Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to talk about the most recent entry in the franchise to date, 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom! After Jurassic World brought the franchise back to life, could Fallen Kingdom successfully keep the momentum going? Read on to find out…
Shortly after the huge success of Jurassic World (would anyone have predicted at the time that it would become the 3rd highest-grossing film ever?), Universal pictures announced that a sequel would be forthcoming on June 22, 2018. Colin Trevorrow originally considered coming back to direct the sequel, but Jurassic World made him an in-demand director and he was scooped up to direct Star Wars: Episode IX instead. As a result, he decided to take a step away from the franchise and move into a producer role alongside Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall.
Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly developed and wrote the script for the film, which would bring back Chris Pratt’s Owen and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire from the previous film. It was initially rumoured that Omar Sy, Ty Simpkins and Jake Johnson could be making a return as well, but this did not pan out. There were also rumours that characters from previous Jurassic Park films could return. Trevorrow and Connolly developed the story over an eight-day road trip. They were inspired by the idea of the unpredictability of humans and dinosaurs being forced into co-existing and wanted to further explore the boundaries of genetic engineering in this universe. Trevorrow has stated that he didn’t want to make Fallen Kingdom yet another movie about dinosaurs chasing people around an island and the dangers of messing with science, he wanted to do something different and explore the consequences of the mistakes which had already been made in previous Jurassic Park films, something which would broaden the scope of the franchise.
J. A. Bayona, who had been previously considered to direct Jurassic World, was the favourite to direct Fallen Kingdom, although he had agreed to direct the sequel to World War Z and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it work with his schedule. However, Bayona eventually dropped that project and joined onto Fallen Kingdom after reading the script.
Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard were already signed on at this point and the only other returning character would be B. D. Wong’s Henry Wu. The new cast were filled out by Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Ted Levine, James Cromwell and Toby Jones. Casting also went out for a nine-year-old girl, which went to Isabella Sermon as her film debut. Also worth noting was that Geraldine Chaplin, a Bayona regular, was cast in a role. Finally, it was announced that Jeff Goldblum had been secured for a role in the film, and although he was all over the marketing, it would ultimately be little more than an over-glorified cameo.
Filming began in late Febraury 2017. Befitting a film of this size, the production was massive and used several locations. Much of the film was shot in England, while most of the Isla Nublar footage was filmed in Hawaii, and there was even a scene shot in Las Vegas. Whereas Jurassic World overloaded on CGI, Bayona chose to use animatronic dinosaurs whenever possible. This also extended to the action sequences – the scene where the gyrosphere goes over the cliff and starts sinking was achieved through mostly practical effects, as Bryce Dallas Howard and Justice Smith were sent rolling down a track for the fall and then this was spiced together with sequences in a dive tank where the gyrosphere (and actors inside) were actually submerged. It’s a highlight of the film and the way it was shot no doubt contributed to the excitement.
As Universal dictated, Fallen Kingdom released June 22, 2018. Anyone who thought that Jurassic World‘s enormous success was a fluke were surely silenced as Fallen Kingdom grossed $417.7 million domestically and $890.7 million overseas for a total box office haul of $1.308 billion (just shy of it’s predecessor’s $1.67 billion total).
Sometime after Jurassic World, a team of mercenaries infiltrate Isla Nublar to retrieve skeletal remains of the Indominous rex. A submarine crew retrieve a portion of the rib and send it to the surface, but are soon killed by the Mosasaurus. The ground crew are then attacked by the T-rex, but manage to escape only for one of their men to be killed by the Mosasaur as well before it escapes into the ocean.
The film then cuts to the present, where we discover that the volcano on Isla Nublar has become active and will soon erupt and wipe out the dinosaurs on the island. The U.S. Senate debate what to do about the situation, but Ian Malcolm tells them that they should be allowed to die. The Senate agrees and decide that they will not intervene. Meanwhile, we discover that Claire Dearing has taken command of the Dinosaur Protection Group, which seeks to secure their salvation. She is contacted by Benjamin Lockwood, John Hammond’s former partner who helped bring the dinosaurs to life. Lockwood tells Claire that he plans to relocate the dinosaurs to a new island, but he needs her help in order to reactivate the park’s systems and track them successfully. Knowing that Blue, the last velociraptor, will be impossible to track down in time, she seeks out Owen Grady to try to join her in the rescue. While hesitant, Owen agrees and the pair are flown out alongside fellow DPG employees Franklin (a computer whiz) and Zia (a paleoveteranarian). They meet the head of the rescue team, a mercenary named Ken Wheatley, who takes Claire and Franklin to get the park’s tracking back online. He then leads Owen and Zia out to capture Blue. Owen is quickly able to find her, but Wheatley’s men move in too quickly and she panics, which results in a soldier being killed and Blue being shot. Wheatley turns on Owen, tranquilizing him and forcing Zia to join him to save Blue’s life. Meanwhile, Claire and Franklin are locked inside the tracking station and left for dead as the volcano begins to erupt. They manage to escape after a close call with a Baryonyx and reunite with Owen. The trio escape in a gyrosphere with a stampede of dinosaurs as the island explodes around them, just barely making it by riding off a cliff and swimming to a secluded beach. They manage to find Wheatley’s men and discover that they are loading dinosaurs aboard their ship. The trio sneak aboard the ship as the last dinosaurs left on the island are wiped out by the eruption.
We discover that Lockwood’s aide, Eli Mills, has secretly arranged to have the dinosaurs brought to the mansion to be auctioned off to the criminal underworld. He also needs Blue because Dr. Henry Wu has been developing a new weaponized dinosaur, the Indoraptor and requires Blue’s DNA in order to create the finalized version of the creature. Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie, discovers this and tries to warn her grandfather. He doesn’t believe her at first, but when he presents Mills with the accusation, Mills murders him as the dinosaurs and guests begin to arrive. Seeing what is happening, Owen and Claire attempt to stop the auction, but are captured by Wheatley, while Franklin is separated from the pair.
The auction then begins and several dinosaurs are sold and transported away. Using some quick thinking, Owen tricks a stygimoloch into breaking them free and then sets it loose in the auction. During the chaos, Wheatley breaks in and accidentally sets the Indoraptor loose in the building. It kills several people before it begins hunting Owen, Claire and Maisie. They are nearly cornered, until Blue arrives and begins fighting the hybrid dinosaur. Blue ultimately prevails and the Indoraptor is impaled on a fossilized triceratops skull.
However, Claire and Owen reunite with Franklin and Zia and soon discover that a gas leak is killing the last remaining dinosaurs trapped in the basement of the mansion. Claire initially decides to let the animals die, but Maisie releases them anyway – Mills revealed that she was a clone of Lockwood’s deceased daughter, not his actual grandchild, so she believes that she has a kinship with the dinosaurs. In any case, the dinosaurs escape into the wilds of America and Mills is killed by the T-rex in the process. Our heroes escape and contend with the new reality of a Jurassic World where humans and dinosaurs are now forced to coexist.
If nothing else, I love that Fallen Kingdom tries to evolve the Jurassic Park formula. I’ve criticized the previous sequels for always devolving into “running and screaming” as dinosaurs chase the protagonists around for an hour. There’s certainly some of that in Fallen Kingdom, but it shakes-up the formula far more than any previous Jurassic Park film and tries to tackle the “bigger ideas” inherent in the premise of genetically-engineered dinosaurs. J. A. Bayona’s direction is also the best we’ve seen in the franchise since Steven Spielberg left the director’s chair. The film’s opening sequence and the sinking gyrosphere aren’t on par with the legendary T-rex escape or the trailers getting knocked over the cliff in the first two films, but they’re still very well executed, exciting and above-average blockbuster action set pieces. Yeah, Fallen Kingdom shakes up the Jurassic Park franchise in some much-needed ways… but to paraphrase a certain famous mathematician: “Your [studio executives] were so preoccupied with whether they could [make a Jurassic Park franchise], they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Jurassic Park needed to change if it was going to continue, but Fallen Kingdom is evidence that it should have just stayed dead.
The main issue with Fallen Kingdom is that its story is Resident Evil-levels of stupid. Within the first few minutes, we have idiocy like no one checking to see if the Mosasaur was still alive and then it escapes because its enclosure is connected to the freaking ocean! Having Wheatley betray Owen and Zia was also super contrived… like, why did they feel the need to try to murder them in the middle of the mission? Owen’s pissed off but as far as he’s concerned they are all on the same side still (not to mention that one of Wheatley’s men just got freaking mauled to death), having Wheatley try to kill Owen just seems like they wanted to make him an evil asshole. And for that matter, are you telling me that Zia doesn’t try to get Wheatley to bring Owen, Claire and Franklin along with them…? Oh right, then we wouldn’t have a bunch of action sequences instead, silly me! Speaking of which, why the hell are the dinosaurs still trying to eat things while the island is literally blowing up around them!? The stupid baryonyx is even lighting itself on fire trying to get to Claire and Franklin, just cut your losses dude! If there was a white chocolate Reese’s within reach and all I had to do was avoid falling lava to get it, I’d peace out, especially if I already got several drops of lava on me in the process!
Imagine this exchange between Trevorrow and Connelly:
“We need an action sequence on the boat, how can we get Claire and Owen in the T-rex cage?”
“Maybe they need a blood transfusion to save Blue?”
“But that doesn’t make sense, their blood isn’t the same…”
“Whatever, just make the vet say that they’re both carnivores with two or three fingers, therefore their blood will be compatible. No one will question it.”
Look, I get it, we need an excuse to get this exciting action sequence and I’m okay with it in theory. The thing is, we don’t need an actual explanation – just imply that you don’t know for sure if it will work, take the blood and leave the exact science up to our imaginations when it turns out it’s fine! Just say that the T-rex is safest to extract from because it’s heavily tranquilized and the several other three-fingered predators aboard the boat are not! Bloody hell! Oh and all this culminates with Blue freaking crying because the filmmakers really need us to like her and can’t figure out how to do that with any subtlety.
Then when we get to the mansion, the stupidity just keeps coming. First of all, Lockwood is apparently a complete idiot. Not only is he somehow unaware that there is live dinosaur research going on in his own home, but he confronts Eli Mills and then tells him to turn himself over to the police! Mills, predictably, goes “lol no” and then kills the old bastard. We then get introduced to the Indoraptor and… hoo boy, this thing doesn’t hold a candle to the Indominus Rex in terms of being an effective villain. For one thing, it takes the “weaponized dinosaurs” idea even further and just goes to show why this idea has always been so goddamn stupid. The Indoraptor is hardcoded to pick targets by pointing a gun with a laser sight at them and then pressing a button to issue a sonic code to attack… so in other words, instead of just shooting the gun you already have pointed at a target, you tell the nearby Indoraptor to attack them instead (and that’s the thing, the Indoraptor has to be close to you for the sonic command to work, so it’s not like you can hide a kilometer away from the target and the raptor either). It’s clearly limited in usefulness and the fact that the Indoraptor starts killing everyone as soon as it can makes this idea even more stupid. Oh, but does the Indoraptor escape through clever guile? No, it escapes through Prometheus-levels of contrived idiocy. Wheatley’s given only two character traits – he’s demanding a bonus from Mills because he’s greedy, and he collects teeth from every dinosaurs because he’s an asshole. So he waltzes into the auction after some of the dinosaurs get loose, tranquilizes the Indoraptor and then immediately walks into the cage to steal its teeth!?! Again, I get that the Indoraptor has to escape for the story to progress and that is totally fine… but holy fuck movie, this is how you unleash your big villain? It doesn’t make the Indoraptor look clever or dangerous, it makes Wheatley look like an utter moron. It is far and away the stupidest moment in any Jurassic Park film.
Oh, and the whole reason half the plot revolves around recapturing Blue is certifiably insane. First of all, the Indoraptor apparently needs a mother to pacify it and because it’s part raptor it can view Blue as that mother… but also they need Blue’s DNA because they need to add that to the Indoraptor because Blue was controllable and the Indoraptor isn’t, despite the fact that they share the same velociraptor DNA… bloody hell, it doesn’t make sense and it’s the sort of thing you can miss because the movie basically drops the whole plotline about halfway through.
Then of course the movie ends with the dinosaurs escaping. The movie directly ties this into the ethical questions that were brought up in the opening of the film, as Claire has to decide whether the dinosaurs should be allowed to die, despite beginning the film trying to save them. She decides that they should die, but then Maisie gives the entire world a middle finger and unleashes them into the wild. I’m actually fine that Maisie is a clone, it’s a sensible and inevitable development in a world where you can clone dinosaurs back to live. The idea is barely explored though and ultimately feels like it was only introduced as an excuse for someone to willingly choose to unleash the dinosaurs on humanity. Hilariously, within ten seconds of being freed the dinosaurs indiscriminately murder three people (sure, these people captured the dinosaurs in the first place, but the dinosaurs don’t know that, they’d have been just as happy to stomp on a newborn baby).
That’s the thing about Fallen Kingdom, it has some legitimately great ideas and the plot beats make sense in isolation, but whenever the film needs to make something happen, it chooses to do so in the stupidest possible way and assumes we won’t notice or care. This even extends to the ending – oh no, dinosaurs are loose in North America! But… think about it for a few seconds and it’s not as bad as it seems. Several species, especially the particularly dangerous ones, don’t have any breeding pairs so at the very worst this problem is going to sort itself out within a decade or two (and that’s making the very huge assumption that the militias or US military aren’t going to do something about a single T-rex going around killing people and livestock; hell, even without getting into anti-material rifles, the real world already has anti-T-rex rounds… I give it a week tops before the T-rex gets mounted above a rich redneck’s mantle).
Fallen Kingdom is also not helped by its characters, all of which suck. Owen is still the same as he ever was, although they have made him a bit funnier (“If I don’t make it back, remember you’re the one who made me come here” got a legitimate laugh out of me) and toned down his alpha male bullshit somewhat (although they still reintroduce him by having him build his own cabin in the wilderness because he’s a manly man). Claire has had all the sexist overtones of her character shaved away, but she has been turned into a personality-less character. She’s capable, but she rarely does anything and she (like the other characters) has no real arc or development to speak of. Like, sure, she decides to let the dinosaurs die at the end, but it doesn’t come across like she’s learned anything or changed her mind about the dinosaurs, it’s just that the circumstances are now different (rehousing the dinosaurs onto an isolated island is way different than unleashing them into the wilds of America where they will definitely fuck people up). At least Trevorrow and Connelly don’t force in an overt rekindled love subplot, but some sort of arc for the characters would have been nice.
As for the new characters, both Franklin and Zia are insufferable. Franklin’s the obligatory computer guy, but he serves his purpose within the first half hour and then spends the rest of the movie screaming and getting shuffled around uselessly. Zia’s a different sort of annoying. They never confirm it in the film, but she’s clearly a stereotypically coded lesbian, which means the movie has to make her tough and stand-offish… but honestly, it just makes her come across as an asshole. She just feels like corporate, performative, “woke” box-ticking, especially because a deleted scene confirmed that she was indeed a lesbian. Somehow they fuck this up twice-over tough, because deleting it is cowtowing to conservative international film markets and because the scene itself is fucking stupid (nothing says “woke” like having your lesbian character mention out of nowhere that she thinks Chris Pratt is fuckable, holy shit). For further evidence of this, I’m convinced that Trevorrow and Connelly were aware of the backlash Jurassic World had about its sexism, so they made sure to pass the Bechdel test by having Zia and Claire talk to a female senator about the dinosaurs in their introductory scene. Can’t criticize us now, liberals! This is, of course, why the Bechdel test is more of a guideline about sexism in film rather than a rule, because any “wokeness” in Fallen Kingdom is performative at best.
Mills makes for a suitably slimy corporate villain. He’s nothing special, but Rafe Spall makes him eminently hateable, especially when he goes into his bullshit moral equivalency speeches (which, I’m sure, were not meant to come across as bullshit but here we are). As for Maisie… she’s fine, I guess. Again, she doesn’t get any real development and mostly just sneaks around the mansion. The fact that she’s a clone also doesn’t really seem to matter. Like… she’s a little girl either way, she’s grown up like any other child, what difference does it make? I do like the theory that the Indoraptor has human DNA and that it wants Maisie to be its mother. It’s a pretty interesting idea and there’s enough evidence in the film that I’d be willing to bet it was cut very late in post-production.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a depressing experience for me. I hated it when I first saw it in theatres and rewatching it for this retrospective was just tiring. It’s made all the worse by the fact that the direction is the best since Spielberg left and that film tries to take risks and shake-up the formula, things I usually love in long-running franchises like this. Unfortunately, the writing completely tanks it, taking a film with interesting ideas and dumbing them down for the lowest possible common denominator. The longer this series goes on, the more it seems like Jurassic Park should have been a stand-alone story. At this point they’re having to contort the franchise into unrecognizable shapes in order to keep it alive when what should be done is put it out of its misery.
So where does the franchise go from here? Well, the next movie is slated for 2022 with the title Jurassic World: Dominion. After nuking his Hollywood goodwill on The Book of Henry and losing the Star Wars franchise as a result, Colin Trevorrow is back as director. It sounds like a bunch of actors from the franchise’s history are making returns, but I just can’t muster any excitement for this franchise. It’s the sort of thing I’ll probably continue to watch out of obligation but… like… we already know it’s not going to be good. Oh and Trevorrow and Universal sure suck at keeping their film crews from getting COVID-19, eh?
Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the finale of the Caesar trilogy and (as of now) the latest entry in the franchise, 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes! Given the top-tier quality of the previous two films, could Matt Reeves deliver another masterpiece and make the Apes reboot one of the greatest trilogies of all time? Read on to find out…
Even before the release of Dawn, plans were being put in place for the third installment in the reboot trilogy. Impressed by his work on Dawn, Matt Reeves was confirmed to be directing the next film and writing it alongside Mark Bomback once more. Unlike the last two films, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver weren’t involved in the writing of the story or script and instead served as producers on the project. Reeves and Bomback were also given far more time and leeway so that they could maintain the high quality of the reboot trilogy. In fact, while they initially set the release for summer 2016, they pushed the film’s release date back a full year in order to give Reeves enough time to make the film he wanted.
There’s a post-credits stinger at the end of Dawn which implies that Koba survived his fall at the end of the film. Reeves and Bomback briefly flirted with the idea of resurrecting Koba, but thankfully they concluded that there was nothing that he could add to the story by being alive. THANK GOD. Blockbuster films always try to repeat what already worked, but Koba’s story has been told, dragging it out would be an awful idea. It would be like if Pirates of the Carribean brought back Davy Jones or if Star Wars brought back Emperor Palpatine, but what kind of idiot would do that…?
In May 2015 the title of the film was revealed to be “War of the Planet of the Apes“, but was changed to “War for the Planet of the Apes” by the end of the year (which might be why I kept misspelling the title of this film all through my writing of this retrospective). Andy Serkis was, of course, returning as Caesar once more, while Judy Greer, Karin Konoval and Terry Notary would reprise their roles as the apes Cornelia, Maurice and Rocket, respectively. Tony Kebbell would also return as Koba, appearing in visions to haunt Caesar. Woody Harrelson was revealed to have been cast as the film’s antagonist, while Steve Zahn was cast as an ape and Amiah Miller was cast as a young human character.
Once again, filming took place around Vancouver, British Columbia and Weta Digital provided the film’s visual effects. War grossed $146.9 million domestically and $343.8 million internationally for a worldwide gross of $490.7 million. While less than Dawn, it was once again a solid haul for the Apes franchise.
Two years have passed since the end of Dawn. Caesar’s apes and the U.S. military have been engaged in a bloody war. After an attack on an ape outpost is repelled by the apes, the captives are brought before Caesar. Among their ranks is a gorilla named Red, an ape who was loyal to Koba. The humans derogatively refer to these traitor-apes as “donkeys” and use them to help exterminate the other apes. Caesar decides to free the human captives as an olive branch to the Colonel leading the U.S. forces. As the humans are freed, Red escapes, wounding a gorilla named Winter in the process. Shortly thereafter, Blue Eyes and Rocket return to the apes’ encampment and reveal that they have found a new home for the apes across the desert. Winter insists that they need to leave before the Colonel attacks them, but Caesar says that they need time to prepare for the journey.
During the night, the Colonel leads a squad of humans into the apes’ base and executes Cornelia and Blue Eyes, believing him to be Caesar. Caesar is thrown into a rage, but the Colonel escapes before he can be killed. It is also discovered that Winter has gone missing during the raid. Fearing further attacks, the apes begin their journey to their new home, but Caesar decides to strike his own path. He leaves his last son, Cornelius, with Blue Eyes’ wife, Lake, and goes alone to hunt down the Colonel. Rocket, Maurice and Luca follow Caesar and join him on his journey, much to Caesar’s displeasure. On their way to the humans’ camp, they encounter a lone soldier, who Caesar kills when he tries to pull a gun on them. They find the soldier’s young daughter hiding nearby and find that she is mute. They bring her along with them, reasoning that she will die on her own if they do not, and Maurice names her “Nova”.
When the group reaches the humans’ camp, they find that the soldiers are packing up to leave and that the Colonel is already gone. They encounter Winter at the base and discover that he sold them out to the Colonel and that he believes that the humans are going to meet with the rest of the U.S. military to wipe out Caesar’s apes one and for all. When Winter tries to alert the guards, Caesar kills him. The apes then follow the human convoy to try to find their base. Along the way, they find that a group of soldiers are executed and left by the road. One of these humans is still alive and the apes discover that he is mute like Nova.
As they move further north, Caesar loses track of the convoy in the snow and they climb a radio tower to try to get a better vantage point. While they do so, a mysterious figure steals one of their horses. The apes give chase and track him down to a ski resort, where they discover that he is a fellow ape called “Bad Ape”. Bad Ape is the first intelligent ape they have encountered who isn’t a part of Caesar’s group, having been mutated by viral exposure to the Simian Flu. Bad Ape reveals that he knows the location of a nearby military base and, after some convincing, agrees to take them there. Caesar and Luca attempt to scout the base, but are spotted by sentries. The sentries are killed but Luca dies in the struggle. Not wanting any more of his companions to die for his cause, Caesar moves on the base alone, but discovers that the Colonel intercepted the ape tribe as they attempted to escape the forest and has brought them all here. Caesar is captured by Red and forced to start building a wall to protect the base along with the other apes. Caesar tries to inspire an uprising, but the Colonel puts this down violently and begins torturing Caesar in punishment.
