causes people to kill, as the common scape-goat goes, but deep-seated hatred, dehumanization and radicalization.

I’m going to end this Quick Fix with the words of David Futrelle in his comments on this latest tragedy:

“[…] It would be dishonest and dangerous to dismiss this as a ‘mental health’ issue. Incel is a poisonous and hateful ideology, not a form of mental illness, and killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are. Misogyny is hate, just as racism and religious intolerance are. As I’ve been saying for some time, the incel movement is a real danger; it appeals to young men consumed by bitterness who don’t think they have much to lose. And instead of helping them solve their problems it radicalizes them and ratchets up both their bitterness and their ‘nothing to live for’ nihilism. It’s a movement that idolizes mass killers and that has only slightly ironically heralded Elliot Rodger as its patron ‘saint.'”

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Quick Fix: Cold War Two and Fake News

The recent poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a deadly nerve agent is only the most recent of a long series of events that should remind us that the Cold War has never truly ended. In fact, it makes the plot of Skyfall, where the British Parliament claims that the use of field agents by MI6 is unnecessary, seem positively outdated. The story is still unfolding, but just this morning the UK, France, US and Germany have all condemned Russian and are promising retributive action, while Russia promises that they will retaliate in kind. I imagine that this will all end with some strong words and chest thumping before fading into the background, but I’m more interested about the dialogue surrounding this event and what that may mean.

The following image is a snapshot of the first comments on the CBC article I linked above at the time of writing. I’ve been checking CBC news throughout this story’s development and it is pretty indicative of the sort of comments which dominate these articles:

Articles about the poisoning tend to be filled with pro-Russian voices, mostly with the intention of sewing doubt (you can see one here about not believing that “Russian bots” are real, while another references CIA media manipulation; I have also seen comments elsewhere regarding the lack of proof for Russian involvement). It seems like the sort of thing which is well below the business of a government, but there is certainly evidence that Russia is actively involved in spreading low-level misinformation as part of their propaganda machine. It also isn’t even the first time that Russia has assassinated former agents on British soil since the end of the Cold War, which provides further evidence that they deserve the scrutiny being leveled at them now. Some Russian officials are claiming that this is a false-flag operation, which just sews even more doubt in particularly paranoid sorts of individuals. For those sorts, this is equivalent to 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, believing that (for some inexplicable reason) liberals want to go to war with Russia and will use this false flag operation to get the sheeple public on their side (this is a narrative which was being put forth during the American election, that warhawk Hillary was going to cause a war with Russia).

This whole situation is making the assertion that we live in a post-truth world more demonstrable to me. The funny thing about all of this is that I have to be very careful to crouch all of my words because there really is no actual proof that Russia is responsible for this attack, despite the likely evidence that they did. Didn’t it seem like Iraq had some part to play in the War on Terror, didn’t we have evidence of WMDs, back when they were invaded? With all the misinformation and, dare I say it, fake news that is getting sewn out there, it makes it incredibly difficult to determine what is true and what is not.

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Witch Hunts

Lately I have been reading Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, a very interesting tale of the social and political attitudes which helped to foster the 1980s “Satanic Panic” regarding daycares being places of ritual satanic sexual abuse. Thankfully our society is so far beyond such ridiculous hysteria, but there is a through-line in the narrative which has been making me slightly uneasy about the way that #MeToo has been progressing, especially after the backlash faced by Margaret Atwood after she made a cautionary op-ed about the movement.

To put it simply, the title of We Believe the Children shows the philosophy which was circulating during the 1980s – historically, the stories of abuse done to children have not been believed, therefore it is imperative that we believe the children because they will be honest and are too innocent to lie about sexual violence. Now, obviously this isn’t a zero-sum game where you either believe the children or assume they always are lying, but there’s obviously a level of discernment which needs to be taken into account. The main issues in the case of these kids were that the parents essentially coerced their children into making up stories of abuse (thereby giving them actual traumas to deal with later in life), prosecutors would refuse to believe that the children were telling the truth when they said that they weren’t abused and would pressure them into giving a confession just so they would be allowed to leave, and the prevailing belief that children’s accounts should not be questioned*.