Caesar is then brought before the Colonel, who reveals that his forces aren’t joining with the rest of the U.S. military – they’re coming to destroy him. The Colonel reveals that the Simian Flu has mutated and is causing humans to regress and lose their ability to speak. In order to halt the spread, the Colonel has been executing any man who develops the mutation, including his own son. Meanwhile, Rocket, Maurice, Bad Ape and Nova discover a sewer system beneath the base and realize they can use it to enact a rescue. Freezing and dying of exposure, Caesar regains his hope and strength when Nova sneaks into the base and gives him food, water and a doll. Fearing that Nova will be found and captured, Rocket strolls into the base as a decoy and is thrown in with the other apes, who begin enacting their escape plan.
The next morning, the Colonel is surprised to find Caesar still alive. He finds Nova’s doll and takes it with him, curious where Caesar got such a thing. The apes then spend the workday figuring out which tunnels will lead into the apes’ cages. They find that they can free the adult apes through the tunnels, but the children will have to be freed above ground. That night, the apes begin their escape and, once freed, Caesar helps the children out of their cage and into the tunnel. However, Caesar once more turns away from his people and goes after the Colonel just as the U.S. military arrives and battle erupts. He finds that the Colonel has been infected with the mutated Simian Flu through Nova’s doll and, seeing the Colonel in such a pitiful state, Caesar is finally able to overcome his rage, allowing the Colonel to commit suicide rather than kill him himself.
Outside, the battle rages between the two human forces and the fleeing apes are caught in the crossfire. Caesar tries to destroy a fuel tank to clear the way for the apes, but is shot by an arrow. Red sees all of this and finally decides to do the right thing. He kills a soldier who is about to kill Caesar and is killed in retaliation. However, the act gives Caesar time to blow up the fuel tank and annihilate the last of the Colonel’s men in the process. The U.S. military then advance on the base and discover the apes. Before they can attack, an avalanche is triggered. The apes flee into the trees and ride out the avalanche, but the exposed humans are wiped out. The apes then regroup and cross the desert to their new home, a sheltered valley paradise. While the apes celebrate, Caesar reveals to Maurice that he is dying of the arrow wound he sustained. Caesar slips away, content that he has led his people to salvation.
Perhaps it should be unsurprising, but War is a dark turn for the Apes reboot trilogy. There is a persistent grimness throughout the film, which extends beyond the story itself into the film’s muted colour palette. Of course, going grimdark to try to be taken seriously can make your story feel juvenile if not done right, but I’d make the argument that Matt Reeves has crafted the most mature film in the franchise with War. The darkness in this film is less about bad things happening and more about the emotional turmoil which drives Caesar throughout this film. This is somewhat at odds with this film’s marketing and even its title, which promise a climactic showdown between apes and humans similar to Battle for the Planet of the Apes. However, aside from one skirmish in the opening scene and a battle between two human armies which happens mostly off-screen in the finale, War is pointedly uninterested in portraying war as a source of thrills (which is a trap that “war is bad” movies like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge fall into). As fun as it would have been to see this war play out more directly, if we’re being honest what we get in War is far more interesting. Rather, the titular “war” is the one raging within Caesar to determine the course his people will take in the future.
Through Rise and Dawn, Caesar was always an idealistic figure, one who tried to forge the path that would balance what was best for human and ape alike. This outlook set him apart from other apes because he had been raised by them and knew that they weren’t an inherently evil species, whereas Koba had been traumatized by them and viewed them all as a threat. However, when the Colonel kills Caesar’s wife and son after he showed mercy to the Colonel’s men, his idealism is shattered and he is consumed with a desire to lash out in vengeance. Caesar becomes straight-up cold-blooded, gleefully massacring human and ape alike that get in the way of his path to vengeance. He kills Nova’s father in self-defence, but he doesn’t feel any remorse and doesn’t rush to try to talk it out with him. He kills Winter, nominally for trying to alert the guards in the human camp, but it’s obvious that he’s actually doing it because Winter caused his family to be killed. He even starts hallucinating Koba taunting him, reminding him that under Caesar’s own philosophy “Ape must not kill ape”. It becomes obvious that Caesar’s quest for vengeance is fruitless – killing Nova’s father just creates an orphan and his actions are alienating him from his friends and the apes who look to him for guidance. Ultimately though, his ill-guided quest is causing Caesar to lose sight of the bigger picture. This is most clearly demonstrated when a captive Caesar tries to kill the Colonel, who berates him, asking him what he thinks would happen if he succeeded. If Caesar accomplished his goal he would be killed along with all of the apes, but his rage is blinding him from what is actually important to him.
Considering that this film came out during the Trump’s turbulent first year, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the Colonel’s philosophy and Trumpism (even if Matt Reeves insists that these parallels are unintentional). Like… the Colonel is building a useless wall with the apes as his slave labourers, caging the apes up like an ICE detention facility, and the Colonel develops a nationalistic, fascist cult of personality around his vision of human purity. The Colonel claims to hate the apes because he believes that they will inevitably conquer the world if they aren’t stopped. He also views the speech and cognition-affecting mutation of the Simian Flu to be so dangerous that he killed his own son to prevent it from spreading and “corrupting” his pure humanity. However, for all his bluster about a long-term plan to save humanity, the Colonel has the same short-sighted weakness as Caesar – he is so set in his beliefs that he’ll destroy himself, his men, the rest of the U.S. military and the apes in order to see his ideal of humanity through, expecting divine intervention to see him through in what he calls a “holy war”. Ironically, the Colonel succumbs before his holy war even begins, becoming infected with the mutated virus and is put into such a pathetic state that he has to beg Caesar to kill him. However, Caesar finally overcomes his own short-sighted desires at this moment and relents. However, the Colonel is so set in his convictions that he kills himself rather than become what he would view as “less than human”. As you can see, you could write it off War as a typical “revenge bad” narrative, but I’d argue that it is executed well and at least we get to see exactly why revenge is so destructive and what’s being missed by fixating on it.
Another fascinating aspect of War is dehumanization. The Colonel brands all his soldiers and “donkeys” like cattle, burning their flesh with an “AO” symbol for Alpha and Omega. The soldiers under his leadership are fanatical, excited go to war with the U.S. military to see the Colonel’s will through and are rudderless without his commands. They also dehumanize those infected with the mutated Simian Flu, executing their own comrades who become infected and saying that they’re just beasts. However, Nova shows that those who become infected are still human, capable of compassion, sadness, joy and more than worthy of life – just one that’s different than what the Colonel believes is fundamentally “human”.
The most interesting example of dehumanization in the film though is for characters who aren’t human at all – the “donkeys”. The derisive nickname that these apes have been given is already dehumanizing enough, but the humans treat them as little more than more useful versions of pack mules. The donkeys fear retribution for supporting Koba’s coup, or fear the Colonel so much that they turn to the humans for refuge, aiding in the murder of their fellow apes in order to stay alive. It is reiterated several times throughout the film that this survival is temporary, as the Colonel will surely purge them from his ranks once he has won his war, as there is no place for apes in his vision of the future. In case it wasn’t obvious, this brings some potential racial interpretations of the narrative into play (it is somewhat offensive to suggest that apes would be used to represent blacks, latinos or various other marginalized groups, although the original Apes films did intentionally draw parallels so it’s not without merit). Within this film, donkeys like Winter and Red are viewed as straight-up race traitors, propping up a system which seeks to destroy them (again, pretty prophetic for a film that didn’t intentionally draw parallels to Trumpism). This ties into the theme of short-sightedness that Caesar and the Colonel have, as the donkeys are effectively expediting their own demise for the people that are destroying them. That said, the film avoids the trap of portraying the donkeys as worse than the humans. Obviously the film portrays them as bad for supporting the people killing their own kind and who treat them like garbage, but you get why they do it. Red even gets a whole redemption arc and is sympathetic by the end.
All that said, I don’t believe that War is intended to be a race narrative, although it does have some parallels and borrows some imagery to make its point. Rather, it is intended to be an Exodus allegory. Unlike the Trumpism parallels, this was actually intended by Reeves and Bomback and is even more overt. Caesar is overtly meant to be a Moses figure, from being raised among the humans before leading his own people out of captivity, to intervening when an ape is being whipped, to dying just before the apes reach their literal promised land. There are elements that even feel like they have a biblical grandeur to them, such as the avalanche which buries the human military at the end like it was an act of divine intervention. These biblical parallels seem appropriate for the grandiose conclusion of a trilogy like this, especially since it cements Caesar himself as a prophetic figure whose legacy will carry on through ape society going forward.
War is also buoyed by its characters. Rise and Dawn are often criticized for their boring human leads, but War does away with them almost entirely, only really giving the Colonel and Nova any real prominence. Instead, the apes who have been with Caesar since the beginning are finally given expanded roles (oh my God, you didn’t have to shove a boring human in for us to make an emotional connection!?!). I was giddy when I found out that Rocket and Maurice were going to be part of the film’s main cast, after being disappointed that they were put on the backburner during Dawn (which is particularly egregious for Rocket considering his own son is killed in that film). The ape supporting cast are great. Maurice is such a goddamn sweetheart, always there to lend a wise word and even tells Caesar that he wants to accompany him to make sure that he “makes it back” – both physically and spiritually. Rocket, meanwhile, has grown from the arrogant bully we saw in Rise into Caesar’s most dependable friend, someone who is courageous and defends others selflessly. Of Caesar’s companions, Luca is the most underserved (and hell, was in Dawn but I couldn’t tell you where or when), but at least he gets to display a softer side during a moment of beauty and compassion with Nova before dying moments later. As for the other apes, Bad Ape is certainly the most prominent and adds several moments of much-needed levity to keep things from getting to morose. He also presents some fascinating new developments, being the first intelligent ape to be discovered from outside of Caesar’s group. Apparently the Simian Flu could be transmitted from humans to apes, which caused them to become more intelligent. Inevitably, this means that there are colonies of apes elsewhere in the world just waiting to be discovered. Even beyond the implications of Bad Ape’s existence, the character is a real joy. Steve Zahn is perfect for the role, giving him a strong mischievous personality, but slowly revealing a kind-hearted and truly sad side to the character. Lastly there is Lake, Blue Eyes’ mate who steps up and becomes a leader among the apes when Caesar is on his quest for vengeance. She even saves Caesar’s life with some quick thinking and watches out for Cornelius during the film. I’d say that she is unfortunately undercooked in this film, but there’s enough groundwork laid that I think she’d have a lot of potential in any sequels.
I feel like I’ve said plenty about the Colonel (although I’ll reiterate that Woody Harrelson makes for a great villain, by far the best human antagonist in the reboot trilogy), but I haven’t said much about Nova. For a good chunk of the film, Nova comes across as a burden, a character whose existence only symbolizes how far Caesar has fallen from his ideals. However, as the film goes on she comes to sympathize with her companions and shows that the mutated virus doesn’t make someone less human. When she sneaks into the Colonel’s base and gives Caesar food and water, she takes on an angelic role, restoring a bit of Caesar’s own idealism about peaceful coexistence between humans and apes in the process. She even does an “Apes together strong!” motion, reiterating what I said in Dawn, that the real ideal is “Everyone stronger together!” She’s great, a ray of sunshine in a very dark film.
I also want to note some more elements to this film which are at the top of their game. Andy Serkis puts in the best performance of his career here as Caesar and it’s criminal that he was snubbed during awards season. Reeves’ direction is great once again, ensuring that he will be a sought-after blockbuster director for years to come. Finally, the special effects in this movie are flawless. Dawn had a few shaky moments, but I was actively looking for bad effects in this movie and couldn’t find any. This is likely due to the longer post-production this film was afforded, but the apes look incredible and photo-realistic. Weta really outdid themselves on this film.
All that said, there are a few really annoying issues that I have with War. First of all… goddammit, are we seriously hinging this entire plot on fridging Caesar’s wife and kid? This is especially egregious because Cornelia has been with us since Rise and has done absolutely jack shit (and despite being played by freaking Judy Greer). Similarly, Blue Eyes’ Dawn arc poised him to be a future leader for the apes, so killing him off so early just feels like the character is left underserved. It also makes it really obvious that all of the films in this trilogy were thought up independently, with sequel hooks being used instead of any actual pre-planning. It isn’t a major issue, but fridging is such a lazy, overdone and even offensive trope that it’s disappointing that it was utilized here.
My second issue is that War brings back the overt references to the franchise’s past. It’s not nearly as bad as Rise was, but in Dawn it was a breath of fresh air that they allowed the references to be subtle and organic. On the lighter side of things, we have the Colonel’s “Alpha and Omega” cult of personality, a reference to the Alpha and Omega bomb from the original series films Beneath and Battle. It’s a bit of a strained reference, but at least this one’s a bit creative – instead of just recreating the bomb, this is a more symbolic reference, alluding to the Colonel’s holy war and implying that his movement is destructive enough to doom the entire world. But then on the other side of things… fucking hell, Caesar named his second son Cornelius? Cornelia was already an overt reference to Cornelius, but you had to go and double-down on that exact same reference again? Why? And for that matter why did we have to spend two separate scenes to justify why Maurice would call his human companion “Nova” in reference to Linda Harrison’s character? Does Maurice even know what a nova is, or does he just name people after random car ornaments he is given…? To make matters worse, all these references to Nova and Cornelius have caused confusion amongst some fans who believe that they’re younger versions of their namesakes from the original Planet of the Apes. Well, unless this reboot trilogy is planning on remaking the original film again and moving its timeline up significantly, that is impossible considering that the original film takes place in 3978 (…or possibly 3955). Just… goddammit, give your new characters original names, stop referencing the past for pointless nostalgia!
The final thing which annoys me about War is that the plot begins to strain credulity towards the end. It’s bad enough when Nova just strolls into the military base (which, may I remind you, is preparing for an attack coming any day now) and gives Caesar food and water without anyone noticing. The only way I can justify this is that the Colonel implies that the soldiers may have their children with them and so it wouldn’t be weird to see a random child wandering the base, but we never actually see any so they may not even be at the base at all. On top of that, the avalanche wiping out the entire U.S. military is pretty hard to swallow. Like, sure, it feels like divine intervention, but the fact that the entire military advanced on the base and then managed to get themselves killed to a man in the process is excessively convenient. Even if you could ignore all that, having Caesar dying from a wound he sustained in battle for what must have been a week’s journey across the desert at least, only to have no one notice is ridiculous. Even worse, if they had noticed, someone surely would have been able to treat it and maybe even help him survive, right!? Again, it fits the biblical feel of the story, but it’s overly convenient and feels like it could have been justified better.
Those quibbles aside, I love War. It is definitely my favourite entry in the Apes reboot trilogy and easily cements this as one of the greatest trilogies of all time. For all its darkness, War doesn’t forget to have fun, nor does it revel in nihilism. It ultimately is about hope for a future where people of all kinds can live in harmony together, as Caesar would have wanted.
So, where does Planet of the Apes go from here? Well, before I get into any official news, I’d just like to give my own ideas for where it could/should go. If there was a direct sequel, I’d like to see Lake’s role expanded, maybe even making her the protagonist. However, I feel like a sequel should be set a hundred or more years in the future, when Caesar’s ideals have already been twisted and humans are being vilified. It’s about time for Apes films to go back to having human characters as the real focal point, especially if the series is aiming to go back to the original. And speaking of which, my ideal, long-term vision for the franchise would be to make an alternate timeline following from the original Planet of the Apes. Back when I was a kid, I imagined that the Apes sequels would deal with Taylor and Nova’s children establishing a new human society and eventually taking back the planet for humanity. I’d like to see this idea play out for real, giving us an alternate timeline where Earth is not destroyed and instead the humans slowly regain their power and fight back against the apes. Given the way that this reboot trilogy has gone, I’d want one sequel where this colony is established and is violently fighting against the apes, only to be driven out in desperation. Then at the end, in a huge twist, have the humans encounter cross the forbidden zone and discover the descendants of Caesar’s ape colony who live side-by-side with humans in peace. After all, Caesar’s living on the west coast, whereas the original Apes is on the east coast, so it would make sense if they are different societies. This would lead to conflict in a sequel since the humans don’t trust the apes and would need time to come to their side, while the apes would struggle to come to the conclusion that they need to come into conflict with other apes due to their divergent ideologies. It would also mean that this trilogy’s message of “Everyone stronger together” would get a chance to actually play out and we could even get a happy ending when this is all said and done.
So those are my pie-in-the-sky ideas for an Apes continuation, but what news have we actually heard so far? Well… remember how I criticized Disney for being a bunch of limp-dick hacks with their franchises earlier? Well… they bought 20th Century Fox and the Apes franchise along with it and have already announced that there are more films on the way which would be set in the same timeline as the reboot trilogy. It has been announced that a new Apes film is in production, directed by Wes Ball of… oh fucking hell, the Maze Runner guy? Well, at least Ball’s film will be following “Caesar’s legacy”, implying that it is indeed going to be set decades after War and will deal with the corruption of Caesar’s ideals. Fingers crossed that he can pull it off and that Disney give this venerable franchise the respect it deserves.
Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second entry in the reboot trilogy! Rise provided a fantastic set-up for the Apes franchise to move forward into the future. Would Dawn make good on that promise and deliver a sequel worthy of the series’ venerable legacy? Read on to find out…
One of the many things that Rise did well was provide fertile narrative ground from which sequels could flourish. Director Rupert Wyatt stated his excitement over the directions potential sequels could take, specifically that the relationship between Caesar and Koba would be a natural focus. He stated his desire to have the next film take place around eight years after Rise, giving time for another generation of apes to have been born and raised. Further sequels would then continue the narrative until they could circle back to the original Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis was secured very early on into production, while Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver returned to work on the screenplay and Wyatt was once again set to direct.
However, by September of 2012 Rupert Wyatt was having doubts about directing the film, feeling that the studio-mandated May 2014 release date wouldn’t give him enough time to create a movie he was happy with. Whatever the case, two weeks later it was announced that Matt Reeves would be taking over the director’s chair. I remember when this was announced being sad that Wyatt was leaving, but being very excited because Reeves had already proven himself as an exciting and competent director with Cloverfield, so I was certain he would be able to deliver a great movie. Reeves brought with him Mark Bomback (one of the writers of Live Free or Die Hard), who did a re-write of Jaffa and Silver’s script.
With Wyatt’s departure, James Franco and Freida Pinto’s characters were written out of the sequel, implied to have died during the apocalyptic simian flu outbreak at the end of Rise. In their place, the main human characters were filled out by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Gary Oldman was also secured as the leader of the human encampment in a semi-antagonistic role. As for the apes, Terry Notary and Karin Konoval reprised their roles as Rocket and Maurice, respectively. Meanwhile, Koba was recast with Tony Kebbell taking over for Christopher Gordon, and Judy Greer took over for Devyn Dalton as Caesar’s mate, Cornelia. Finally, Nick Thurston was cast as Blue Eyes, Caesar and Cornelia’s son.
Filming began in April 2013 in British Columbia, using locations such as Campbell River and Vancouver Island to simulate the San Francisco redwoods. The next month, production moved to New Orleans for various urban environments used in the film. Like Rise, Dawn depended on computer-generated effects to bring its apes to life. In addition, several other animals in the film were created digitally, including elk, a bear and several horses. Also worth noting is that the film’s soundtrack was composed by Michael Giacchino (composer of several amazing scores, including The Incredibles, Up, Rogue One and Jurassic World) and features several terrible and awesome ape puns in the track titles. In spite of Wyatt’s worries about the film’s scheduling, Dawn‘s release date was changed a few times, eventually settling on July 11, 2014. The film was a huge success, grossing $208.5 million domestically and over $708 million worldwide, making it by far the most successful Apes movie ever.
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The ALZ-113 virus, dubbed the “Simian Flu” has wiped out 99.8% of the global human population. In the meantime, Caesar has established a commune where hundreds of apes live together in harmony. This peace is shattered when one of the apes, Ash, is shot by a human named Carver. Caesar finds Carver’s expedition, led by a man named Malcolm, and orders them to leave. The apes then follow the humans back to their colony in the ruins of San Francisco and warn them not to enter ape territory again or face retribution. However, Malcolm soon returns to ape territory with his expedition team to explain what they want. It turns out that there is a hydroelectric dam within the apes’ territory which Malcolm needs to restart, because the human colony is running dangerously low on fuel. Caesar agrees to let them work, on the condition that the humans’ guns be taken away, reasoning that they are desperate enough that they will fight the apes for access to the dam. Koba, one of Caesar’s trusted lieutenants, is infuriated at this concession and seeks to find evidence of human treachery so that Caesar will go to war. Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes, does not trust the humans either and openly disapproves of his father’s concessions.
The humans and apes begin to grow an uneasy respect for one another, sharing knowledge and helping one another. However, this respect is nearly shattered when it is revealed that Carver has smuggled a gun along with him and threatens Caesar’s sons with it. Malcolm barely manages to be allowed to continue working, having to throw Carver out of the group and have his wife treat Caesar’s wife’s illness in order to stay. However, Koba discovers that the humans in San Francisco have a stockpile of weapons and are preparing for war if Malcolm fails to get the power running soon. When he discovers that Caesar has allowed the humans to stay after they threatened his sons, Koba confronts Caesar and the pair fight. Caesar overcomes his lieutenant, but shows him mercy despite knowing that he has lost Koba’s trust.
Planning treachery, Koba sneaks back into the weapons stockpile, steals a gun, kills two guards and then kills Carver. While he’s doing this, the humans finally repair the dam and get the power running. They celebrate the accomplishment with Caesar and the other apes, but the moment is broken when Koba shoots Caesar and his body tumbles off a ledge into the river. Koba starts a fire and frames Carver for the shooting, rallying the apes to attack the human colony. Malcolm and his family flee and hide from the apes as Koba’s army attack the weapons stockpile. The humans are warned of the attack and a battle ensues, with several apes and humans being killed. However, the apes breach the gates and begin rounding up every human they can find. Blue Eyes and Ash object to Koba’s brutal treatment of the humans, but Koba kills Ash and says that he leads the apes now.
Meanwhile, Malcolm and his family find Caesar alive and head into the city to find shelter. Caesar leads them back to his old home and they take shelter here while Malcolm heads back to the colony to get medicine. He encounters a disillusioned Blue Eyes, who he tells that Caesar is still alive. Realizing that Koba is to blame for the shooting, Blue Eyes begins to lead a rebellion against the apes’ new leader, freeing the humans and apes still loyal to Caesar. Despite his wounds, Caesar goes to confront Koba at the half-built tower where the human colony is. Meanwhile, Malcolm encounters a group of human survivors beneath the tower who reveal that they have established radio contact with soldiers to the north who are on their way to help. They also reveal that they have set C4 around the base of the tower. Malcolm holds them at gunpoint, telling them that Caesar is battling Koba and that he can bring peace again. The survivors don’t listen and instead set off the C4, killing themselves and causing the tower to begin to hobble. Caesar and Koba do battle again, but when the tower begins to collapse Caesar focuses on rescuing wounded apes while Koba pushes them aside to get to Caesar. However, Caesar tackles his former lieutenant and Koba nearly falls off a ledge. He asks Caesar for mercy, but Caesar pushes him off the tower, sending him falling to his death. In the aftermath, Caesar regains control of the apes, but Malcolm warns him that soldiers are on their way to retaliate against them. The pair mourn that their bid for peace has failed and Malcolm escapes with his family while Caesar regretfully prepares his people for war.
Rise was a great way to reboot the Apes franchise, but Dawn takes the ideas from that film and pushes them to a whole new level. It’s been a few years since I last saw this movie and revisiting it in 2020 was a refreshing experience. First of all, seeing the collapse of humanity to the Simian Flu hit extra hard in the middle of the second wave of COVID-19 and made it easier to empathize with the humans. Obviously there was no way they could have known this while making the movie (there are references to H1N1 and bird flu, the closest analogues we had experienced up to that point), but it makes for a far more interesting and relevant reason for society to collapse compared to the implication that nuclear war did it in the original films. Given the rise of populist fascist movements in the past four years, it was also extra-tragic seeing the apes go from a peaceful commune trying to make a better future for humans and apes, to falling under the sway of a vengeful dictator who spoils any chance for peace. The Apes franchise is inherently tragic so this is to be expected, but it makes for an affecting narrative seeing how things could have gone in a far more positive direction, especially since we get about an hour of build-up before all hell breaks loose.
That’s really the main strength of Dawn – it’s writing is superb. On Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was was taking lots of notes, making fun of dumb things and commenting on narrative developments. Dawn‘s notes were comparatively sparse, I made notes about the things I liked and things which caught my attention, but for the most part I just sat back and enjoyed the story. The relationship between Caesar and Koba which Rise hinted at is the beating heart of the film. Best of all, Koba is a legitimate friend and supporter of Caesar at the outset and you can understand the choices and motivations which cause him to turn on his old friend. He views Caesar as a figure of strength who will always put apes first, so when that perception gets questioned he turns on Caesar and lets his hatred drive him mad. His warnings to Caesar are legitimate too – the humans are a threat and it’s almost inevitable that they will come into conflict with the apes eventually. However, Caesar and Malcolm’s idealism and desire for peace manages to win out and makes possible a future where humans and apes are able to live together, not only in peace, but strengthening one another in the process. It shows that the mantra “Apes together strong!” is a limited philosophy, the best outcome is “Everyone stronger together!” It’s a very positive message, especially in 2020, and can be applied to politics, race, sexuality and a variety of other causes. It also shows that intolerance is a cancer which keeps us back from a better future for us all.
The other main relationship in the film is between Caesar and Malcolm. While Malcolm is a bit of a generic, idealistic character whose only personality trait is that he always does the right thing, he ultimately works because of the conflict he inspires within Caesar. Caesar makes shows of strength on several occasions which he undermines almost immediately every time due to Malcolm’s idealism and desperation for a better future. It’s obvious that Caesar is causing his leadership to be called into question from these choices, but Malcolm’s hope is so infectious that he can’t help but give into it. Later on in the film it is implied that this desire to help Malcolm is because Caesar sees the same sort of drive in him that he saw in his father figure, Will Rodman.
I also want to point out the understated, but compelling arc that Blue Eyes goes on throughout Dawn. Early on he finds himself struggling to match up to his father, but having never met humans before, he doesn’t understand why Caesar shows them mercy after so many incidents. As a result, he draws away from his father and starts listening to Koba’s incendiary rhetoric and joins him in the attack on the humans. However, in this battle he watches in horror as apes and humans are slaughtered and begins to realize that his father was right all along. By the end of the film he is poised as a character who has gained a lot of wisdom through hardship and has perhaps the most compelling arc of the whole film. This is particularly impressive when you consider that he barely says (or signs) a word in the film, most of this is conveyed through physical acting and emotional cues.
Unfortunately, the human characters aren’t very compelling in this film. Like I said, Malcolm is a good guy and you definitely like him, but he’s not particularly interesting, nor does he have any real conflict to deal with. He’s by far the best human character, but he’s nowhere near as compelling as Will Rodman or his father from the previous film. His family, played by the talented Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee, are wasted on nobody characters who get very little to do and are effectively written out of the movie in the third act. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus is similarly wasted on a character who is so unimportant that I didn’t even bother to include him in my plot synopsis. Worst of all though is Carver, who is a complete moron and a writing crutch whenever they want to wring out some conflict. Unlike Rise, at least he’s the only one-dimensional asshole we get in the film, but I will say that they do a good job of justifying why he has to stay in the mix (he’s the only survivor who used to work at the dam and knows how it works). In addition, the film stalls a bit in the third act when Caesar is injured and the plot effectively spins its wheels with Malcolm until Caesar is well enough to fight Koba.
While I’m sad that Ruper Wyatt couldn’t return to follow-up Rise, I’m more than happy with Matt Reeves’ direction in Dawn. In fact, his direction is much more interesting and dynamic than Wyatt’s was. I’m really impressed that Reeves managed to get 20th Century Fox to allow the apes to continue communicating using signing, saving speech for the big emotional moments. This lack of speech also means that Reeves has to use visual language very well in order to get across the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Also, thank God Reeves and Bomback refrain from including any overt references to the original Apes films in Dawn. Sure, Dawn is a very loose remake of Conquest and War and shares some elements with them, but none of it feels forced or unsubtle. I still cringe at the in-your-face references in Rise, so seeing the restraint here was much appreciated.
As one might expect, the CGI apes in this film are once again fantastic. The apes look flawless for most of the film; there are a handful of shots that look a bit uncanny, but it’s not enough to put a blemish on this film’s effects. Unfortunately, the film’s bad special effects are frontloaded during the opening action sequence, when the apes hunt a group of deer and are ambushed by a bear. The deer and bear are all CGI creations and they all look subpar (like, I remember seeing this in theaters and thinking they looked bad at the time). It sets a bad impression but thankfully the effects from there are great.
I loved Rise, but I think that Dawn is even better. It takes the foundation set by its predecessor and capitalizes on it to the fullest, escalating the stakes and exploring the limits of its characters in the process. Blockbuster films rarely even bother to attempt this level of quality, especially when big budget films are often dumbed down as much as possible for international appeal. It stumbles slightly in its third act, but it is yet another fantastic entry in this venerable franchise.
…yes, you read that correctly. It’s been more than seven years now since I did my retrospective of the live-action Resident Evil film franchise. However, at that time the final film in the franchise, the aptly-named Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, had not come out yet and so it wasn’t included in the retrospective. I’ve mulled over the idea of doing a “Retrospectives Round-up” for a long time, covering the newest films in franchises that I’ve covered in the past and as we close in on our 300th blog post on IC2S we’re finally getting around to doing it. We’re going to start with Resident Evil today and then over the course of the week we’ll catch up on the new entries in the other retrospective series. Got it? Alright, let’s dive in and see if the Resident Evil franchise could go out on a high note…
After the financial success of Resident Evil: Retribution, it was inevitable that the Resident Evil franchise would continue to shamble on. Early on the producers bandied the idea that there could be two more films in the franchise before it would be rebooted, but by December of 2012 Paul WS Anderson confirmed that the sixth film would be the final one in this continuity. Anderson signed on to direct, committing to the project after he was done work on his historical disaster-epic, Pompeii… and, well, we know how that turned out. Production was continually delayed on this film. Even when it looked like filming was about to begin in August 2014, they had to delay again for another year when it was announced that Milla Jovovich was pregnant with her second daughter.
For the cast, obviously Milla Jovovich returned once again to give Alice her last hurrah. For the other returning cast, Ali Larter reprised her role as Claire Redfield once more, while Shawn Roberts returned as Albert Wesker. Iain Glen was also announced to be returning as Dr. Isaacs, despite being killed off in Extinction. Disappointingly, these are the only characters who make their return. Despite being the grand finale, major characters like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Leon Kennedy, Ada Wong and even freaking Becky (the surrogate daughter Alice was shoe-horned into adopting in the previous film) don’t return and are killed unceremoniously off-screen. I’d say it’s a middle-finger to the fans, but then again it would almost be weird if Resident Evil started caring about narrative continuity at this point. In their place, several new characters were introduced, played by Ruby Rose, Eoin Macken, William Levy, Fraser James, Rola and Lee Joon-gi.
Production was finally able to get underway in earnest in July 2015, with filming beginning in South Africa sometime in August or September. Unlike the previous two films, The Final Chapter was shot in 2D and then converted to 3D in post-production. Filming lasted just over three months and was wracked with disaster. Four crew members were injured during filming, the first being Jovovich’s stunt double, Olivia Jackson, who collided with a camera crane that failed to move during a motorcycle stunt. The accident crushed her face and caused half of it to be torn off, severed an artery in her neck, paralyzed her arm, broke several bones and tore five nerves out of her spinal cord (among many other injuries)! It was so bad that they had to put her into a medically-induced coma for two weeks and amputate her paralyzed arm. Then, near the end of filming, crewmember Ricardo Cornelius was freaking crushed to death by a Hummer, holy shit! Anderson, what the fuck is going on on your set!? Even worse, when Jackson sued the production in 2019 it came out that the producers’ insurance for stunt performers was wholly inadequate, not even providing coverage for medical care! Suffice to say, Jackson accused the producers of “elevating financial considerations over safety” and won the lawsuit. Apparently this isn’t new for the Resident Evil franchise, which has seen the hospitalizations of at least fifteen crew members over the years, a shocking number considering that most major franchises are able to get by with zero injuries, let alone fatalities.
If finances were all the producers cared about though, then The Final Chapter did not disappoint. While it grossed only $26.8 million domestically (significantly less than any previous Resident Evil film), its international haul was much higher, resulting in a worldwide total of $312.2 million, making it the highest-grossing film in the franchise. Of this total, more than half ($160 million) came from the Chinese box office. Also worth noting is that the film’s budget was only $40 million – adjusting for inflation, this is by far the lowest budget for any live-action Resident Evil film.
Like most of these films, The Final Chapter opens with a voice-over exposition dump by Alice, who reveals that the founder of Umbrella had a daughter named Alicia who was dying of progeria, a disease which caused her to age rapidly. He developed the T-virus to try to save her, but it is soon discovered that it has the unexpected side-effect of creating zombies. When the founder tried to shut down production of the virus, he was stopped by Dr. Isaacs, who had Albert Wesker assassinate the founder and performed a hostile takeover of the company.
Cutting back to the present, we find Alice in the ruins of Washington D.C. The heroes were betrayed by Albert Wesker at the end of Retribution (who saw that coming) and everyone except for Alice was killed. She encounters the Red Queen, who tells Alice that she wants to stop Umbrella but her programming prevents her from doing so directly. Therefore, she needs Alice to act on her behalf, as she estimates that there are only 48 hours left until the last pockets of human resistance are wiped out by the zombie hordes. She tells Alice that the only way to do so is to travel back to the Umbrella Hive in the ruins of Racoon City, where an airborne anti-virus has been developed.
Alice fights her way across the country, killing monsters and Umbrella soldiers on the way, until she is captured by Dr. Isaacs and his convoy of Umbrella tanks which are leading the zombies back to Raccoon City. Alice escapes on an Umbrella motorcycle and then makes it back to Racoon City first, where she encounters Claire Redfield and a band of survivors, including Claire’s new boyfriend, Doc. The group defend against the zombie onslaught, burning the zombie hordes and killing most of the Umbrella soldiers (although a wounded Isaacs manages to escape). The group then decide to break into the Hive to save humanity, dealing with more zombies and defenses as they go.
When they finally make it into the Hive, the Red Queen reveals that Isaacs has been planning on using the T-virus to cleanse humanity and create a new world on Umbrella’s own terms. To that end, the airborne anti-virus will be released once the rest of the human resistance is wiped out and the rich and powerful being kept in cryogenic storage in the Hive will be revived to inherit the Earth. She also warns Alice that Umbrella has an agent among the ranks of her companions.
After losing several team members to traps, Alice sets bombs throughout the facility and confronts the real Dr. Isaacs. It is revealed that the other two Isaacs we have encountered so far (as well as basically every other character who has been miraculously resurrected to this point) were actually clones who thought they were the real thing. It is also revealed that Doc is the traitor as Claire and Alice are captured by Wesker. Isaacs then revives Alicia and reveals that Alice is actually her clone (shocker). Before Isaacs can eliminate them, Alicia fires Wesker, which allows the Red Queen to attack and fatally wound him. Claire executes Doc and Alice chases after Isaacs, stealing the anti-virus from him and seemingly killing him by detonating a grenade in his pocket.
Alice escapes from the Hive and tries to release the anti-virus as the clock ticks down, but Isaacs appears out of nowhere and stops her. However, then the clone Isaacs Alice had fought earlier arrives and, believing himself to be the real Isaacs, kills him before being killed by the zombie hoards. In the confusion, Alice unleashes the anti-virus, which immediately spreads out in a cloud and kills all of the zombies. The bombs in the Hive detonate and kill Wesker, Alicia and the rest of Umbrella. Claire wakes Alice sometime later, who is thanked by the Red Queen by uploading Alicia’s childhood memories into Alice’s brain. She then rides out into the wilds, searching for any remaining pockets of survivors or T-virus holdouts.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from The Final Chapter. It’s by far the highest-reviewed entry in the franchise, up there with the original (which is still, somehow, considered one of the best video game movies of all-time despite being crap). I guess I was hoping that it would be a fun but dumb experience, akin to Extinction or Afterlife, moreso than a mind-numbing ordeal like Retribution. Unfortunately, The Final Chapter is much closer to the mold of Retribution than anything else, providing a particularly loud, dumb and unsatisfying conclusion to the franchise.
The first big issue is that The Final Chapter is what it says – it’s the big finale and therefore it needs to feel suitably climactic. Unfortunately, its obvious that the plots of every single Resident Evil movie were made up on the fly, cockteasing us with amazing cliffhangers at the end of each movie, only to completely retcon everything by the time the next one rolls around. The Final Chapter is pretty bad for this. Oh wow, Retribution ends with a huge siege at the White House with a bunch of iconic Resident Evil characters, good and evil, in the mix? Well I hope you didn’t want to see how that goes, because everyone dies off-screen except for Alice (yes, even Becky, whose shoehorned surrogate daughter storyline was the entire point of Retribution, she gets dropped without a single reference to her). With the slate wiped clean again, Anderson sets about making up entirely new plot developments to bring this whole series to a close. Wow, Game of Thrones really took off, let’s make Dr. Isaacs secretly the main villain all along, even though he died! Oh, and let’s reveal this during a big exposition dump at the start of the film, perfect! Can’t forget to make it so that Alice was actually a clone of the Umbrella founders’ daughter… because reasons! Oh and we’ll bring back Claire Redfield as well, but we can’t let her actually do anything, because then Alice won’t be as special!
The Final Chapter also has the unenviable task of trying to plug holes that the previous’ films created (and even this film in some cases). Foremost amongst this is why the hell Umbrella are so stupid that they managed to wipe out their entire consumer base and yet are still operating all this time. The Final Chapter reveals that this was actually always intended, Umbrella has been trying to wipe out humanity so that their chosen few can repopulate the world and have all the resources to themselves. It’s idiotic, but it almost works… until you remember that the first film is all about Umbrella soldiers trying to contain the outbreak and subsequent sequels have Umbrella still trying to create bio-weapons for use in war (not to mention injecting themselves with the T-virus they’re going to wipe out soon), so it’s obvious that they’re just pulling this out of their ass at the last minute. The Final Chapter also reveals that everyone who has died and been resurrected at this point in the story? Secret clones! Considering what has been established in the franchise to this point, it kind of makes sense, but it just feels so much dumber. Around the mid-point of the film Alice tells Claire that Isaacs is alive, to which Claire says “I thought you killed him?” Alice just replies “I thought so too” and the scene moves on. It made me laugh, but that really should have been as far as they went with it, it’s the only explanation that is needed. Revealing that there are clones means that they actually put a bit of thought into this, but it just begs the question of why they would have a bunch of clones running around in the first place. Just go the route of The Fast & The Furious – with dumb fun you don’t have to dwell on the hows and whys.
Like most Resident Evil movies, the characters are also a big Achilles heel for this film. Alice is… Alice. Whatever you thought about her before, you’ll still feel it after this is over. I don’t care about her character at all, and it’s infuriating how everyone else gets kneecapped to make her seem cool, but six movies in it’s undeniable that Milla Jovovich has mastered the art of playing a badass woman, so it’s nice to see her get to ride into the sunset with her signature character. And as much as I love Ali Larter’s Claire Redfield, she gets nothing to work with here, to the point where she could have easily been written out entirely. Iain Glen’s Dr. Isaacs is also completely different in this film, to the point where I’m convinced they only brought him back because of his newfound popularity in Game of Thrones. He is now suddenly a religious fanatic, a trait which this film clubs us over the head every chance they get. He’s an okay villain I guess, but considering that he was a low-key, one-and-done villain in Extinction, he feels far less impactful than if, say, they had made the more over-the-top and slimy Albert Wesker the villain for this finale. As for the rest of the survivors… meh? They’re a bunch of personality-less nobodies. Hell, I was expecting Ruby Rose to get more of a role so when she gets minced early on in the Hive that was one of the few real surprises in the film, but that wasn’t because I had any sort of attachment to her character.
Being a Resident Evil retrospective, I feel duty-bound to point out some of the most ridiculous parts of this movie’s plot that I haven’t gone over already. First of all, the film’s literal ticking clock is ridiculous. The Red Queen tells Alice that she estimates that the last pockets of humanity will be wiped out in 48 hours by the zombies unless the T-virus can be stopped. So Alice releases the anti-virus but it’s at the last second… sooooo, umm, did the Red Queen get it wrong and everyone had died early? Even if she didn’t, that anti-virus is going to take ages to actually reach any of the disparate bastions of humanity, so odds are that it did jack-shit to save anyone outside of Raccoon City. Oh and what few humans we know for sure were alive died infiltrating the Hive and/or got blown up with the Umbrella executives. Good job, Alice! There’s also a whole action sequence which revolves around Umbrella having GI Joe tanks – Alice punches open an easily-reached emergency hatch on the exterior of the tank, which deploys a motorcycle she uses to outrun the Umbrella forces. Then there’s the scene where Ruby Rose gets sucked into a giant fan blade. This is hilarious because we literally just saw that the fan blades have no suction to them, but Wesker reverses their direction and suddenly they’re sucking harder than Superhead? The funniest sequence though is when Alicia and Dr. Isaacs start debating about who owns Umbrella… like, in this case I get that it’s to establish the twist that Alicia can fire Wesker (which begs its own questions about labour laws, but whatever), but it’s the freaking apocalypse, nearly every human has been wiped out, money doesn’t matter anymore, who cares who owns the damn company!? Seriously, it’s another moment which highlights the stupidity of Umbrella more than anything. And lastly, the movie makes a big deal out of including yet another laser hall sequence. This might have been a cool callback to the original film, especially since this takes place in the same location… if we hadn’t had laser hall call-backs in all but one of the subsequent sequels. Here I just sighed and said “Oh my fucking God, another one?”
Okay fine, the story sucks and I don’t care about the characters. That’s to be expected with a Resident Evil film, I’m just here for the action. Unfortunately, that brings me to the next issue with The Final Chapter, for a film which is almost non-stop action sequences, the action is really underwhelming. This is because the way the action is shot and edited is the worst we’ve seen in the franchise since Apocalypse. As much as I hated it, at least Retribution tried to replicate the gorgeous slow-motion action scenes from Afterlife. The Final Chapter instead feels like it’s trying to emulate freakin’ A Good Day to Die Hard of all things, with constant, rapid-fire editing which makes every action sequence incomprehensible, disorienting, annoying garbage. Seriously, I was watching for this and the average shot length in this film can’t be more than a second at most – the action sequences barely hold for half a second and even dialogue scenes cut constantly. It’s supposed to be exciting and fast-paced, but it’s just exhausting. The action is also let down by the fact that the film does nothing to establish geography and therefore you can’t build up any sort of tension (think Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is fighting his way up the convoy – we know where everyone in the convoy is and where the objectives are, so we can build up tension as Indy fights his way through to the Ark). The Cerberus chase is a good example of this – the heroes try to escape into the Hive while being pursued by zombie dogs. This could have been exciting if we knew how far away from the entrance they were, or what their escape corridor looked like, but instead were get a solid minute of incoherent running and shooting as people we don’t give a shit about die unceremoniously.
The only time that the action feels fine in this movie is during the big siege in the second act (yes, The Final Chapter features yet another skyscraper being overrun by zombies). The Final Chapter fires on all cylinders here, managing to get around several of its other missteps and it’s obvious that a hefty chunk of the budget went towards this one action sequence. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but Anderson does a good job of finding ways to add new dangers to the siege which need to be dealt with so that it’s not just a bunch of mindless bam bam pew pews. It probably would have meant more if we gave a shit about any of the survivors, but it’s cool seeing thousands of zombies get immolated at least.