Now, before I get any further, don’t get me wrong – I think #MeToo is ultimately a good movement, and one which has been long overdue. However, in reading about how hysteria about child abuse overturned due process and led to grave injustices, I can’t help but get a bit uneasy about how #MeToo is progressing. In the article published on the Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood calls for more transparency and cautions about “the historical dangers of ‘guilty because accused’ in which ‘the usual rules of evidence are bypassed.’ […] ‘Such things are always done in the name of ushering in a better world,’ she writes. ‘Sometimes they do usher one in, for a time anyway. Sometimes they are used as an excuse for new forms of oppression.'” The parallels to the witch hunts and Satanic Ritual Abuse of the past should be glaringly obvious just from that description. So what sort of response did Atwood’s words of caution receive?

Sigh. I get that Twitter isn’t exactly the place for reasoned discussion, and you can obviously make a real case about why Atwood’s argument is harmful, but bloody hell if this tweet isn’t the picture of the pigheadedness which typifies social justice types. Like, I disagree with the presentation of this tweet in basically every way. First, she calls for Atwood to stop warring with women, basically asking for there not to be a dialogue or any sort of gradiation within the #MeToo movement. Secondly, she talks about war on “younger, less powerful women”, which smacks of the highly flawed use of “check your privilege” to shout down contrary opinion. And third and perhaps most insultingly, she signs off with a call for Atwood to “start listening”… like, are you even aware of how that comes across? Does it sound like you’re listening to Atwood? Do you even think that she deserves to be listened to? Why should anyone give you any sort of respect if you aren’t going to give them respect in turn? And how dangerous is it that you seem to be arguing against fair and due process in a time when authoritarianism is on the rise? Is it only okay when it’s in the name of your own interests?

This controversy also happens to coincide with another public dialogue about how the name, shame and ostracize nature of #MeToo might be over-extending its reach, with an op-ed about allegations against Aziz Ansari dividing people on how far this movement should be reaching and whether there needs to be more thought given to control the damage it can cause. Is this more about educating people on proper consent and respect, or is it about naming and shaming for any sort of sexual grievance? Should we be comfortable with a situation where a public accusation can tank someone’s career and reputation with a presumption of guilt? This is very much the sort of questioning that Atwood was addressing and, if everyone is willing to listen, then such controversies might prove that “[#MeToo] is big enough to encompass another layer in the discussion”. These questions were not asked during the ritual abuse moral panic, and many innocent people suffered irreparable damage to their lives for it, including the children who were supposed to be being protected in the first place.

Now, there is one very obvious qualifier here which I must point out that differentiates #MeToo from the Satanic Panic, and that is that the accounts of women should probably be held to a higher level of reliability compared to that of children (who, as the Satanic Panic showed, were susceptible to coercion and coached statements). In addition to having the statistics to back up their stories, women who come out about sexual assault are almost always going to be subjected to uncomfortable levels of public scrutiny, leading to further harassment. And this is why I’m so uncomfortable about these developments in #MeToo – on the one hand, these accusations are statistically reliable and I can’t think of a high-profile case in this movement which I don’t actually believe to be true. However, on the other hand, we just saw how one false story can wipe away all good-will for a movement, with the story of the 11 year old Muslim girl who lied about being attacked as part of a hate crime. That whole embarrassment and the subsequent hatred it fostered could have been avoided entirely if some scrutiny was applied before it became a headline. That’s really what I’m concerned about in all of this – I want justice to be done for the women who have been abused, I would like guilty perpetrators to face that justice, I would like for the innocent to not be smeared unjustly and I would like to see attitudes towards sex and consent change for the best in the future. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer on how best to achieve all of these goals, but I will just sit here watching #MeToo with some unease, watching to see if they compromise any one goal for the benefit of another.

*The obvious hypocrisy here being that the parents and the prosecutors, the people who are supposed to be defending the children, clearly did not believe childrens’ accounts when they said that they were not abused. They were under the impression that children will hide any abuse, which prompts them to force them into a confession, but that is just wildly irresponsible.

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