What else can I say? The Final Chapter is yet another dose of Resident Evil, but it is loooong past the series’ stupid-fun days. Like Retribution before it, The Final Chapter is just loud and dull in addition to being stupid. I kept telling myself the whole time “Well… it’s better than Retribution at least… maybe?”, but the more I think about it, the more certain I am that The Final Chapter really is the worst Resident Evil movie. It takes everything that makes these movies suck and dials it up, while simultaneously knee-capping the action sequences so that you can’t find anything to enjoy. The fact that someone died and another person was maimed to bring this movie to life just makes it even more sickening to me. Resident Evil is finally dead and thank God for that.
So… where does the series go from here? Well, a more faithful reboot of the series is already well underway and it was recently announced that the cast include such great young actors as Kaya Scodelario and Robbie Amell, which gives me a lot of hope for this attempt. Hopefully they take a cue from the recent Resident Evil video games and make this film less action more horror. I may cover this film sometime in the future and add it to the retrospective, but we will have to see. Right now I’m just burnt out on this franchise and the prospect of even more zombies is depressing, even if I am cautiously optimistic about this reboot.
Welcome back to a very special bonus entry in the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’re going to be looking at the three seasons of the the TV series Hannibal! I set a precedent way back with The Planet of the Apes franchise that TV series weren’t on the table when I do retrospectives since they add a ton of extra work hours on top of having to watch, research and review however many movies are in that franchise already and, like I’ve said, I don’t get paid for this so I don’t really feel the need to go to that extra effort. However, binging Hannibal on Netflix was the catalyst that led to me doing this retrospective series in the first place, so it felt appropriate to cover it this time.
Also, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to the TV series simply as Hannibal in this article. For the novel or the Ridley Scott film of the same name that we’ve already covered in this retrospective series, I will refer to those as “the novel Hannibal” and Hannibal (2001) respectively as needed.
Here, enjoy some classy promotional art for all three seasons!
After Hannibal Rising‘s poor showing at the box office, it was obvious that interest in the character had waned and the franchise went into dormancy. On November 10, 2010, long-time rights-holder of the Hannibal Lecter character Dino de Laurentiis died and the rights passed to his estate and wife, Martha. Meanwhile, Universal had a stake in the character as well, while MGM still retained the rights to the characters in The Silence of the Lambs (specifically Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill). With de Laurentiis’ death, it seems like the franchise began to make some new moves. Katie O’Connell began developing a Hannibal Lecter TV series at NBC (a television subsidiary of the same corporation that owns Universal) in 2011. Bryan Fuller, who was coming off of creating the critically acclaimed series Pushing Daisies was asked to helm the show and produce a pilot script. However, the script was so good that the show was financed and put into full production of a 13-episode season without requiring a pilot episode. Fuller based the series around the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, while he planned to spend the first two or three seasons on the backstory prior to the novels, before moving into the ground covered by the novels and then ending after one more original season.
Perhaps sensing the excitement growing for Fuller’s take on Hannibal Lecter, only a couple months after Hannibal went into production, Lifetime announced that they were going to produce their own series revolving around Clarice Starling (MGM was producing this series). However, the show never entered full production and was shelved. Fuller had hoped to secure the rights to The Silence of the Lambs characters if they ever reached that point in the show, so it’s probably for the best that it didn’t move forward.
Hugh Dancy was the first actor cast, playing Will Graham. Mads Mikkelsen (probably best known at the time as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale) was cast next as Hannibal Lecter. Rounding out the main cast was Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford. Fishburne was just coming off of a tenure on CSI, where he had replaced Manhunter-lead William Petersen’s character. Several other supporting characters were cast thereafter, including Caroline Dhavernas as Alana Bloom, Hettienne Park as Beverly Katz, Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Lounds, Kacey Rohl as Abigail Hobbs, Raúl Esparza as Frederick Chilton and Gillian Anderson as Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal’s therapist. Anderson, you may remember, was one of the actresses on the shortlist to play the recast Clarice Starling in Hannibal (2001), so it was exciting to finally see her get a role in this franchise.
The first season was critically acclaimed and was nominated for several awards, winning (among others) Best Network Television Series and Best Actor on Television at the Saturn Awards in 2014. However, it didn’t do very well in its viewer ratings, likely due to the fact that NBC kept putting it in terrible time slots that kept it from growing an audience. After some apprehension, especially given the show’s considerable budget, NBC reviewed the series for another 13-episode season. For the second season, the supporting cast was expanded by the likes of Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) as Kade Prurnell, Katharine Isabelle (the lovely Canadian scream queen of Ginger Snaps fame) as Margot Verger and Michael Pitt as Mason Verger. In addition, Fuller tried to secure freaking David Bowie to play Hannibal’s uncle Robert, but Bowie was unavailable and so the part was scrapped from the story. Unfortunately, similar viewer ratings-issues plagued the second season of Hannibal – the poor ratings and gore meant that they wouldn’t give it a prime time slot, but the time slot that they put it into guaranteed that it wouldn’t foster a wide enough audience. Furthermore, the fact that it was a network TV show ran counter to the series’ insanely violent content and some even speculated that the show would fare better on a cable network where such extreme content was expected. That said, the show’s critical reception was even greater than it had been previously and the show was nominated for even more awards, once again winning Best Network Television Series and Best Actor on Television at the Saturn Awards in 2015, as well as winning Best Supporting Actor on Television this time. This might be why NBC once again renewed the series for a third season.
For the third season of the show, Bryan Fuller dived right into adapting and remixing the books for television. The first half of the season adapts the novel Hannibal, while also mixing in elements from Hannibal Rising. The second half then adapts the events of Red Dragon. Michael Pitt suddenly decided to leave the cast and was replaced by Joe Anderson. Several new supporting cast members were added, including Fortunato Cerlino as Rinaldo Pazzi, Tao Okamoto as Chiyoh (a handmaid of Lady Murasaki), Richard Armatage (Thorin Oakenshield himself!) as Francis Dolarhyde, Rutina Wesley as Reba McClane and Nina Arianda as Molly Graham. However, the ratings still didn’t pick up and even before season three had finished airing, NBC announced that they were cancelling the series. Despite this sad news, the third season was just as acclaimed as ever, being nominated for (and winning) several more awards as fans mourned its cancellation. Since then, there were talks that Amazon or Netflix may pick up the series for renewal, but nothing has materialized…
In the first season of the show, Will Graham is teaching at the FBI when Jack Crawford convinces him to come back into the field to help lend his talents to the hunt for the serial killer known as the Minnesota Shrike. We discover that Graham has a talent for empathy, being able to look at a crime scene and intuit the killer’s motivations and design. This takes a toll on him mentally though and Crawford asks Hannibal Lecter to monitor Will to ensure that he doesn’t harm himself. During the hunt for the Shrike, Lecter deduces the identity of the killer, Garrett Jacob Hobbs, and warns him that the FBI are coming. When they arrive, Graham is forced to kill Hobbs when he tries to cut his daughter Abigail’s throat. Graham and Lecter begin to care for Abigail while continuing to solve crimes for the FBI. During the course of the season, a serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper begins killing again and the hunt for this killer gets underway. At one point, it is believed that a former surgeon and psychiatric patient named Abel Gideon is the Chesapeake Ripper, but it is discovered that this is a delusion implanted by Frederick Chilton in an attempt to gain notoriety. In retribution, Gideon escapes, goes on a murder spree and mutilates Chilton, removing several of his internal organs before he is apprehended by Graham. During this time, Abigail is induced to murder a man who had been harassing her, which Hannibal helps her to cover-up. Graham’s mental state deteriorates more and more as the season progresses and eventually we come to discover that Hannibal has been accelerating this decline, subjecting him to experimental treatments and lying about his diagnoses. However, Graham begins to realize that there is a greater design at work and that several of the recent murders they’ve been tracking have had a pattern to them. Graham has a hallucination and believes that he has killed Abigail, when in reality Hannibal corners her and whisks her away. Graham is arrested for Abigail’s murder, but escapes. Realizing that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper and has been manipulating him all this time, Graham tries to kill him but is shot and put into psychiatric care by Jack Crawford.
In the second season, Kade Prurnell is investigating Jack Crawford for misconduct in allowing Will Graham to have a mental breakdown on his watch. Meanwhile, Hannibal begins taking Graham’s place as an FBI profiler in the field, but uses it as an opportunity to commit more murders. Graham’s case goes to trial, but someone begins murdering the bailiff and the judge in a style similar to the murders Will is accused of, in order to try to save Graham from trial. Fellow FBI agent Beverly Katz begins going to Graham for insight into the murders and decides to investigate Hannibal. This ends in her death as Beverly’s evicerated body is found on display afterwards. Seeking revenge, Graham learns that an orderly at the psychiatric hospital is responsible for the death of the bailiff. The orderly believes that Graham is responsible for the crimes he is accused of and considers himself a big fan. Will uses his devotion to try to get him to kill Hannibal, but the attempt is foiled by Jack Crawford. Soon after, Jack Crawford traces clues from the Chesapeake Ripper and finds a trainee of his who had gone missing years before, Miriam Lass, still alive and held captive by the Ripper. With no evidence held against him, Will Graham is released from custody and attempts to find a way to prove his allegations about Hannibal. However, due to hypnotherapy, Miriam Lass believes that Frederick Chilton is the Chesapeake Ripper and, in a fit of panic, shoots him in the face. He survives, but is arrested for the Ripper’s crimes.
Following this, Graham goes back to work at the FBI and decides to become Hannibal’s patient again, although now Hannibal nudges Graham towards committing murder with him. Hannibal sends one of his former patients to kill Will in retribution for Graham’s earlier attempted murder, but Graham kills and mutilates him, saying that they’re even now and showing that he is willing to play Hannibal’s game now. Shortly thereafter, Freddie Lounds is investigating Will Graham when she is discovered and then her flaming body is found afterwards, presumably murdered by Graham. Meanwhile, Hannibal is trying to get one of his other patients, Margot Verger, to kill her abusive brother, Mason. Instead, she sleeps with Will Graham in order to get pregnant and be able to birth an heir to the Verger family fortune. When Hannibal informs Mason of this, he has his sister’s baby aborted and sterilizes her. Will flies into a rage and is tempted to kill Mason, but instead warns him that Hannibal is playing them all in an attempt to get Verger to kill Hannibal. We then discover that Will has been working with Jack Crawford all along, that Freddie Lounds faked her death to provide cover and that they have secured testimony from Hannibal’s therapist, Bedelia Du Maurier – all they need now is to get concrete evidence of Hannibal attempting to commit murder, since thus far he has only been caught using manipulation. Verger kidnaps Hannibal and attempts to feed him to his pigs. Will hopes that this will be his chance to get evidence, but when he frees Hannibal he gets knocked out by Verger’s men and Hannibal escapes with Mason. He drugs Mason and convinces him to cut off his own face and feed it to Will’s dogs before breaking his neck. Sensing the FBI closing in, Hannibal suggests that it’s time for he and Graham to run away together. They plan to murder Jack Crawford and then run, while Will simultaneously plans with Crawford to use the opportunity to arrest Hannibal. The sting moves forward sooner than planned though, as Prurnell becomes aware of the plan and tries to stop it and Graham warns Lecter in advance. Jack confronts Hannibal and is nearly killed when Alana Bloom arrives and draws Hannibal’s attention away. She is shocked to find Abigail Hobbs upstairs, who then pushes Alana out the window onto the concrete below. Will then arrives and is stabbed and nearly gutted by a wounded and betrayed Hannibal, who then cuts Abigail’s throat. The entire main cast lies bleeding out as the episode ends with Hannibal escaping to Europe with Bedelia Du Maurier.
The third season picks up with Hannibal and Bedelia living together in Italy. Hannibal has assumed the identity of a Dr. Fell and is attempting to become a curator at a local museum, murdering his way up to promotion as Bedelia grows increasingly erratic with his brazenness. We soon discover that Will, Jack and Alana all survived their encounter with Hannibal at the end of the last season and are all hunting down Hannibal with a vengeance (Abigail succumbed to her throat slash and bled out). In Will and Jack’s case, both are following clues which lead them to Italy directly, whereas Alana joins forces with Mason Verger and helps him to put out a bounty to capture Lecter. An Italian detective, Rinaldo Pazzi, is on Hannibal’s trail as well. Will travels to Hannibal’s childhood home and meets Chiyo, a handmaiden of Hannibal’s aunt. For years she has been keeping a man prisoner in the basement for Hannibal, who he claims ate his sister Mischa. She refuses to kill him, believing it better to keep him alive. Will frees the man and Chiyo kills him in self-defense. Realizing that he was kept prisoner all along because Hannibal wanted to test if she was capable of killing him, Chiyo agrees to help Will find Hannibal, but soon doubts his intentions and throws him from a train on the way to Italy. Meanwhile, Pazzi contacts Verger and decides to collect the bounty on Hannibal’s head, but he is killed by Hannibal when he attempts to confront him. Jack and Will close in on the rogue Hannibal, apprehending Bedelia, who attempts to convince them that she has had a mental breakdown and no longer knows her true identity. When Will finally finds Hannibal, he tries to kill him but is shot by Chiyo instead. Will and Jack are then tied up by Hannibal, who attempts to cut open Will’s skull with a saw, but is thwarted when Verger’s men find the group and whisk Will and Hannibal away to his estate. Verger reveals that he plans to eat Hannibal and transplant Will’s face onto his in retribution for his own mutilation. However, Mason’s plan begins to unravel as Alana and Margot begin to make their own plans with Will and Hannibal, arranging for Hannibal to escape and take the blame for Verger’s murder. Hannibal then kills all Verger’s men, frees Will, and secures a sample of Mason’s semen for Margot so that Alana can serve as a surrogate mother, thereby allowing Margot to have a “suitable male heir” who can inherit the family fortune. Their plan complete, Margot and Alana are then able to kill the helpless Mason. Meanwhile, Hannibal takes Will back to his home and they agree to part ways. However, when the FBI arrives, they are shocked when Hannibal surrenders to them so that Graham will always know where to find Hannibal if he needs him.
The second half of the season then time skips three years. Jack Crawford once again recruits Will Graham, who has since married, to help him find the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. Graham is reluctant to get sucked back in once more but agrees to help. During the investigation, he finds that he needs to speak with Hannibal once more to get further insight into the case. Sometime later, Hannibal is contacted by the Tooth Fairy (Francis Dolarhyde), who is a big fan of Hannibal’s, and who tells him that he is becoming the “great red dragon” with his killing. Dolarhyde strikes up a relationship with blind co-worker Reba McClane, but when the relationship turns physical his hallucinations tell him that she is to be his next victim. In desperation, he eats the original copy of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun but is nearly captured by Graham who had gone to view the painting as well. When the voices aren’t silenced, Hannibal suggests to Dolarhyde that he kill Will Graham’s family instead. Dolarhyde agrees and breaks into their home, nearly Molly Graham and her son, but they barely manage to escape the killer and get into FBI custody. Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom realize that Hannibal has been corresponding with Dolarhyde and try to get him to get information on the killer the next time he calls Hannibal, but during their next conversation Lecter warns Dolarhyde that they are being eavesdropped on and their conversation ends. With this avenue cut off, Will and Crawford attempt to draw out Dolarhyde by staging an unflattering interview about him with Frederick Chilton. This works, but instead of going after Graham, Dolarhyde captures Chilton and explains his motives to him before biting off his lips and then immolating Chilton. Chilton miraculously survives and accuses Graham of setting him up intentionally. Knowing that the dragon will come for Reba soon, Dolarhyde reveals his alter ego to her and then stages suicide in order to escape. He uses this opportunity to confront Graham and demands that he be able to see Hannibal. The FBI realizes that the body they have isn’t Dolarhyde and once again tries to figure out a way to draw him out. Graham suggests that they stage Hannibal’s escape in order to accomplish this. However, the attempt is thwarted when Dolarhyde attacks their convoy and Hannibal and Graham escape for real. They flee to a cliff-side house where Hannibal had previously held victims captive and are confronted by Dolarhyde. Dolarhyde severely wounds the pair, but they manage to overpower him and stab him to death. Hannibal and Graham embrace and then fall over the cliff-side together.
There are a lot of things to talk about with Hannibal, so we’ll start with the first thing that really struck me about this series: holy shit it is gory! It’s wild just how much Bryan Fuller was able to get away with for a network TV series, because the level of gore is beyond anything in the movies and even gets close to The Walking Dead levels of violence. Like, we’re talking a totem pole made of dead, dismembered bodies, a pair of bodies whose back skin has been cut off and turned into wings, a guy being given a Glasgow smile, a guy having his tongue pulled through his neck, disembowelling… and that’s just the first season! Subsequent seasons have such highlights as Mason Verger cutting his face off and feeding it to Will’s dogs (something so fucked up that even the notoriously twisted Hannibal (2001) shied away from showing it), a guy’s dismembered body being broken to fit onto the skeleton of a cave bear, and a guy having his lips bit off and body immolated. God forbid they show a nipple though! Seriously though, the only reason I think that they managed to get away with any of this is because they rarely show the act itself, just the aftermath, and a judicious amount of creative lightning. Hannibal really likes to revel in its gore so you should be aware of that going in – it’s not for the squeamish.
The next thing that will really strike you about Hannibal is the production quality and cinematography. Nearly every shot in Hannibal is beautiful, easily outstripping all previous Hannibal Lecter films in terms of pure aesthetic appeal. It’s not just for the sake of style though, the abstract and symbolic imagery is often used as a way to show us a characters’ psychoses. The most obvious example of this is Will Graham’s frequent hallucinations of a pitch-black man with antlers, representing his minds-eye view of the killer who is trying to elude him. Similarly, Francis Dolarhyde’s hallucinations are is also literally portrayed, showing him painfully growing a tail or literally becoming the Great Red Dragon of Blake’s painting as his delusion grips him more and more. While some may decry the lack of subtlety, portraying the characters’ minds in such a direct way on screen is not only effective, but it helps make for some compelling and unforgettable imagery as well.
Of course, we wouldn’t get nearly as much of this on-screen psychosis if Will Graham wasn’t our lead character. Luckily, Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the character is by far the most interesting one we’ve gotten yet. In previous incarnations of the character, it didn’t feel like there was all that much to his empathetic talent – he was apparently able to get into the mind of a killer to solve their crimes, but ultimately it just felt like he was smart and noticed a little clue which led to the breakthrough to solve the case; empathy had very little to do with it. In Hannibal though, Will Graham’s empathy is practically a super power. We get a cool sequence every time he does it where he looks at the clues at the crime scene and then lives out what happens. Through this you actually get a sense that he’s doing something no one else could do, while simultaneously being able to understand why it would take such a hefty mental toll on him to do so. Will looks like he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown for half the series, even before Hannibal starts actively manipulating and accelerating that breakdown. Manhunter and Red Dragon talked big about how being able to think like a killer was treated like some sort of moral equivalence, but I never understood this argument – isn’t acting it out the issue, rather than being able to conceive of it? Hannibal, however, does a better job of showing that Will Graham is on the verge of going off the deep end and then some. No one knows how far Will will go over the line or where his allegiances lie, not even Will himself, so in the second half of season two you seriously believe that he would start indulging in his murderous side with Hannibal.
I’ve seen many people declare that Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is the best portrayal of the character and… well, if we ignored Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon then Hopkins might be close, but taking those two moustache-twirling portrayals into account I’m inclined to agree. Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen have described this incarnation of Hannibal as him being a personification of Lucifer, and it’s such a perfect way to describe this character. This version of Hannibal is still the refined, smart, high-class figure we know, but his evil is far more hands-off – he prefers to toy with his victims without them even knowing it, getting into their heads, tempting them, creating chaos when it interests him just to see what will happen. Since most of the characters don’t even realize that Hannibal is a serial killer for half of the series, this just makes him even more sinister and straight-up evil compared to previous incarnations. Hopkins’ Lecter was evil, sure, but they always tried to portray him as a killer with a moral compass. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is just pure evil though, treating everyone around him like playthings and holding their lives in his hands. Perhaps my favourite example is when he presides over Jack Crawford’s wife, Phyllis, as she attempts to commit suicide. After she has gone unconscious, he flips a coin to decide whether to save her life or not. It’s such a cold and emotionless response to such a charged action that it’s truly chilling that he doesn’t care about what he’s doing. Throughout the entire first season, Hannibal breaks Will’s mind, making him believe that he’s gone insane and murdered people, and when Hannibal is found out he only says that he was “curious about what would happen”. Hannibal then holds a lopsided amount of power and influence over Will for the rest of the series, causing Will to have a twisted sort of dependency on Hannibal. It makes for a super toxic relationship, one that is very uncomfortable to watch unfold (which infuriates me that so many people ship them and ignore Hannibal’s wildly abusive behaviour).
Really, most of the characters in Hannibal are portrayed at their best in this franchise, thanks largely due to the writing, the stellar cast and by virtue of being in a TV series which means more time for character growth. Laurence Fishburne is a great Jack Crawford. Fishburne could just coast by on his standard authority figure shtick (a la Mission: Impossible III, CSI, etc), but he imbues Crawford with additional depth and emotion. We actually get to really like and understand the character as we see him grapple with his wife’s imminent death, his guilt over pushing Will Graham to his limits and his sense of doom as he realizes that his close friend Hannibal has been betraying him all this time. I really like Scott Glenn’s portrayal of the character in The Silence of the Lambs, but Fishburne gets a lot more to work with in the show and makes for a much more interesting character. Mason Verger is also a bit more interesting in the show than he is in Hannibal (2001), since the show includes his abusive relationship with his sister, Margot, and expounds on the character’s obsession with eugenics and passing on his seed. He makes for a truly despicable villain, although I found Michael Pitt’s performance in season two far more interesting than Joe Anderson’s in season three. Pitt’s Mason is sinister, eccentric and arrogant, akin to a more expanded-upon version of Gary Oldman’s Mason, whereas Anderson’s Mason comes across more like a full-on angry bad guy the whole time. Perhaps my favourite performance in the entire show though is Raúl Esparza’s Frederick Chilton. Initially he just comes across as he does in the previous films – an arrogant, amoral, greasy asshole who gets what’s coming to him. However, as the show goes on you feel more and more sorry for him, in part due to Raúl Esparza’s fantastic performance. Like, maybe he deserved to get disembowelled for screwing with his patient’s mind, but I felt so sorry for him when Hannibal frames him for murder and then gets him shot in the face (which, we later find out, leaves him disfigured and blinded). As if that wasn’t bad enough, in season three he puts in a hell of a performance when Dolarhyde captures him – the terror that Esparza conveys during this scene makes it perhaps my favourite scene in the entire series. As if that wasn’t enough, he then gets his lips bit off and set on fire, leaving him horribly mutilated – plus it’s implied that Will set him up for this. Goddamn, I kind of just wish that they’d let him die, or at least make him the next season’s villain to let him get some revenge or something. Even smaller roles, like Freddie Lounds, get more depth to them in this show. Whereas previous incarnations just had Lounds as a sleazy, one-note journalist, this incarnation gives her a bit more depth. She’s ultimately concerned about getting the truth out there at all costs, even if it crosses ethical boundaries, which is far more intriguing than “wants money”.
The writing on the show tends to be strong as well, making for really engaging television. While most of the first season starts out as a CSI-style crime-of-the-week format, it really starts to hit its stride when the plot begins to revolve around the twisted relationship between Hannibal and Will Graham. Even these crime-of-the-week style episodes tend to have some great writing and themes that help justify their existence – for example, revelations during an episode revolving around a killer who is afraid of dying of cancer helps Jack Crawford to realize that his wife has cancer as well, while a later episode revolving around a killer who euthanizes victims as a “mercy” ties into Phyllis’ attempted suicide in the face of a drawn-out death. The second season doesn’t just rehash the first season’s formula, rather it turns it on its head and then goes completely in another direction. Season two starts with Will institutionalized and while I expected that it would be more of the same, but with Hannibal taking Will’s role in the FBI, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Season two instead focuses on Will’s (mis)trial before eventually bringing his murderous tutelage and attempt to entrap Hannibal to the forefront, making for some really gripping drama before ending in a Shakespearean-style bloodbath. The finale of season two has to be one of the most intense cliffhangers I’ve ever seen for a show and thank God they got the chance to follow it up or there would have been riots from fans. Season three continues to shake up the status quo, transplanting the series to Italy for several episodes, scattering its cast to the wind and adapting Hannibal and Red Dragon too for good measure. I definitely prefer the slow-building tension of Pazzi’s downfall in Hannibal (2001), but otherwise Hannibal‘s adaptation of the story cuts out a lot of the fat and boils down the story to its core – Hannibal’s on the run in Italy and Mason Verger’s trying to have him killed. It’s also rather interesting that they adapted this story out of continuity with the novel timeline, but that’s fine by me, I don’t understand why Mason Verger would wait decades to get his revenge on Hannibal Lecter anyway.
As for the Red Dragon half of season three… holy crap, it is the best (although not the most faithful) adaptation of the novel we’ve gotten by far. Richard Armitage is incredible as Francis Dolarhyde, effectively demonstrating this character’s overwhelming menace and making him a legitimately scary antagonist. He’s still sympathetic, like Ralph Fiennes’ rendition, but comes across as far more dangerous. His love interest, Rutina Welsey’s Reba McClane, is also really solid. While I don’t think she makes quite as much of an impression as Emily Watson’s adorably horny take on the character, Rutina is still fantastic in the role and is a big reason why we feel as much sympathy for Dolarhyde as we do. Dolarhyde and McClane dominate a good chunk of season three, but of course Will and Hannibal both get their own unique twists on the story, given that this is both an adaptation and a pseudo-sequel at the same time. In Manhunter (especially) and Red Dragon, Will is very much a family man at heart. Here, Will’s marriage is clearly an escape for him, a way to ignore his trauma, murderous temptations and his fascination with Hannibal Lecter. Meanwhile, Hannibal’s role gets beefed up, naturally. However, it is far better integrated into the plot than it was in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon. Here, one can understand why Dolarhyde would be fanboying over Hannibal and, given all we know on this take of Lecter, we can understand why he would be toying with the killer and trying to drive Will over the edge. This all culminates in a totally original conclusion where Hannibal is used to draw out Dolarhyde, which results in he and Will escaping together and taking down Dolarhyde together. While a part of me wishes that they could have just stuck with the book’s ending, since this is a semi-sequel as well as an adaptation it makes sense that they would have to make the ending a bit more momentous, and in that regard they succeed.
As much as I like basically everything on this show, there are some aspects of the writing that bother me. First of all, maybe it’s due to the nature of being a TV serial, but the plot can get really ridiculous and contrived at times. Like, in the first season alone you’ve got like a dozen serial killers all operating in the vicinity of Baltimore at once? I get that it’s a TV show about cops and serial killers and therefore you need some killers for them to hunt, but the sheer volume of them that happen to be in each others’ circles just becomes silly upon reflection as the show goes on. There’s also the fact that Will straight-up admits to hiring a guy to get Hannibal killed, but then a couple episodes later he’s released from custody because they can’t find any evidence that he was involved in a different set of murders. Like… can’t they just keep him imprisoned for the attempted murder they know he committed? Or how about when Will dismembers and displays a body in public, ostensibly to maintain his cover as a burgeoning killer with Hannibal? You’re telling me that the FBI are okay with this, that they can just ignore that kind of action? Or how about Hannibal sawing Will’s head open, which gets interrupted by Verger’s men and then immediately forgotten and forgiven? As the series goes on, all these little things just add up and make nearly every single character on the show seem terrible at their jobs.
My other issue with the writing is that the female characters are almost entirely shafted by the show. Dr. Alana Bloom is by far the worst victim of this. In season one she is effectively Will’s love interest, guardian angel and moral compass, but doesn’t get a lot to do. In the second season, she then shifts to being Hannibal’s love interest, in part because she’s so distressed about what happened to Will, until she gets pushed out a window and left for dead. In season three she just goes off the rails, joining Mason Verger for revenge against Hannibal before falling in love with Margot Verger with zero set-up, then presiding over the institution that Hannibal is being kept in before just petering out of the story. For one of the headline characters on the show, the writers clearly have no idea what to do with Alana Bloom, just forcing her into where ever the plot can use her at any given time. It’s so bad that I effectively excised her role from my plot synopsis – she’s that inconsequential to the plot that she could be cut entirely. I also felt like Margot Verger wasn’t nearly as compelling as she should have been. She’s introduced as an abuse victim and then very suddenly becomes a love interest for Will, blatantly using him to get herself pregnant. When Mason finds out, she gets subjected to one of the most awful sequences in the show, where Mason has her child aborted and womb removed to prevent her from being able to conceive another. It’s fucking awful and while Margot does ultimately get her revenge, she spends the rest of season two and half of season three just operating as Mason’s lackey while she occasionally plots how to defeat him. She’s got some potentially strong material to work with but I feel like the show just doesn’t pay Margot her due in order to make it land. Beverly Katz also gets shafted in the second season. I really liked her character, easily being the most interesting member of the FBI support team and forming a close friendship with Will. However, she is captured and killed by Hannibal early in the second season… and then is basically forgotten after that. As Will’s complicated relationship with Hannibal deepens throughout the second and third season, it’s like the fact that he murdered her, mutilated her body, and then put it on display is completely forgotten and forgiven. Bedelia Du Maurier also gets screwed by the end of the third season. Her character is electrifying, managing to stay toe-to-toe with Hannibal in the first couple seasons, but by the third she has become increasingly erratic from their time spent together, to the point that she loses her mind and literally serves herself up to Hannibal. It’s an unfortunate fate for a character who had been so cunning and insightful up to that point. And what of Abigail Hobbs? She’s a major player in the first season, becoming Hannibal and Will’s surrogate daughter, but she gets whisked away by Hannibal and disappears for nearly the entirety of the second season, as everyone believes she is dead. Then, when she does show up, she’s lost her mind and is quickly killed by Hannibal in a jealous rage… like, why even bother to bring her back if you’re just going to kill her again for real? It’s such a shitty fate for another legitimately interesting character. These aren’t even all of the examples of treating female characters as afterthoughts in the show, just the most prominent, but they irk me all the same.
Nitpicks aside, Hannibal makes for great television. Everyone is giving it their all and they managed to put out a fantastic series that never really got the success it was due. I’d like to see what Bryan Fuller and company could have done with The Silence of the Lambs and onward, but if the series never gets picked up again, I can say confidently that it ended on a high note.
So where does the franchise go from here? Unlike some retrospectives I’ve done, the path seems pretty clear in this case. For one thing, CBS has finally announced that they’re moving forward with Clarice, which is supposed to follow Clarice Starling a year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs play out. Given that MGM only owns the rights to that story and not Hannibal Lecter, I don’t really understand how they’re going to make it enticing for audiences, but Clarice Starling is a compelling enough character that I’m not willing to write it off yet. As for Hannibal, rumours of a fourth season have been persisting since even before the show’s cancellation. In fact, during the writing of this retrospectives series, more news came out that an announcement regarding the fourth season could be imminent. With the sudden surge in popularity that the series has found since coming to Netflix, the audience is finally there and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finally know the future of the series soon. Unfortunately, with Clarice underway, that makes an adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs incredibly unlikely. That’s the small screen covered, but what about the big screen? Bryan Fuller has expressed interest in making a film about this rendition of Hannibal Lecter and I would think it unlikely that we’ll see any other take on the character for quite some time, given how much Mads Mikkelsen’s rendition has captured the popular consciousness. With Thomas Harris having apparently moved on from the character (his most recent novel was 2019’s Cari Mora, a completely original tale divorced from Hannibal Lecter), it’s unlikely that we’ll be getting any more books to be adapted any time soon, meaning that the rights holders might finally have to start getting creative.
This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – 9/10
2) Hannibal (2013-2015) – 8/10
3) Hannibal (2001) – 6.5/10 (again, I know a lot of people think this movie sucks, but give it another chance and just go with the campiness)
4) Manhunter (1986) – 6/10 (come at me, nerds)
5) Red Dragon (2002) – 6/10
6) Hannibal Rising (2007) – 4.5/10
Thanks for going through another retrospectives series with me. I always enjoy writing these things, even if the time commitment they require makes them difficult to put out more than once or twice a year. I can’t be certain when I will come out with a new blog post, but be sure to follow me on Twitter where I will keep you updated. ‘Til next time, bon appetit!
Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s entry we’re going to be looking back at 2007’s Hannibal Rising, the Anthony Hopkins-less prequel which goes back to Lecter’s origins. Could the film succeed without the star which had propelled it for the past 15 years? Read on to find out…
I’m “meh” on this poster. The eye makes for a nice callback to the much better The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal posters and the samurai mask is a clever way to play with series iconography, but there isn’t enough here to get me particularly excited. The mere presence of Hannibal Lecter would have to be enough for you to swoon for this to be truly effective.
Even prior to the release of Red Dragon, the producers were giving thought on how best to continue their franchise. During interviews to promote Red Dragon, Anthony Hopkins revealed that he had written his own screenplay for a sequel to Hannibal which would have wrapped up the series with Clarice shooting Lecter, but it was never picked up. The future of the franchise was uncertain for many years with the producers going quiet about their plans. Behind the scenes though, Dino de Laurentiis was eager to move forward with a prequel detailing Hannibal’s origins. He met with Thomas Harris and threatened to make a prequel without Harris’ involvement unless Harris would come up with a story in a timely manner. It is almost certain then that the notoriously slow Thomas Harris rushed out his next novel, Hannibal Rising, in record time to retain creative control, while also writing the accompanying screenplay for the movie adaptation. I was able to find shockingly little information about this film’s production history online, even less than Red Dragon, and this seems to be partially by design – the movie was kept a secret until only a few months before release. It seems that this was done in order to use the release of the novel as a springboard to generate hype for the film and prolong the book’s own popularity by extension. Even then, very little details were known about the film ahead of time – various incorrect rumours less than 5 months before the film’s release touted that the title would be Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask (perhaps changed because of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon?), that Anthony Hopkins would narrate the film, and that its final act would detail the time between Lecter’s arrival in America and his capture by Will Graham.
Hannibal Rising would be directed by British director Peter Webber. While not a well-known director, he was coming off of a huge critical success with his debut film Girl With a Pearl Earring and so was an interesting choice. The role of a young Hannibal Lecter would go to French actor Gaspard Ulliel, while the supporting cast would be filled out by Gong Li and such prestigious character actors as Rhys Ifans and Dominic West. After the smaller box office take by Red Dragon, the budget was also scaled back from $78 million to just $50 million.
The first trailer wouldn’t drop until mid-December 2006, just a month after the novel’s release, with the movie itself set to release less than two months later. Universal passed on distribution of the film this time around and instead it was picked up by The Weinstein Company, hoping to score themselves a hit. It wasn’t to be though because critical response to Hannibal Rising was scathing and the film opened to a modest box office take which quickly tapered off, bringing in on $82.2 million at the end of its worldwide gross… but honestly anything that makes Harvey Weinstein unhappy is a win for me.
The film opens in 1944 with an eight-year-old Hannibal Lecter having to flee his family’s castle with his parents and little sister Mischa to avoid clashes between the Germans and Soviet Union. They retreat to a secluded cabin, but the war makes its way to the cabin and the parents are both killed during a skirmish. Hannibal and Mischa hide in the cabin until a group of five Axis deserters, led by the vicious Vladis Grutas, take shelter in the cabin. Low on food, the men decide to kill and eat Mischa in order to survive.
The film then moves forward eight years, with Hannibal back in Lecter Castle, which has been converted into an orphanage. Hannibal is still traumatized by his sister’s deaths and lashes out violently at everyone around him until he escapes to Paris. Here he finds his newly-windowed aunt, Lady Murasaki. She teaches Hannibal about the culture of the samurai. Hannibal takes one of her family swords and uses it to kill a local butcher who had insulted Lady Murasaki and who was a well-known Nazi collaborator during the war. A French detective named Pascal Popil, who hunts down war criminals, suspects Hannibal of the killing but is unable to pin the crime on him definitively.
Soon after, Hannibal enters medical school, when he finally resolves to hunt down the men who killed his sister. He is unable to recall their names, but when he witnesses a criminal being injected with sodium thiopental he steals some for himself to remember the details of what happened in the cabin. When he does so, he remembers that a bag containing the killers’ dog tags was left behind in the cabin when a bomber destroyed the building, which caused the deserters to flee and allowed Hannibal himself to avoid being eaten. Armed with this knowledge, he returns to Lithuania and finds the dog tags. However, one of the killers sees Lecter enter the country and follows him here, but Hannibal overpowers him and ties him to a tree. He tortures the man to find out where his compatriots are and then kills him when he finds out that one of the men, Kolnas, is in Paris and has been meeting with Grutas there.
Lecter goes with Lady Murasaki to a restaurant owned by Kolnas and slips Kolnas’ dog tag to his daughter as a warning. Kolnas meets with Grutas and the other deserters to warn them about Hannibal. Grutas sends one of the deserters to kill Hannibal, but Lecter is waiting for him and drowns him in his laboratory. Hannibal attacks Grutas in his home shortly thereafter, but his bodyguards break in and save him before Hannibal can get the killing blow, forcing him to escape. In retribution, Grutas kidnaps Lady Murasaki and calls Lecter to draw him out before taking her to his houseboat. Hannibal goes to Kolnas’ restaurant to find Murasaki and finds Kolnas there. He gets Kolnas to tell him where Grutas’ houseboat is before killing Kolnas. Hannibal makes his way aboard and kills everyone to get to Grutas. Before killing him, Grutas reveals that the final deserter is hiding out in Canada and tells Hannibal that he too consumed his sister. This infuriates Hannibal and he carves up Grutas in brutal fashion before escaping the boat and blowing it up to fake his death. He then heads to Canada and kills the last deserter.
REVIEW Hannibal Rising reminds me of Leatherface, in that it’s a prequel that nobody asked for, turns the series’ main psycho into a teen heartthrob, and which puts in way more effort than you would expect from a straight-forward origin story. I imagine that this is because Thomas Harris wrote the plot for this film instead of de Laurentiis handing it off to someone else. You can tell that Harris was legitimately trying to tell a fresh story and tread new ground with this character, rather than just make a bunch of references to things that will define the character in later movies (for contrast, see Solo: A Star Wars Story). In the “Making Of” documentary, Peter Webber himself acknowledges that they were trying to reinvent the franchise and I have to give them some acknowledgement for making an actual effort… unfortunately, Hannibal Rising is a mess that squanders this admirable attempt at ambition.
While the story of Hannibal Rising is a fairly standard revenge plot and it demystifies Lecter as a character, there’s nothing inherently with it that would make for a fundamentally flawed film. Instead, it’s the way that the story is told that cripples this film. One issue is that there are various disparate plot threads which never come together in a satisfying manner. Take the fact that a big deal is made of Hannibal Lecter, Lady Murasaki and Inspector Popil all having lost their families in the war. This feels like it’s ripe for a thematic payoff, but it doesn’t actually matter in the end that all of these people share a common thread, it’s just something they mention from time to time. For that matter, Popil is supposed to be one of the main characters but he could easily be cut from the film and there’d be no difference made. It feels like he was added because there has to be an obligatory inspector character in a Hannibal Lecter movie, but he’s so useless – he immediately knows that Hannibal is a murderer but does nothing about it, provides absolutely no barrier to Hannibal achieving his goals and then shrugs his shoulders and assumes Hannibal’s dead at the end of the movie. Or what about the fact that the movie shows the bad guys burning photos of Hannibal’s family for warmth? Oh no, they’re symbolically tearing away the last connections he has to his family before they take Mischa away from him too! But no, like 15 minutes later we find out that Lady Murasaki has a bunch of photos of his family so it’s another missed opportunity to tell a deeper story. There’s so many little missed opportunities like these and when you think back on the film afterwards it makes the experience feel deflating.
There’s also the first hour of the film, which is overstuffed to the point that it gets rushed through in order to get to the generic revenge plot. The first 20 minutes deal with Hannibal’s childhood and rush through his parents’ death (a Russian tank shows up in the middle of an open clearing and then within seconds a squad of Stukas pass by and kill the parents) before the bad guys show up. Then we get the revelation that Hannibal’s been kept in an orphanage which used to be his parents’ castle and is bullied by everyone there, especially a cruel overseer. That doesn’t really matter though because less than 5 minutes later he’s already escaped the orphanage and makes his way to Paris. Then we get Hannibal training in the traditions of the samurai, which gets boiled down to one training montage before he’s out murdering dudes, heads off to medical school and decides that he wants to kill some Nazis. This break-neck pace means that characters have to be cartoonishly stereotypical. Need Hannibal to kill the butcher and make it feel justified? Quick, make him a two-dimensional racist, misogynist, Vichy asshole who’s just begging to get sliced up! Need to make us feel bad about Hannibal going on a murder spree? Quick, make one of the deserters a father! On a related note, it’s implied that Hannibal is so traumatized by his sister’s death that he won’t speak, but then he kills the butcher and is suddenly chatty as all hell with everyone. I believe that we’re supposed to infer that confronting his trauma is therapeutic for him, but him going from silent to chatty happens so suddenly and unceremoniously in the film that I can’t tell if we’re just missing story beats or if having him be silent that long was a mistake. Perhaps the best analogy to describe the first half of this movie is that it feels like one of those crappy musician biopics where they just string together a bunch of important sequences from the person’s life, but then don’t bother to make them build upon one another to make a satisfying story. I feel like this half of the film has some of the most interesting ideas, but the rushed nature means that we don’t get to enjoy it before we’ve gone and moved onto something else.
The rushed first half of the movie might get a pass if the second half made up for it, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie is just a dull revenge story that tries to turn Hannibal Lecter into a more violent cross between Batman and James Bond (oh hey, Batman Begins and Casino Royale came out a couple years before this movie, imagine that). If there is a theme in this movie it is “revenge makes you a monster”, but that is such bog-standard, well-worn ground for this kind of story. I know that some people considered Hannibal an anti-hero in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, but he was still murdering people there whose worst act was that they were either in his way or kind of rude. In Hannibal Rising they have to make the people he kills unrepentant, cartoonish monsters. I’ve already covered Hannibal’s first kill, the butcher, and how much of an asshole he is, but the film even has Inspector Popil straight-up tell us that it’s basically fine that Hannibal murdered him. As for the deserters, not only did they all kill and eat Hannibal’s sister, but they’re also Nazi war criminals for good measure. Grutas is even worse, also being a sex trafficker and attempted rapist on top of everything else. With bad guys this shitty, it’s hard to care when the film pulls a “ahh but Hannibal enjoys killing people, he’s also a monster!”-style “twist” near the end. Sure, Hannibal’s a bad guy too but everyone he kills in this movie deserves what they get and then some. If they had only eaten Hannibal’s sister and nothing else then that might have put in some level of ambiguity, between being faced with a desperate survival situation and the revelation that Hannibal also partook of the soup made from Mischa’s body. However, considering everything else these guys did, it’s hard to feel bad for any of them as he tortures them all to death.
As for Hannibal himself, he’s… fine, I guess. Gaspard Ulliel had impossibly big shoes to fill and I don’t think that he quite managed to do it, although I feel like this is more down to the material rather than any failing on his part. Due to how strung together the plot feels at times, Hannibal’s character varies wildly. At times he feels like a spoiled brat (such as, funnily enough, when he’s at the orphanage in his family’s former castle, it feels like he’s just mad that it’s not his anymore), at times he feels playfully evil (think Ramsay Bolton), other times he’s just a rage-filled psycho, and sometimes he’s just vampiric. I also find it kind of funny that the whole samurai angle means that you can accuse him of being a cultural appropriator and a weeb as well.
Meanwhile, Lady Murasaki is another missed opportunity. Early on it seems like she’s going to be the one who turns Hannibal into the man we know, training him in the samurai arts to kill and giving him a code of honour to guide his morals. It even seems like this was the filmmakers intent, as in the making of documentary they state that she is supposed to be Hannibal’s Aristotle, imparting her dark side upon the young man. However, this gets largely set-aside in the second half of the film as she suddenly gets cold feet about murdering the rest of the deserters when she finds out one of them has kids. Even worse, she gets turned into a goddamn damsel in distress in the final act, with Grutas constantly trying to rape her when she’s in captivity. Oh… and then there’s the weird romance between her and Hannibal which comes out of nowhere. Honestly, I had been thinking “damn, Hannibal and Murasaki are hot, pretty close in age and get along together, they’d probably make a good couple if they weren’t related through marriage”, but then I was caught completely off guard when the makeout session started. It’s not even the first time I’ve seen this movie, but I had completely forgotten that that happened.
Anyway, I can definitely tell that my thoughts on Hannibal Rising are jumbled, but that’s reflective of this movie’s messy plot. While watching it I kept thinking that it was messy, but fine, but the more that I thought about it afterwards the less I liked it. I do feel like they put in a lot more effort to try to make the movie good than I would have expected, but the execution just isn’t there. I can’t imagine anyone seriously wanting to know how Hannibal Lecter became a monster and, despite some strong talent and decent direction, Hannibal Rising just doesn’t justify the telling of this story.
…but the feast is not over yet. Be sure to tune in again soon for a very special bonus Retrospective finale to this series!
Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at 2002’s prequel/remake/cash-in, Red Dragon! After the negative reception of Hannibal, would a more back-to-basics prequel be able to reel in audiences? Read on to find out…
I’m not sure if you could make a more boring poster than this. Oh look, it’s Hannibal Lecter! You all love him, right? We’ll make sure he takes up 60% of the poster!
Frustratingly enough, there’s no production history about this movie on Wikipedia or the Hannibal Lecter wiki and I couldn’t find a making of featurette with any worthwhile information so I had to get creative and look up production information from way back in 2001 and 2002. Even before the release of Hannibal, Dino and Martha de Laurentiis announced that they were going to remake Red Dragon, emphasizing that Lecter’s role in the story would be expanded and there were rumours that Ridley Scott would be back to direct it. Manhunter‘s critical reevaluation had surged by this point, with even more popularity coming its way with the premiere of CSI and there was some discontent at the idea of remaking the film less than 20 years later. However, given the more than 10 year gap between the publication of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, it was obvious that no new Hannibal Lecter material was going to be produced any time soon so they needed to cash in somehow.
Hannibal‘s tepid response had soured many critics on the prospect of another outing though, with some saying that he had become a joke and moved into the realm of camp. Perhaps because of this, Ridley Scott didn’t return for Red Dragon and the project pivoted in a more serious direction, more akin to The Silence of the Lambs‘ tone. As if to confirm this direction, Ted Tally returned to write the script after skipping Hannibal due to his objections to the novel’s story. It was even rumoured that Jodie Foster may make a cameo appearance, despite the fact that Red Dragon was supposed to take place ten years prior to The Silence of the Lambs and everyone involved had noticeably aged in the interim (an obvious issue which the de Laurentiis brushed off casually). An issue which may have scuppered this idea was that MGM still held the rights to characters exclusive to The Silence of the Lambs, while Red Dragon was exclusively being distributed by Universal.
By the fall of 2001, human garbage pile Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) had signed on to direct the film and a plethora of talent flocked to Tally’s script, including Edward Norton as Will Graham, Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Lounds. Hopkins, of course, would return as Hannibal Lecter, having secured himself an $8 million payday plus 7.5% of the film’s profits for a role that is essentially an extended cameo. That just left the role of Francis Dolarhyde in the air. While Sean Penn was in early talks to play the role, Ratner wanted Ralph Fiennes, known at the time for dramatic roles in The English Patient and The End of the Affair, as well as being the antagonist in Schindler’s List. In December of 2001, Fiennes won the role and started a hardcore workout regimen to try to get himself into shape – Dolarhyde was supposed to be an intimidating bodybuilder-type and Fiennes (who describes his body shape as “slight”) had only a month until shooting began to bulk up, especially because he is completely nude for several of his scenes.
Ladies and gentlemen, you get to see Ralph Fiennes’ great red dragon in this movie.
The film released on October 4, 2001 and, while it did fairly well and received mostly positive reviews, it ended up grossing only $209.1 million, a little more than half the numbers Hannibal raked in. It seemed like Lecter fatigue had well and truly set in… PLOT SYNOPSIS
…I’m actually at a bit of a loss trying to figure out how I’m going to do this, because the overarching plot of Red Dragon is nearly identical to Manhunter. I’ve done remakes on the Retrospectives series, sure, but they always had big deviations and were distinctly different. Red Dragon doesn’t do that – it has its own distinct tone and style, but that doesn’t come across in a plot synopsis when 95% of the plot beats are the same. I was tempted to just copy + paste my plot synopsis from that film and then insert a couple sentences to show where this movie deviates, but that’s literally wasting my readers’ time. So, I’m just going to summarize the differences between this movie and Manhunter:
The movie opens with Hannibal Lecter at the opera and it is heavily implied that he kills the flute player for being bad at his job and then serves him to the orchestra’s board of directors. Shortly thereafter, he meets with Will Graham to discuss a case that Graham is stumped on. During their conversation, Will suddenly realizes that Hannibal Lecter fits the profile he’s been working on and Lecter ambushes him, nearly getting him. Before Lecter can land the killing blow though, Will stabs him with three arrows and then shoots him repeatedly, incapacitating the doctor and arresting him. Over the opening credits, it is revealed that Will has a psychological breakdown and retires.
The film then plays out largely the same for a long time. The main differences are that Will meets Hannibal now because he thinks best when he’s able to bounce ideas off of the doctor and many of the revelations that he comes to himself in Manhunter now come after visiting Lecter for clues. In addition, Dolarhyde appears earlier in this film, meaning that his romance with Reba is given more time to breathe.
The next big deviation is that Dolarhyde hears voices telling him to kill Reba after they have sex. Dolarhyde tries to defy them, even threatening to commit suicide in order to save her, but he is unable to silence them. In a desperate attempt to save her, he goes to the Brooklyn Museum and eats William Blake’s original painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, hoping that this will break its control over him.
From there, the film plays out the same until the ending of Manhunter. Instead of taking Dolarhyde down in a shootout at his home, Dolarhyde can’t bring himself to kill Reba. Instead, he burns his house down and then stages a fake suicide, substituting co-worker Ralph Mandy’s body for his own as Reba escapes to the police. Some time later, Will Graham has returned to his family when he receives a call from Jack Crawford warning him that Dolarhyde is still on the loose. He finds Dolarhyde with Will’s son and a shootout ensues in which Will and Dolarhyde are shot several times each. Will’s wife, Molly, takes his gun and gets the final shot in on the killer, ending the reign of terror of the Red Dragon once and for all.
REVIEW Red Dragon feels like a back-to-basics effort, trying to appease the fans after the backlash Hannibal received by making something that was safe and familiar. While the plot structure is a bit different than The Silence of the Lambs, you can see that the filmmakers were trying to harken back to it. These callbacks are met with mixed results, but the most obvious and important example of this is how Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s relationship has been changed in Red Dragon. In Manhunter, Will visits Lecter once in order to get back into the mindset he needs to hunt the Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, Lecter and Will are effectively a dysfunctional team, with Will bouncing ideas off of Lecter and Lecter pushing Will in the right direction. I was actually surprised at how well this change works in the opening scene, it makes the relationship between Will and Lecter more interesting, helps lay out why Will is so hesitant to return to the FBI and goes a long way to justifying why Will would keep going back to Lecter several times (and therefore give Hopkins more screentime). That said, eventually it starts to get insane that Will would keep talking to Lecter. Like, are you telling me that Will would continue to see Lecter after the bastard tried to have his family killed in retribution for Will capturing him!? I get that another family could die if you don’t catch the Red Dragon soon, but continuing to bring someone who is openly antagonistic to you into the investigation just seems counter-intuitive. There’s also the issue that this change in their relationship makes Red Dragon‘s Will Graham seem less competent than he was in Manhunter, where Graham had to figure out everything on his own. Will Graham didn’t really come across as someone with a sick mind in Manhunter, but in Red Dragon it comes across even weaker since Hannibal ends up doing all the profiling and Will just puts the pieces together.
On the shittier end of the Silence callbacks is the constant, in-your-face references to The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I hate this kind of hamfisted nostalgia that exists for no other reason than for you to go “Oh hey I remember that!” The entire sequence where Will meets the imprisoned Lecter for the first time is a perfect example, it rips off the opening of The Silence of the Lambs entirely nearly shot-for-shot. Oh look, it’s Dr. Chilton, remember how much you hate him? Oh hey, it’s the same dungeon where Lecter is kept, remember that? This is, of course, undermined by the fact that everyone is noticeably a decade older than they were in the previous film and no amount of half-assed makeup and hair-dye can disguise that fact. Even worse, while I was impressed at how well they justified expanding Lecter’s role early on, the more the film drags on the more contrived, disruptive and tiring it gets. The further in the film gets, the less relevant to the plot Lecter is and his constant shoehorning in gets infuriating. Like, after it’s discovered that Hannibal sent Dolarhyde Will’s family address, we get a short scene where Chilton takes away all of Hannibals books… did we really need this scene? It literally feels like a DVD deleted scene, especially because Will visits Hannibal later and we’d get this same information anyway. And then, during one of the climactic moments of the film when Dolarhyde sneaks into the museum to eat the Blake painting, we keep cutting back to Hannibal eating a meal… why!? It literally just disrupts the tension of the scene. Probably worst of all though is that as the film is ending Dr. Chilton says that a female FBI agent is going to meet Hannibal… hey, you like The Silence of the Lambs, don’t you? You know who that female agent is! It’s things that you like, therefore you like this too! It doesn’t close this story, it doesn’t add anything to this movie, it just panders to what we’re familiar with.
As I’ve alluded to already, Hopkins’ Hannibal is just tiring in this film. It’s obvious that they’ve tried to tone him down after the backlash Hannibal received, but Hopkins is still hamming it up, it’s just more restrained than it was in the past… which, honestly, is a shame. If audiences don’t find your serial killer scary anymore, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle without a complete overhaul and Red Dragon doesn’t go far enough in that direction. Hopkins just doesn’t seem to have as much energy as he used to and the fact that the movie wants to shove him in our face constantly doesn’t do him any favours. As for Will Graham, Edward Norton is just fine. He portrays Will’s concerns as a family man more compellingly than William Peterson did in my opinion, but in basically every other way he’s not as strong of a protagonist (which is in part because, again, Lecter steals most of his thunder and makes him look less competent). Will Graham is just not a very compelling character for me in Red Dragon or Manhunter, he’s just your archetypal hero cop. Most of the supporting cast seem to phone in their roles as well. Harvey Keitel’s Jack Crawford is literally the exact performance you would expect from “Harvey Keitel as a boss cop”. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also just giving as baseline a performance as you could imagine an actor of his caliber to give, although in his case it works really well for Freddie Lounds, makes the character feel less cartoonishly sleazy and more interested in money to the point that he’ll do anything without remorse.
Luckily for Red Dragon, Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dolarhyde and Emily Watson’s Reba McClane are easily the two best performances in the film and form its emotional core. I know that Tom Noonan’s performance in Manhunter has lots of fans for how imposing and weird he is, but in my opinion Fiennes makes for a much more interesting antagonist. For one thing, he is finally revealed only 40 minutes in instead of a full hour, meaning that we get significantly more time to develop his relationship with Reba. Furthermore, we get a much greater sense of Dolarhyde’s psychosis and how it creates conflict inside of him as his relationship with Reba deepens. The relationship itself is tragic, aided greatly by Emily Watson’s adorable performance as Reba. Her performance as Reba is super horny, with her trying to get Mr. D out of his awkward shell so she can get some of that Mr. D. The fact that she’s unaware of Dolarhyde’s psychopathy makes for a storyline that’s far more compelling than Will Graham’s A-plot and you’re left wondering if the Red Dragon can be defeated by love. That said, the very Psycho-esque voice-over from Dolarhyde’s grandmother which dominates his on-screen introduction is a very hamfisted way to get across his backstory. I understand that they had to get this across somehow in order for Will Graham’s taunting of the villain to work in the finale, but there had to have been a more elegant way to do so. Also, unlike Manhunter, we understand Dolarhyde’s psychology far better in Red Dragon but we don’t get a sense of why exactly he is killing families. In Manhunter it was because he wanted to possess what he couldn’t have because he was an incel loser. In Red Dragon he kills entire families because… he wants witnesses to his transformation into the Great Red Dragon? Because the voice tells him to? It’s weird that we get much more information about who Dolarhyde is but somehow understand why he kills less than we did in the comparatively sparse Manhunter.
I know that Red Dragon has a lot of fans, especially compared to Hannibal, but I personally just find it uninteresting. Whereas Hannibal went off in its own direction and wasn’t trying to be safe, Red Dragon seems terrified to try anything new. It takes a solid, well-liked story and then filters it through the lens of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, making for a very indistinct, also-ran kind of film. Manhunter is, overall, a more interesting film, but I do really like how Dolarhyde and Reba are handled by this film and prefer the ending of Red Dragon, so it’s a bit of a wash for me. The overall storyline is very solid and so it’s hard to really screw that up (even if you’re Brett Ratner; I find it hilarious that his Wikipedia page even goes out of its way to say that his movies suck), so Red Dragon is enjoyable even if it feels like it could have been conveyed better.
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal Rising!
Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be looking at the follow-up to the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, 2001’s Hannibal! As you may be aware, this film has a… reputation to say the least. Could it live up to its predecessor’s legacy? Read on to find out…
I goddamn love this poster. I remember as a kid seeing this in a movie theatre and having my imagination filled with possibilities about what this movie could be about. It’s so grimy and creepy, leaving much to the viewer to intuit for themselves and hinting that this is going to be a darker film than its predecessor. It’s also nice that it does its own thing while hinting at The Silence of the Lambs‘ iconic poster design.
Even before The Silence of the Lambs was published, Thomas Harris began conceptualizing a sequel where Hannibal was loose in the streets of Europe. However, after the surprise success of the film adaptation, demand for a sequel hit a fever pitch, especially from the owner of the film rights to Hannibal Lecter, producer Dino de Laurentiis. De Laurentiis regretted lending the rights to the character for free for The Silence of the Lambs, but planned on capitalizing on the newfound popularity of the character. He wasn’t the only one looking to make bank though and there was soon a mad scramble to get in on the follow-up (better strap in because the production of this movie was fascinating and a good example of why I include production history in these retrospectives in the first place).
First of all Orion Pictures, which had produced The Silence of the Lambs, had been having financial issues for years and filed for bankruptcy in 1991, even before they could celebrate The Silence of the Lambs‘ history-making Oscar run. This would ultimately result in the studio becoming a subsidiary of MGM, selling all their rights to them in the process, including the rights to the character of Clarice Starling. However, Universal studios chairman Tom Pollock tried to convince de Laurentiis to make the sequel with them instead, with de Laurentiis alleging that they were strong arming him by putting other pictures they were partnered on on the line. This would ultimately be taken to court and when it was settled it was agreed that Universal and MGM would co-distribute the forthcoming sequel.
Of course, this all still up in the air because, despite coming to an agreement, Harris was still working on his follow-up and it would be years before it would be complete. This was back during an era when studios would actually wait for a novelist to write a sequel instead of just forging ahead on their own, as demonstrated with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Director Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and screenwriter Ted Tally were all interested in returning for a sequel, with it being rumoured that Hopkins and Foster would each receive a cool $15 million to reprise their Oscar-winning roles. Finally, in 1999, the next novel in the series was published, titled Hannibal. The novel was met with mixed reception, with the main complaints revolving around its twisted violence and the ending, which sees Clarice Starling being drugged by Hannibal, engaging in cannibalism and then running off together in love.
When the details of the story came out, key members of the original film began to drop out. Ted Tally was disappointed with the novel and declined to write the script. Jonathan Demme passed on directing, citing his distaste over how violent it was and his disappointment about how Clarice Starling was handled (reportedly, upon hearing this, de Laurentiis said “when the Pope-a die, we create a new Pope-a. Good luck to Jonathan Demme. Good-bye.”). Jodie Foster’s refusal to return as Clarice Starling was particularly contentious, with her putting out several excuses talking around why she wasn’t reprising her role in the film, from concerns about the story quality, to Demme not returning, to financial concerns (according to de Laurentiis, Foster’s agent demanded $20 million and 15% of the gross, which he says caused him to reject her outright). Based on what was said at the time and since, I’d be willing to bet that the main issue was that Foster didn’t like how Clarice Starling was being portrayed in Hannibal, with a secondary concern being and that de Laurentiis was going to lowball her pay. Luckily for de Laurentiis, Hopkins was viewed as the crux of the entire project and agreed to return as Hannibal Lecter, otherwise the film probably would have never been made.
With nearly all of the key figures involved in The Silence of the Lambs gone, work began on hiring the new production team. Ridley Scott was approached during the filming of Gladiator and agreed to take over the director’s chair. This was exciting news since, while he has gained a reputation for being inconsistent in the last decade, his filmography consisted of landmark film after landmark film at the time (and later in the same year of Hannibal‘s release he would put out one of the greatest and most influential modern war movies, Black Hawk Down). The script was written by David Mamet (who wrote, among other things, The Untouchables and Wag the Dog), but this draft was then rewritten by Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian after a grueling brainstorming session between Zaillian and Scott to change the ending of the novel for the adaptation.
As for who would play Clarice Starling, several high-profile actresses were considered, including Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson (remember this one, it’ll be important in the future), Hilary Swank, Ashley Judd and Helen Hunt. However, Hopkins suggested to de Laurentiis that Retrospectives veteran Julianne Moore be considered for the role, as he had worked with her a few years earlier and thought that she would be great for the role. While I can’t confirm whether Hopkins’ endorsement ultimately won her the part (Ridley Scott also said that she was his top choice), Julianne Moore was chosen to play Clarice… and I’ll bet that de Laurentiis was happy about this because she was paid a reported $3 million!!! This legitimately infuriates me. Like I said earlier, Foster and Hopkins were both expected to collect around $15 million for their roles in this movie (I couldn’t find an exact number, but it is believed that Hopkins was paid more than $10 million for this film), which reflects the fact that both characters and their performers are crucial to the film’s success. The fact that de Laurentiis was just so flippant about casting Foster aside is more blindingly obvious proof of the Hollywood wage gap. Won’t take a pay cut, little lady? That’s all right, we’ll replace you with one of the other actresses starving for a meaty female role. Also consider the fact that Foster was considered expendable whereas Hopkins exiting the project would tank the entire production. I do get that Hopkins’ Lecter was the main draw for audiences and so I wouldn’t say that he doesn’t deserve a decent payday, but Clarice Starling was the real main character of The Silence of the Lambs and the beating, emotional heart which made it all work and that should be reflected. Also consider that Julianne Moore herself is getting lowballed at $3 million – she was coming off of such box office and critical successes as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Boogie Nights (which she would get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for), The Big Lebowski and Magnolia, and you’re telling me that she was worth less than a third of what her male co-star was getting (and that’s assuming that conservative $10 million number is correct)? Bull-fucking-shit.
For the other major roles, motherfuckin’ Christopher Reeve was offered the role of Mason Verger, but turned the role down when he actually read the script and realized that they were asking him to play a psychotic, disfigured, wheelchair-bound pedophile. The role went to their next choice, Gary Oldman. Ray Liotta was cast to play Paul Krendler, a Justice Department official who had previously appeared in The Silence of the Lambs played by Ron Vawter, but Vawter had died in 1994 and so had to be recast. Giancarlo Giannini (probably most famous internationally for playing Mathis in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) was cast as the shady detective Rinaldo Pazzi. Also noteworthy is the fact that the only other actor to reprise his role from The Silence of the Lambs was Frankie Faison as the asylum orderly Barney. Faison had also played a different, minor role in Manhunter, making him the only actor to stay a consistent part of the franchise thus far.
Filming lasted 16 weeks, with the production going on location in Florence and various locales across the US, which is probably part of the reason that the budget ended up going over $80 million, which is high for a hard R-rated film of this nature. Luckily for all the film’s financial backers, Hannibal opened February 9, 2001 to a $58 million opening weekend, the third largest debut ever at the time, and would gross $351.6 million. However, the critical and audience reception of the film was lukewarm and many people felt that it didn’t live up to the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs.
Ten years after the events of the previous film, Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose and is one of the FBI’s most wanted. Clarice Starling is leading a drug bust which goes awry when one of her agents disobeys an order to stand down. As a result, several people are killed and a PR nightmare ensues, with Starling taking the blame. After pulling some strings with corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler, Mason Verger (a grievously wounded survivor of Lecter) has Clarice Starling assigned to hunt down Lecter, believing that Lecter has a special relationship with her and that her involvement will draw him out into the open. This seems to work because shortly after being reassigned, Clarice finds a letter from Hannibal. After performing an analysis on the letter, it is discovered that it contains trace elements of a skin cream that is only legally available in certain parts of the world. Clarice requests police departments around the world to send security footage from potential shops, including in Florence. The chief inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, who has been investigating the disappearance of a library curator, recognizes someone in one of these security tapes, a man who he had interviewed about the disappearance named Dr. Fell. Putting two and two together, Pazzi investigates the FBI’s database and realizes that Dr. Fell is actually Hannibal Lecter. He soon discovers that someone has put a $3 million bounty on Lecter’s head and tries to collect it. He is told that he will require a fingerprint to positively ID Lecter before he can be apprehended. Pazzi recruits a pickpocket to get the fingerprint and, while he is successful, the pickpocket is stabbed to death by Lecter in the process. Despite this incident, Pazzi ignores ominous warnings from Lecter and a plea from Clarice to stand down and sends the fingerprint off for confirmation. He discovers that the bounty has been issued by Mason Verger and, despite being told that his own men will apprehend Lecter, Pazzi chooses to joins Verger’s crew to apprehend the serial killer. However, when he attempts to draw Lecter out into an ambush, Lecter ties up the inspector and then disembowels and hangs him from the balcony of the Palazzo Vecchio in retribution. He then murders one of Verger’s men in retribution before slipping away.
Frustrated that Hannibal slipped from his grasp, Verger bribes Paul Krendler again to put Clarice Starling in harm’s way. Verger fabricates a letter which makes it seem like Starling is aiding Lecter’s continued freedom, causing her to be suspended from the FBI. Hearing about this, Lecter calls Clarice and lures her out for a confrontation. However, Verger’s men are following her and apprehend Lecter. Clarice witnesses this and tries to get the police to inspect Verger’s estate, but they aren’t able to find anything incriminating. Clarice then decides to go on her own, finding Lecter tied up and about to be fed to Verger’s pack of carnivorous pigs. Clarice frees Lecter and kills two thugs but is shot and wounded herself. Lecter rescues her as the pigs break in and devour two of the guards after ignoring Hannibal. Lecter then convinces Verger’s physician to drop his boss into the pig pen, saying that he can blame Lecter. The physician complies and Verger is eaten alive.
Clarice wakes up sometime later at Krendler’s lakehouse, heavily drugged. She calls the police and then makes her way downstairs, where she finds Lecter preparing dinner with an even more heavily-drugged Krendler. Lecter reveals that he has sawed open the top of Krendler’s head, which he removes to expose his brain. Lecter cuts out a piece of the still-living Krendler’s brain and then sautés it and feeds it to him. Clarice then tries to stab Lecter, but he locks her ponytail in a fridge door and holds her down as she handcuffs him to her. With the police almost upon them, Lecter takes a cleaver and threatens to cut her hand off if she doesn’t release him. When she refuses to budge, he brings the cleaver down and she screams. Shortly thereafter the police find Clarice and it is implied that Hannibal chose to cut his own hand off to escape. He is seen in the ending on a plane, arm bandaged, sharing cooked brains with a child curious about his meal.
I think that the thing that I appreciate the most about Hannibal is that it aims to be very different from its predecessor. Too often sequels, especially sequels to a pop culture icon, end up just repeating the same bits, returning to a formula and become self-referential. The Hannibal Lecter franchise was ripe for this – hell, The Silence of the Lambs itself nearly falls into this trap since it could basically be boiled down to “Hannibal Lecter helps solve another murder case”. Hannibal is a different sort of beast though, by necessity. With Lecter on the run and ten years having passed, it would be very difficult to just do the same thing again without it feeling contrived. As a result, we get to see all sorts of fresh ideas play out. We get to spend the film’s entire second act in beautiful Florence, a breath of fresh air compared to all the comparatively boring American vistas that make up this series’ settings. We get to see a psychopath actively wanting revenge on Lecter, putting our main characters directly in danger. We get to see Lecter living out among the people and outsmarting everyone who tries to catch him. There’s some give-and-take to this approach, as the film is certainly slower and the tension is less consistent, but I do appreciate the attempt to inject fresh ideas into the formula.
There is so much to love in Hannibal. First off, the acting is great across the board. While Lecter doesn’t have quite the same spark that he did in The Silence of the Lambs, in part because he spends most of his screen time separated from Clarice, Hopkins seems to be having the time of his life and he’s always enjoyable to watch. As for Julianne Moore, she brings her own take of Clarice Starling to the film, one that is more experienced and disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the FBI. She’s much more defiant, she doesn’t take any shit from people who are still talking down to her. I’d have to say that Jodie Foster’s take was far more compelling, but Moore brings her own spin on the material that she’s given. The two best performances in the film have to be Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger and Giancarlo Giannini’s Rinaldo Pazzi. Starting with Verger, Oldman plays him like a rich, polite old man, despite the fact that his character is a self-professed pedophile who’s obsessed with the idea of torturing and killing the man who ruined his life. He’s so sinister and darkly funny at times, making for a more than worthy opponent to Lecter. I also love his obsession with feeding Hannibal alive to a pack of man-eating pigs, since that means that we get one of the most brutal and amazing set-pieces in the film which culminates in Verger’s own ironic death by pigs (a change which was made for the movie, thank God). I have to give a particular shout-out here to makeup artist Greg Cannom, whose prosthetics work makes Gary Oldman unrecognizable and so disturbing to look at. As for Rinaldo Pazzi, his story plays out over the course of the film’s second act and is easily the most compelling part of the film. It’s fascinating to watch Pazzi go from a disinterested cop to a man just barely holding onto his composure, blinded by greed to the obvious dangers he’s walking into.
Ridley Scott’s direction is also fairly solid throughout the film. I feel like Jonathan Demme’s direction favoured the characters more, but Scott brings his own take to the material. As one would expect of him, the production design is spot on (particularly aided by the fact that much of it was shot on location in some gorgeous locales) and the visuals are all top-notch. There are some moments when I feel like he has trouble keeping the audience oriented though, particularly during the chaotic opening shootout sequence (which looks cool at least, there’s so much blown up debris and sparks from ricocheting bullets) and when Hannibal draws out Clarice into a crowded station. I’m not sure if these issues come down to direction or editing, but they are two notable examples of when Hannibal‘s direction stumbles.
With all that said, let’s get to Hannibal‘s crippling flaw – the script. Damn near every aspect of this movie is firing on all cylinders and if not for the inconsistent quality of the script this could have been a very worthy successor to The Silence of the Lambs. We’ll start with what I think is the most damning flaw in the film, the treatment of Clarice Starling. Clarice is the film’s focus in the first thirty minutes: she’s devastated for having to shoot a woman holding a baby during the botched drug bust, she gets suspended unjustly, is reassigned to Lecter’s case and then starts following clues. Cool, that means she should find a clue to lead her to Lecter in time for the second act, right? Nooooope… for whatever reason, Clarice doesn’t do anything in the second act – aside from a few short and unimportant scenes, she effectively disappears for a whole fifty freaking minutes. The only things of note that she does in the third act is fail to find Hannibal when he’s right behind her, go rogue to rescue him and then basically lets Hannibal get away again. She’s a far-cry from the Clarice of The Silence of the Lambs who is the film’s emotional core and the one who’s driving the plot forward, here Clarice takes a back seat right as the plot is getting underway and gets pushed around where the story demands she go. The film also brings back hints of the sexism that Clarice faced back in The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s done to much lesser effect. Instead of being objectified and belittled by men in all areas of her life, the only person being sexist to her is her boss, Paul Krendler, who’s just a total sleaze. There’s a shot of him staring up Clarice’s legs and at one point he gets caught staring at a drawing of Clarice’s breasts that Hannibal sent her. We later discover that he’s doing this because Clarice wouldn’t have an affair with him, so he’s been making her career hell because he’s an abusive piece of shit. It’s nice at least that they acknowledge that this sort of power abuse happens, but it makes it feel like this is just the sort of thing that bad people like Krendler do instead of being a systemic issue that women routinely have to deal with. It’s such a shame that Clarice was done so dirty by this film, even with the ending being changed to be less controversial. With some more deviation from the book to make her a more active character she could have been at least on-par with Hannibal Lecter once again.
While I have complained that the second act totally shafts Clarice Starling, effectively excising her from the story for fifty minutes, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this was by far the best part of the movie. After a half hour of build-up we finally get to see Hannibal on the loose in Florence, working his way up into a curator’s position at a museum. Watching Pazzi come to the slow realization that Dr. Fell is Hannibal Lector and then trying to collect the bounty on him is fascinating. The film is at its absolute most tense and exciting during these sequences, since we know that Pazzi is no match for Lecter and we’re left waiting on the edge of our seat to see what the good doctor is going to do to this would-be hunter. And, like any good story, just when you think that Lecter is going to pounce, he relents until the tension has hit an absolute peak. This all culminates in the brilliant “bowels in or bowels out?” sequence, one of the most memorable in the entire film. And then… it just kind of ends on an inconsequential note. Hannibal escapes his pursuers and nothing comes of it. It’s ridiculous how much the air gets sucked out of the room once the second act is over. The only consequence is that Verger sees video footage of the killing where Hannibal waves, which he takes to mean that he’s waving to Clarice Starling… but, like, Verger already knew that she was Hannibal’s weak point from the very start of the movie. Hell, he already put pressure on her to lure Hannibal out once, having to do it again after this is just redundant and doesn’t flow with the story as it has been told up to this point. And to make matters worse, having Hannibal escape was pointless too because he gets captured like ten minutes later anyway. There were only really two ways to move the movie out of Florence and back to the States in a way that makes sense and doesn’t render the entire second act pointless: either have Hannibal get captured in Florence by Verger’s men after killing Pazzi, or have Hannibal realize that Verger’s onto him and that his only course of action now is to actively take on Verger (for example, think of how The Bourne Ultimatum brings Jason Bourne back to the US).
While I have my issues with how the first two acts play out, I still quite like the movie up to this point. However, the third act is a total mess. First of all, the sequence where Hannibal phones Clarice and lures her out to union station while he stalks her (complete with him brushing her hair when he goes past on a carousel) is just so silly and out of place. You’re telling me that Clarice isn’t hearing the musicians playing just beside Hannibal and trying to use that to pinpoint his location? She’s not hearing him speaking right behind her as he touches her hair? Then Hannibal gets captured by Verger’s men – I had thought that he was using Clarice to lure them out so he could pick them off one-by-one, but no, it seems like he was just a dumb-dumb all of a sudden so they could get ahold of him. Clarice just happens to see this too, so she calls the police who investigate Verger’s mansion and then leave again. You’re telling me that they’re just going to take his word that there’s no captured serial killers on my property, no sir-ee-bob!? They don’t leave any sort of surveillance, just in case he’s having him held elsewhere? Apparently not, because how else are we going to make Clarice decide to go rogue and break into the mansion to save Hannibal’s ass? I kinda love this sequence because it does result in several people being eaten to death by pigs, but feels very rushed in order to resolve the Verger plot and then get us into the finale… and hoo boy, what a finale it is. I’ve never been able to take the ending sequence of this movie seriously, which sees a drugged up Clarice watching as Hannibal peels Krendler’s skull open and feeds him parts of his own brain. It’s just too funny to be horrifying, in part because of Ray Liotta’s drugged-up acting and in part because the whole premise of feeding someone his own brain is just pure schlock comedy. Then, after that’s done, we get Clarice and Hannibal’s final confrontation, which ends with him chopping his own hand off to escape rather than harming Clarice. It’s an interesting moment, but it leaves us with no resolution for Clarice’s storyline. It’s definitely better than the book’s ending, but it’s still unsatisfying. This third act (which plays out over the last thirty minutes of the film) really sours me on Hannibal. After the first two acts move at a slow and measured pace, it suddenly feels like they had to cram too much story into the last thirty minutes and everything suffers as a result.
On a related note, this film could have been improved with some better editing and writing. The first couple acts are slow, but they could have been tightened up with more judicial cuts and better scripting. Like, did we really need two sequences where Verger realizes that Clarice is Hannibal’s weakness, where men are sent to capture Hannibal, and where Clarice gets dicked over by Krendler unjustly? There’s also moments that I don’t even understand why they made it into the film. There’s a sequence where we see Lecter scoping out Krendler’s apartment and then breaking into a hospital to steal medical tools so that he can later cut open Krendler’s head. Did we really need to spend several minutes belabouring this detail? I mean… in a post-Cinema Sins world some dickhead would probably nitpick “Oh where did Hannibal get these tools? Why did he know where Krendler lived?”, but we don’t really need to be shown this. Despite being roughly the same run time as The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal feels much flabbier and could have done with another pass on the script to tighten things up. Like I’ve said, there are elements about this movie and the story that I really like (such as the fantastic opening title sequence), but they’re bogged down with too much excess.
I’m well aware than Hannibal has a bad reputation, that it’s considered responsible for killing a lot of peoples’ interest in Hannibal Lecter with its pivot into campy, dark humour. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for it in my heart, just due to how much it deviates from the established formula and how sick and twisted it can be. That said, upon rewatching it my enthusiasm for the film has definitely dulled somewhat. There are still plenty of parts that I enjoy, but I have a hard time looking past how unsatisfying the last act is and how badly they treated Clarice Starling. Still, there’s enough here that I like that I can’t call it a complete disaster but I am disappointed that Hannibal didn’t live up to the potential it had.
Welcome back to the Hannibal Lecter retrospective! In today’s post we’ll be going over The Big One, The Silence of the Lambs. I mentioned in my review of Manhunter that that film felt dated, in part because it came before this landmark follow-up. Does Silence hold up better? Read on to find out…
I love this poster. It doesn’t give you any information about the film itself, it only gives you the title, a chilling mood and some symbolism to go off of, leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, if you look closely enough, you can see that the Death’s-head Moth’s skull has been replaced with a photograph of naked women arranged in the shape of a skull by Salvador Dali, further hinting at the film’s themes.
Sometime after completing Red Dragon, Thomas Harris began work on his next novel, which he decided would revolve around a strong female character. While not initially conceived as a sequel to Red Dragon, Harris’ female lead was almost instantly drawn to Lecter and the story developed out from there. The Silence of the Lambs was published in 1988 and was another success for Harris, winning him accolades and once again drawing the attentions of Hollywood. In 1987, prior to the novel’s release, prestige production company Orion Pictures (which were coming off a string of Best Picture winners, Dances With Wolves, Platoon and Amadeus) and Gene Hackman secured the rights to adapt the novel, despite Harris’ disappointment with Manhunter. However, they also had to negotiate to Dino De Laurentiis to get the rights to use the name “Hannibal Lector”, since he still owned these (which makes the fact that they spelled it “Lecktor” in Manhunter even more baffling). Disillusioned due to Manhunter‘s failures, De Laurentiis lent the rights to Orion and Hackman for free. Perhaps due to Manhunter‘s underwhelming reception, The Silence of the Lambs would be produced as its own stand-alone film, with references to the events of Manhunter/Red Dragon which were present in the book being omitted. Hackman was initially set to direct and star in the film, but halfway through the first draft of the script he dropped out and the studio had to step in to finance the film and find a replacement director. The job went to Roger Corman alum Jonathan Demme.
Jodie Foster had expressed great interest in the role of Clarice Starling, but was initially turned down by Demme, who approached Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern instead. However, when these choices didn’t work out, Foster secured the role. For Hannibal Lecter, Demme originally considered casting Sean Connery, but he turned the role down (a pattern for Connery, who might be the most comically stupid actor in Hollywood for turning down projects he doesn’t understand). The role instead went to Anthony Hopkins. The role of Buffalo Bill went to Ted Levine, who was largely unknown at the time, having played mostly bit parts up until that point.
The FBI cooperated with the production, providing consultation with the actors and even allowing the crew to film at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Hopkins drew inspiration for his iteration of Lecter from studying criminal case files, visiting prisons and presiding during several court cases. Meanwhile, Ted Levine focused on Buffalo Bill’s queerness, visiting gay and trans bars and taking as much inspiration from David Bowie as he did from murderers like Ed Gein and Gary Heidnik. This led to the book and the film receiving criticism and protests from feminist, gay and trans activists over the portrayal of Buffalo Bill, who was viewed as demonizing gay and trans people, a reputation which still sours appraisal of the film to this day. In spite of the controversy, The Silence of the Lambs proved to be wildly successful, grossing $272.2 million on a $19 million budget and winning a number of accolades including sweeping the “big five” at the Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay), only the third film in history to do so.
Clarice Starling, a student at the FBI Academy, is recruited by Jack Crawford to interview the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter – outwardly, to try to profile his behaviour, but secretly because they suspect that he may have insight on a serial killer who has been kidnapping, murdering and skinning women. Hannibal finds Clarice intriguing, but tires of her questioning. However, when a fellow prisoner flings his semen at Clarice, Hannibal decides that he will give her a lead. This leads Clarice to an abandoned storage locker, where she discovers the severed head of one of Hannibal’s former patients, a man named Benjamin Raspail. Lecter reveals that he believes that Buffalo Bill murdered Raspail many years prior and that he will help to try to catch Bill if they will move him to a more accommodating institution.
While this is occurring, Bill kidnaps his latest victim, who happens to be the daughter of the state senator. Knowing that time is short for this latest victim, Jack and Clarice craft a deal with Lecter for his cooperation, with him demanding insight into Clarice’s childhood before he will accept the deal. However, it is soon discovered that Clarice betrayed his trust as the deal was entirely falsified. A new deal is made between the institution’s overseer Dr. Chilton and Lecter, which is agreed upon with the senator herself. However, Clarice realizes that the information Lecter gave her was misleading and confronts him at a holding cell in a Tennessee courthouse for more information. After providing more details about her childhood, including a traumatic event where she tried to save the spring lambs from being slaughtered, Lecter tells Clarice that everything she needs to know to solve the case is included in the case files. Clarice is escorted out of the building and soon after Lecter escapes by killing his two guards and then cutting one of their faces off, disguising himself as an injured officer as the paramedics rush him out of the crime scene.
Meanwhile, Clarice studies the case file in greater detail and realizes that Buffalo Bill must have known his first victim, which gives her a new lead to start from. After tracking down this lead she realizes that Bill is skinning the women because he’s using them to make a woman suit. Clarice begins tracking down acquaintances of the first victim and comes across Buffalo Bill himself. Quickly realizing that he is the killer, she confronts him and discovers that the senator’s daughter is still alive, trapped inside a well. After a tense chase, Clarice shoots Bill to death and the case is closed. Later, at her FBI graduation ceremony, Clarice receives a phone call from Lecter to congratulate her before he tells her that he’s “having an old friend for dinner” and hangs up, stalking an anxious Dr. Chilton into a crowd…
I’ve grown a lot in the decade since I last saw The Silence of the Lambs and watching it again has given me a newfound appreciation for just how overtly feminist this movie is. (What’s that, we’re talking about feminism on IC2S? Shocker!) Like, if this film came out today, completely unaltered, you’d have chuds whining about how it’s unrealistic, agenda-pushing propaganda. Conversely, it feels very timely for its release year of 1991, when films were still grappling with the idea of women having careers. The film isn’t even subtle about it, within the first couple minutes we get a shot of Clarice walking into an elevator at the FBI Academy surrounded by men who are all nearly twice her height and size, visually symbolizing her upward struggle. We also see several instances of Clarice being hit on and objectified by the men around her when she’s just trying to do her job – when she meets Dr. Chilton, when she tries to do research on the Death’s-head moth and when she is doing her morning jog and all the male recruits check her out after she passes. Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the fucking sexual assault prisoner Miggs subjects her to and the sexually explicit taunts Hannibal directs her way. Clarice always brushes these encounters off, but it’s obvious that they all make her uncomfortable at the very least and undermine her attempts to be taken seriously as an FBI agent on the basis of nothing more than her sex. This theme is woven throughout the film’s narrative, as Buffalo Bill is also exclusively preying on women, making their lives even more difficult and dangerous. Similarly, it is later discovered that Bill is, himself, trying to become a woman while Clarice is trying to shed the prejudice that comes with her gender (I’ve seen some critics say that she wishes she was a man, but I personally don’t get this sense, she just wishes that men wouldn’t objectify her). Clarice even delivers a haunting line near the middle of the film which is straight-up a declaration of the film’s message: “If he sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.” Clarice knows the feeling of being objectified by men constantly, but she is determined to achieve her goals in spite of these prejudices and prove that everyone is underestimating her capabilities. All the problems I had with Will Graham in Manhunter? They don’t apply here. Clarice is a fantastic emotional core to the film and she’s played wonderfully by Jodie Foster, who plays up Clarice’s strength, determination and desperation flawlessly. My only slight criticism about her character would be that Clarice’s goals stem, in part, from the well-worn female protagonist daddy issues trope (her father was her hero, a cop who died when she was young). This isn’t a major issue, but it might have been nice if the character’s motivation was just a tad bit more original.
If Clarice is the emotional core of the film, then Hannibal Lecter is the spellbinding agent of chaos, the true antagonist of the piece. Hopkins’ portrayal is truly electrifying. Whereas Cox played the character as a smug dickhead, Hopkins instead aims instead for a more theatrical portrayal, an irresistible mixture of charming and dangerous. His introduction has to be one of the greatest in film history, with Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton both hyping up just how overwhelmingly dangerous he is to mind and body alike for nearly five straight minutes before we get to meet him. Lecter himself seems to follow a pattern with his playthings – he starts out charming, asking questions politely, reeling the subject in to make them interested. Then he says something shocking or repulsive just to see how the person reacts. In Clarice’s case, she stands her ground and even goes along with Lecter, in the senator’s case she becomes insulted and leaves him. However, Lecter then reels them back in again with a promise of something that they want. In Clarice’s case, he dangles the promise of helping her solve the Buffalo Bill case, making her career and some clues on Bill’s whereabouts, while in the senator’s case he provides details on Bill’s appearance. It’s a pattern that always sees Lecter in control, even though he’s in shackles for nearly the entire film. In spite of this, he does display moments of sympathy and honour, such as when he first agrees to help Clarice after she is sexually assaulted by Miggs. In retaliation, Hannibal convinces Miggs to kill himself in retribution, even though it results in him having all of his privileges stripped away. One particular detail that I found fascinating is Hannibal’s eyes. He spends the entire movie staring like a predator, fixated intently on the things that he wants. Initially we only really see him with Clarice, so it’s not particularly notable when he spends all their time together staring at her. However, later when he is being transported to meet with the senator, he spends most of his time staring forward, blankly… that is, until he sees something he wants, a pen which he plans to use in an escape attempt. Whenever this pen is on screen, Hannibal’s eyes dart to it and he stares with intensity at it. It’s a detail which makes his interactions with Clarice even more interesting. Like the other men in the film, Hannibal is fixated on Clarice’s body but there seems to be more to it than just simple lust. Clarice and Hannibal play off each other with fantastic chemistry, making for two phenomenal leads to the film.
Rounding out the main cast is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill and… well, this is where the only substantial complaints I have about this film lie. Before I get into this analysis though, I just want to make it clear that I’m going to refer to Buffalo Bill as a man here, mainly because the film tells us that he isn’t transgender and that it seems to be the actual intent that he is not (as opposed to, say, Ace Ventura which portrays a trans woman but then acts like she’s a man). I definitely feel like there are issues here, but based on what we’re given I feel like this is the reading we’re supposed to come away with. Anyway, with that said, the portrayal of Buffalo Bill is fucking problematic. On its surface, the idea of having a character kill women because he wants to become one is ripe for reading as transphobic. I’m actually kind of impressed that Thomas Harris was aware of this and tried to go to great pains to avoid this interpretation, working a couple scenes into the novel of characters explaining that Bill is not a trans person, but rather has so much self loathing that he wants to become someone as far away from himself as possible. The film struggles even more with this, only including one scene where Hannibal states that Buffalo Bill isn’t really a trans person, which isn’t exactly the most reliable source. That said, considering that Harris was aware that this was an issue, it prompts two questions:
If you know that this character is going to read as problematic, why are you bothering to include the problematic parts?
If you’re insisting on going forward with it, why not get consultations from trans figures to ensure that you make it as respectful as possible?
Harris may have at tried to cut off any potential criticisms, but it didn’t seem to work because the popular perception became that Buffalo Bill was a villainous trans character and the explanations were forgotten. It also doesn’t help that the film tries to leave Bill’s queerness ambiguous, but Ted Levine plays the character so stereotypically gay (he’s got a goddamn bichon frise named Precious for Christsakes) and we’re clearly meant to find his “otherness” to be a monstrous aspect of the character. Levine is quoted saying “I think [Bill] at one point thought that he might be a rock star in the mode of a David Bowie, those guys who were really masculine but feminine at the same time”, denoting that we’re meant to be disturbed by Bill’s androgyny. The infamous “tucking” scene is also indicative of this (and, notably, was improvised by Levine), only really existing to make us think how strange and fucked up queer people are. I feel like the film might have gotten away with its explanations that Bill wasn’t really trans and avoided backlash from the LGBTQ community, but the tucking scene and the unambiguous queer coding push it way too far, especially at a time when positive queer representation was in a noticeable dearth. Buffalo Bill’s entrance a half hour into the film is truly chilling, with him preying on his victim’s sympathy to lure her into his clutches, it’s just too bad that he turns into an offensive stereotype from there. Luckily, his screentime is fairly limited, but it’s unfortunate that his portrayal is a permanent black stain on this film.
While the characters are the beating heart of The Silence of the Lambs, they’re greatly aided by a top-tier screenplay and direction. The films story is tense, exciting and lean, giving the audience the clues to solve the mystery on their own while not wasting a moment of screentime. Aiding this is Jonathan Demme’s expert direction, which allows the actors to get the most out of their performances. I noticed that Demme frames his characters in closeups and extreme closeups constantly throughout the film, giving us more insight into the characters’ unspoken emotions during all of the tense exchanges of dialogue. It’s a simple technique, but it’s utilized masterfully throughout the film to convey more than is said and helps to get around some of the issues translating a book to screen. There are all sorts of great moments utilizing these closeups, most notably during any scene with Hannibal and Clarice, but I was particularly impressed during the scene where Clarice inspects the body of one of Bill’s victims. The body itself isn’t shown, except in bits and pieces, and the focus is instead on Clarice’s face as she records the details. A lesser film may have revelled in the chance for some squeamish gore, but The Silence of the Lambs places the focus squarely on Clarice and all of the emotions that she clearly has just roiling beyond the surface, since this is what’s truly important in this scene. Demme also pulls out some truly thrilling sequences, such as Lecter’s grand escape (I can still remember the first time I saw it, piecing together what happened as I watched and being amazed when the big reveal was made) and the voyeuristic and claustrophobic night vision sequence at the end of the film. All-in-all, it’s little wonder that the film swept the Oscars, because nearly everything here is top notch.
I’ve always regarded The Silence of the Lambs highly, but I was curious to see how it would hold up nearly a decade after I last saw it and with a more critical eye directed towards the film’s representation issues. While I have to say that I’m disappointed by the problematic LGBTQ representation, if you’re able to look past this issue, everything else about the film is engrossing. I was also particularly impressed by the film’s feminist themes, which I hadn’t appreciated in previous viewings of the film. There really isn’t much more to say, The Silence of the Lambs is still a great, if flawed, film and definitely my favourite movie in the franchise.
Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next entry in the franchise, Hannibal!
If you follow me on Twitter then you may have heard recently that I have been devouring the three seasons of Hannibal which had come to Netflix back in June. I had watched the first season back when it first aired but hadn’t had a chance to see the other two so I was more than happy to take any excuse to get caught up. However, when the last episode ended I still hadn’t gotten my fill – I needed more before my hunger would be sated. So I decided that I wanted to give Manhunter a shot, a film which I had a DVD copy of for nearly a decade but which had never actually gotten around to seeing. From there, although it wasn’t my original intention, the idea of doing a retrospective on the Hannibal Lector films emerged.
Before we get into the meat of this series though, I do want to note that I haven’t blogged in quite a while and explain why. In simple terms:
I have a busy work and family life and so what free time I have I have been dedicating to other pursuits, such as other writing projects which I hope to turn into novels one day.
On a related note, this blog really doesn’t bring in a lot of traffic. I’m excited if I get, like, a couple hundred views on a post within a month. The most popular posts have views in the hundreds or thousands, but those are usually for obscure movie reviews that don’t have a lot of traffic elsewhere or show up high on Google Image searches. Newer posts don’t tend to do all that well, which is discouraging and so putting effort into other projects seems like a better use of time.
I like writing these retrospective series (and things like them), but they take a lot of time to write and research for something I don’t get any sort of return on other than my own satisfaction. Like, for the slasher showdown back in October, I spent a solid month of evenings watching the entire Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises and half of the Friday the 13th franchise, in addition to writing up short reviews of all the films… that’s like 24 movies that I was blitzing through for a project which ended up getting subpar views and basically no reaction. I mean, I enjoyed it regardless and I wanted to see all these movies anyway, but you can see why it would be discouraging and make me prioritize projects elsewhere.
Anyway, that’s more or less why I haven’t blogged lately. I still check in here frequently, have been working on some future posts and have like a dozen drafts for other potential posts, but this is the one that finally made it out there. Considering that, like I said, I don’t really have a regular audience here I doubt anyone particularly cares, but I want to get it out there regardless. So let’s get into Manhunter then, shall we?
That is… a poster. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it in particular, but it doesn’t get me excited or interested in this movie.
Before we get to the beginnings of what would become known as the “Hannibal Lector franchise”, we need to take a quick look at the series’ creator, authour Thomas Harris. Harris started his writing career as a reporter, including covering police and crime subjects which would influence his later works. His first novel was 1975’s Black Sunday, a political thriller about terrorists attempting to bomb the Super Bowl, which was adapted into a film in 1977. The movie was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller and was a critical success. Interestingly, the studio had expected Black Sunday to be as successful as Jaws, so when it didn’t meet these lofty expectations it was seen as a disappointment. Regardless, the fact that his first novel was so met with such success meant that Harris’ writing career was poised to reach new heights.
His second novel came about in 1981 with the publication of Red Dragon, a police procedural and crime novel which Harris wrote after studying FBI techniques and serial killer profiling. Perhaps due to Harris’ previous success in Hollywood, Red Dragon was picked up by producer Dino De Laurentiis for a film adaptation, a role which he would hold on every subsequent Hannibal Lector film except, oddly enough, The Silence of the Lambs. David Lynch was originally requested to direct the film, but turned it down as he thought that the script was excessively “violent” and “degenerate”. The job instead went to Michael Mann. Mann was still very early into his career at this point, but was already becoming well known for his stylish crime dramas, being an executive producer on Miami Vice at the time. Mann worked on the script for three freaking years in pre-production, conducting research with the FBI and and with imprisoned murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace in order to ensure that the film would be authentic.
To play the leading role of Will Graham, big stars such as Richard Gere, Mel Gibson and Paul Newman were considered, but Michael Mann ended up selecting William Petersen for the part. Petersen would perhaps become best known for producing and starring in the original CSI, which was itself influenced and inspired by Manhunter. The antagonist, Francis Dollarhyde (changed from Dolarhyde in the novel, inexplicably), was played by Tom Noonan. Unlike his co-stars, Noonan decided not to research serial killers for his role and took more of a method acting approach during filming, isolating himself from cast and crew to make himself more of an outsider. Of course, the role of Hannibal Lecktor (again, changed from Lector in this film for seemingly no reason) went to Retrospectives veteran Brian Cox, who based his role on serial killer Peter Manuel. Rounding out the main cast was Joan Allen playing Reba McClane, only the second feature film role in her career. The film also features freaking Stephen Lang in a supporting role as sleazy journalist Freddie Lounds, as well as Kim Greist as Will’s wife, Molly.
In addition to the inexplicable changes to the way that certain characters’ names were spelled, the title of the film was also changed from Red Dragon to Manhunter. However, unlike those changes, this one’s cause and reasoning are quite well documented. Nearly everyone involved hated the title change, but Dino De Laurentiis demanded it after a film of his, Year of the Dragon, bombed at the box office during the production of Manhunter. He also reportedly claimed that people would mistakenly believe that Red Dragon was a kung-fu movie and therefore a different title was necessary to prevent confusion.
Despite having three years to work on the script, when filming commenced on Manhunter it was reportedly plagued with issues of time constraints. For example, the finale was filmed so late into production that the special effects crew had already left and Mann whoever was left were forced to improvise whatever means they could to pull off the big shootout. Mann also recounted how he decided during filming that he didn’t like the shots of a dragon tattoo on Dollarhyde’s chest and so all existing footage had to be hastily reshot. The reshoots weren’t able to recapture the same feel as the original footage due to these constraints. The production also weren’t able to secure a filming permit from United Airlines, so they ended up just taking a flight from Chicago to Florida and filming anyway, much to the surprise of the crew and passengers.
Manhunter was released in theatres on 15 August 1986 and was, on its release, a commercial and critical disappointment. It only managed to gross a little over half of its $15 million budget and was met with mixed reception from critics. It wouldn’t be until after the release of The Silence of the Lambs that Manhunter would get a critical reappraisal and be regarded in much higher standing. It now enjoys a cult status and many critics praise it effusively, some even saying that it’s the best Hannibal Lecter film…
Former FBI profiler Will Graham is brought back into the fold to help catch a serial killer dubbed “The Tooth Fairy”, a sadistic madman responsible for butchering two seemingly unconnected families during the full moon. With a month until next lunar cycle, Graham searches for any leads he can find, starting with visiting imprisoned criminal Hannibal Lecktor to get insight into the killer’s motivations. Lecktor agrees to offer his insight and then uses subterfuge to discover Will’s home address. It is discovered that Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy have been communicating with each other in code via the National Tattler, a tabloid newspaper. The FBI first attempts to intercept these communications and then instead decide to intentionally defame the Tooth Fairy in order to draw him out. This doesn’t work as intended and instead the Tooth Fairy kidnaps the authour of the article, Freddy Lounds. He raves about the great work he is undertaking and that his name is the “Red Dragon”, before he straps Lounds into a wheelchair and then immolates him.
Demoralized by this failure, things get even worse when it is discovered that Lecktor’s coded message to the Tooth Fairy includes Graham’s family’s home address and instructions to have them murdered. The family is moved to a safehouse as the clock ticks down to the next murder.
Meanwhile, we get to meet Francis Dollarhyde, the Red Dragon in his everyday life. He meets with a blind co-worker, Reba McClane, who shows interest to the shy, insecure man and the two hit it off. However, when he mistakenly believes that Reba is seeing someone else, he goes into a rage, kidnapping Reba and murdering one of his co-workers. As this is happening, Will realizes that the crime scene evidence suggests that the killer had access to the victims’ home movies, as his knowledge of the victims’ residences couldn’t have been from casing them himself. This leads them to Dollarhyde, who is found preparing to murder Reba in a fit of rage. Will confronts him and a shootout ensues, ending with Will shooting Dollarhyde and ending his rampage once and for all.
I found Manhunter to be a particularly interesting film to watch in this day and age. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch this movie with fresh eyes, because so much has changed since it was released. First of all, The Silence of the Lambs itself came out only 5 years later, redefining how we would interpret this movie, reshaping how we interact with serial killer stories and stylizing the entire landscape of police procedurals and crime drama. Then came shows like CSI which brought forensics and the details of the investigation of murder to the public conscious. Not only that, but then there was the true crime boom of the past decade and how that has affected how we view and consume these kinds of stories, for better or worse. Going back to Manhunter after all of these cognitive shifts make the film feel almost simple. I also found it interesting to learn during research that changing the title from Red Dragon to Manhunter was a producer-mandated change, because it really captures the differences in this adaptation. Modern serial killer stories tend to place a lot of emphasis on the actions and motivations of the killer (including subsequent adaptations of Red Dragon), but Manhunter‘s focus is primarily on Will Graham, his investigation into the murders and the toll that it is taking on him. Dollarhyde himself doesn’t even show up until nearly an hour into the film and much of his motivation is left unexplored (again, this is especially noticeable compared to subsequent adaptations of this story, as nearly everything about the titular “Red Dragon” is omitted). The film also doesn’t linger on the lurid details of the crime scenes, the violence is after-the-fact, necessary extensions of the professional and clinical investigations. You can see this difference even in the marketing of this film – the original poster is focused on Will Graham investigating, whereas nearly every home video cover places the emphasis squarely on Dollarhyde and changes to font from the cartoony, colourful, rounded font to much more sinister-looking fonts. Like I said, it’s interesting to go back to Manhunter and see what a serial killer movie looks like with decades of evolution in the genre stripped away.
Similarly, during my research I found that the film’s stylized cinematography was particularly noted and praised by critics. In fact, upon its release, it was actually criticized for being too stylish, as if this film was goddamn 300 or something. So what is this stylishness that has the critics so in a flutter? Well… that’s a good question. In my initial viewing I didn’t notice any particularly noteworthy stylistic excess, so when I saw all this praise it made me wonder if I had not paid close enough attention, or perhaps the copy I saw was defective or something? From what I can gather, the style that’s being praised so much is that certain scenes are colour coded to allow the audience to know what to feel (eg, family scenes are awash in an unearthly blue, Dollarhyde’s scenes are tinged green, etc). I did notice these examples, but they aren’t really prevalent throughout the film so I’m still kind of left scratching my head about why they’re so notable to film critics. Again, this is also coming from a modern day lens – digital colour grading has been prevalent in Hollywood for nearly two decades now, leaving films far more over-saturated and colourful than they were able to be in the 80s, which takes away what may have been a unique charm at the time. Subsequent films in the genre, such as Seven, have also set a dark, desaturated style for serial killer films which continues to this day, which makes Manhunter‘s style feel unremarkable compared to these conventional expectations. As I said at the outset, I wish I could see this film with fresh eyes, because seeing it in 2020 makes the film feel quite dated, even if this is because it has influenced its own imitators.
Speaking of expectations, the soundtrack is another unavoidable source of dissonance. Mann fills the movie with 80s synth pop, which makes it sound more like Top Gun than the dark and serious tone a modern audience would expect from a serial killer movie. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad but it does make the film feel very dated.
In general, the direction in Manhunter is great, as one would expect of Michael Mann. Check out the scene when Will meets Dr. Lecktor for the first time for a prime example. I’m particularly impressed by the way Mann frames the shot, utilizing the cell bars for internal framing and to show the literal divide between these two characters. I noticed that these kinds of internal framing are used throughout the film and help to suggest insight into the characters rather than just telling us outright. That said, as good as the direction is, I can’t help but feel like the filming was rushed. I noted some instances of this in the production section, but I do feel like this carries over into the film in noticeable ways. The finale in particular is shot in a strange way, like Mann and company were so short on time that they mounted a bunch of cameras around Dollarhyde’s cabin and then filmed the shootout in such a way to reduce the amount of times they’d have to reset the scene. The editing is so weird too, featuring some really bad looking, low frame rate slow motion and making really jarring cuts over and over again. This would suggest that it was done for stylistic reasons, like they wanted it to be dissonant for the viewer, but in my opinion it just looks bad and robs the ending of any serious impact it may have strived for. There’s also a moment early in the film where a tree branch catches on the camera, obscuring the frame for several seconds and… why? Why did this make it into the film? Did they not have another take of this scene that was better? I honestly don’t know and while it’s definitely nitpicky and doesn’t affect my view of the film that much, it’s details like these that make me feel like the direction gets held back by some of the rougher aspects of the finished film.
I will note though that I watched the Director’s Cut of the film which had some weird issues. I don’t know if it’s just the version that I watched or what, but all the added footage was literally upscaled VHS footage and it’s patently obvious. Like, you’ll be watching the film in crisp HD and then all of a sudden it just turns to blurry VHS-quality footage, like someone was playing a Youtube video on 360p. This was strange to say the least, but I would advise either seeking out the Restored Director’s Cut (which sources these additional scenes from the original footage like they should have in the first place) or the theatrical cut, since I’d say that the additional footage doesn’t change the movie significantly (or, y’know, the Shout Factory Blu-ray which has both).
For a comparison, here’s additional footage and original footage side-by-side so you can see just how bad the difference is.
As for the characters and acting, everyone puts in solid performances. I was a little taken aback that the characters aren’t presented as flashy or larger than life as they are in later Hannibal Lector films, feeling like much more grounded human beings than heroes and villains. William Petersen plays Will Graham as a very straight-laced cop, someone who really struggles with his work, not because of a crippling character flaw but because he’s submerging himself in a world of murder, dredging up past trauma, knowing that peoples’ lives depend on him if he doesn’t succeed. While Petersen plays the character very well, I unfortunately find Will Graham to just be not a particularly compelling protagonist. One of the main reasons for this is because instead of focusing on the mental trauma this case is putting on Will, the film decides to just go for the cliched shorthand and make the real problem be that he misses his family. The film really tries to hammer home that the worst part about all of this situation is that Will has to be away from his family for nearly an entire month, dedicating several scenes to make sure we know. While the film does do some groundwork to show that this work is taking a toll on him, I didn’t get the sense that it was leaving him unhinged, making him make tough choices, or that he was in any way blurring the lines between good and evil – dude’s trying to stop a killer from killing people using the legal process, it’s hard to find much fault in that.
Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde is also an interesting take on the character, especially compared to other incarnations. From what I understand, there are several deviations from the book which omit most scenes of Dollarhyde’s psychosis that he believes he is becoming the Great Red Dragon from William Blake’s paintings. The movie instead leaves most of his motives ambiguous, leaving us only with Will Graham suggesting that it was abuse as a child which caused Dollarhyde to develop into a murderer and that he kills ideal families because he wishes he could have one. Aside from that, we’re left to interpret for ourselves Dollarhyde’s motives based on how he is portrayed… and, man, the fact that I watched this movie through a 2020 lens strikes again because Dollarhyde is portrayed as a goddamn incel. Like, I’m not even exaggerating – he’s a socially isolated weirdo, he has a cleft palate which causes him to believe that he’s ugly and unlovable, he kills families because he doesn’t think he can ever have one, the mere suggestion that he may be homosexual throws him into a murderous rage, etc. Hell, his entire worldview gets turned upside down by the fact that Reba has sex with him and he even goes on his final rampage because the misogynist dumbass thinks that she cucked him. In this film, Dollarhyde being an incel seems to have more bearing on his actions than any sort of mental illness, which is another detail that I think is particularly interesting in retrospect. In fact, the de-emphasis of mental struggles for both Graham and Dollarhyde might show how mental illness just wasn’t openly acknowledged at the time this film came out.
Of course, I can’t ignore Brian Cox’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecktor. Like most characters in the film, he feels far more grounded and less theatrical, but is still the most dramatic role in the film despite his limited screentime rendering him essentially a plot device (not that I can argue about that, he serves his role in the plot as intended and doesn’t overshadow it). For this first portrayal of the character, Cox portrays him as a smug, amoral asshole. He openly taunts Will, talks to him like he’s the superior one (despite being locked in a prison cell) and tries to get Will’s family killed out of revenge, all while acting like he and Will are old acquaintances. It’s very distinct compared to future portrayals of the character, feeling more like what a real serial killer.
While there is a lot to enjoy in Manhunter, it just didn’t resonate with me nearly as much as I had expected it to. Like I said at the outset, this movie has been on my radar for at least a decade (if not more) and I’ve heard plenty of praise for it, but it just didn’t come together for me. I think this largely comes down to me not caring all that much about Will Graham as a character. Trying to explore exactly why I wasn’t particularly fond of the film is what drove me to do this retrospective series in the first place as it led me to all of these realizations about how the serial killer genre has changed since Manhunter came out. In that regard it is an intriguing relic of its time and, considering its cult status, it may resonate with you more than it did for me, especially if you find yourself caring about Will Graham and his family troubles. However, for my own part I thought that Manhunter was just “fine”.
Be sure to tune in again soon when we look at the next film in this franchise, The Silence of the Lambs!
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 IIIsuddenly 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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) theythink 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.
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?!
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.
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”.
“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.”
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.
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:
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).
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).
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.
Be sure to tune in again soon as we take a look at the next entry in this series, Atlas Shrugged: Part II!
Hey guys, I saw Pokemon: Detective Pikachu a day before its wide release and did up a video review of it. I normally will be relegating Pokemon content to my Youtube channel rather than here, but there is a bit of cross-over here since I often do movie reviews on my blog so I figured I would post it here. Check it out (note: there are some very minor spoilers in the video, just so you know)!
A few additional notes that I have thought since I recorded this:
The opening scene feels like it was either added in reshoots or was all that remained of a longer opening act – it feels at odds with the rest of the film, introduces a character that we’re never going to see again, and only really matters in that it introduces Cubone.
Having thought about it a bit more, the villain’s plan is even stupider than I realized. In addition to the fact that he probably could have initiated it earlier than he does, it’s also just extremely contrived writing.
The writing in general is easily the weakest aspect of the film. There’s a big action set-piece near the end of the second act which doesn’t really have any bearing on anything, it just happens and goes on longer than nearly any other action scene in the film. It’s fun, but when you give it some critical thought it isn’t particularly satisfying.
I geeked out at the soundtrack, there are some classic Pokemon music call-backs in here.
Where the hell are Jolteon and Chikorita? I saw an ad with Jolteon in it, but we don’t see one in the flesh? 1/10, would not recommend.