A pinch of Galt
As I am an honest person, I should confess that I was never going to admire Atlas Shrugged - I'm sorry, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, to give it its proper, and stupendously overweening title. Fact is, I am one of those folks for whom the very name "Ayn Rand" triggers some deep revulsion, instinctive and vigorous. Was I looking forward to seeing the craven, pandering adaptation of her best-known work fail at the box office? Yes, I was. Was I looking forward to making fun of its massive incompetence, instantly apparent from its embarrassing trailer? Yes, I was. Was I prepared for how fucking boring it was going to turn out to be? No, and that's the worst of all - Atlas Shrugged: The Phantom Menace isn't even fun-bad, it's just colossally inept; it's almost impossible to imagine how such ludicrously melodramatic material could be made without a trace of camp, purposeful or inadvertent (one recalls the 1949 film of The Fountainhead, with a Rand-penned script, redeemed enough by King Vidor's crazy-quilt operatic direction that it just manages to be worth watching).
Atlas Shrugged - which I have not read, have no desire to read, and on the basis of this film, am most certainly never going to read in the future - tells the story, in essence, of how all the captains of industry in America pack up their toys and go home. Or, as Rand would have it, the smartest, most capable, generally all-around most superior folks - all of whom happen to be wealthy business leaders - sick and tired of being forced to underwrite the existence of poor people (if they're so deserving of food, shelter, and dignity, why aren't they brilliant industrialists?), spirit themselves away to a magical new world where individualists can be as rugged as they like, and there is no taxation. That hasn't happened yet by the end of this first chapter, which is mostly concerned with setting up the paragons of human virtue Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), heir to the nation's foremost railroad company, and Henry "Hank" Rearden (Grant Bowler), inventor of a new kind of super-steel that threatens to put all the other metal companies in America out of business. Together, Taggart and Rearden combine forces to build the finest high-speed rail line in North America - someone should tell all the Rand acolytes in Washington presently fighting high-speed rail with everything they've got.
Does that sound like a plot? Hell if I know. Atlas Shrugged: The Curse of the Black Pearl has a story, I suppose, and it even kind of has conflict, if by "conflict" we mean "Dagny Taggart* stares down everyone who disagrees with her or stands in her way until they back down". Mostly, it has talking. Weirdly esoteric talking about weirdly esoteric things. For this is, in its fashion, a film about Ideas, and that's satisfying up to a point, though writers John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole might have done a better job of clarifying those Ideas and Expressing them Clearly and Coherently. An opening voice-over and montage tries to set up the film's peculiar vision of 2016, but never quite manages to explain why there's no longer any air travel, or how the entire U.S. government was replaced in just two election cycles by Stalinists, though I suppose the latter point makes sense to the sort of person whose understanding of what words mean is shaky enough that corporatist Democrat Barack Obama can be described, without shame, as a "socialist".
And then there's the main bulk of the movie, which concerns Dagnabbit's attempts to build her railroad, and Rearden's attempts to something, I guess it involves him keeping control of his super-steel despite the government and his competitors bending all their will towards socialising the smelting industry to get his efficiency-increasing metal safely off the market. It takes a lot of verbiage to get this done, with actors like Michael Lerner and Jon Polito adding an unfair patina of legitimacy to endless scenes of dirty politicians cutting crooked deals, and doing it in language that is basically inscrutable. At times, the only possible way to understand what is happening in any given moment is to just give up and assume that because the bad guys are doing it, it must be evil, but the dialogue typically involves so much jargon floating around that it's not even clear why they're evil, besides their pure evilness.
In short: while it would be possible to object to Atlas Shrugged: The Rise of Cobra on philosophical grounds, it's giving the film much too much credit to do so. The correct objection is on sheer dramatic and aesthetic grounds, by which yardsticks this is a complete, dismal failure. That it makes no sense and pushes through its story with a stubborness that does not in any way make up for its lack of momentum is one of its chief problems. That it possesses such atrociously uncharacterised characters is another. The villains, I've mentioned, aren't apparently driven by any coherent, real-world ideology; the heroes, meanwhile, aren't apparently driven by anything human. I cannot imagine either one of them actually being happy; they are not driven by the desire to have money, power, or influence; they have sex (it's okay, because Rearden's wife is a cartoon harpy), but that clearly does not excite them nearly as much as talking about building shit does. The simple answer, of course, is that they're not characters at all, but representatives of a philosophical proposition. This might be okay in a novel (though based on the book's reputation, my guess is that it's not), but it's a hard go for a movie.
Making matters worse, Schilling and Bowler are both pretty awful actors. Bowler less so; he basically just uses his chin and his masculinity to do all the work for him, a bland but not unholy thing to do (it's not that far from the routine shtick of Fountainhead star Gary Cooper). Schilling, though, whoo boy. Her performance is an early frontrunner for Worst Thing in a 2011 Movie, all bug-eyed expressions and clipped line readings and the feeling, overall, that she is playing a woman who spend every off-camera moment regenerating from a pod. It's not entirely inappropriate - the onscreen evidence suggests that Dargy Tangent has neither an inner life nor the ability to feel feelings, and perhaps Schilling is just committing fully to the role it was written. Perhaps she's just giving a terrible fucking performance and refusing to give the film the only human core it might possess. It's a tricky distinction.
Overseeing it all, Paul Johansson - primarily a TV actor, secondarily a TV director, and only a distant third, a director of films - has no real sense of how to deal with this, his first theatrical feature. There are meaningful close-ups on people at moments that in no imaginable way require such a thing; his handling of the innumerable "men in a board room conspiring" scenes require the actors to really stretch out the words, robbing these inert scenes of even the minute inertia they might have possessed; his blocking is disorienting and involves a lot of purposeful striding, then standing still, then purposefully striding over there - his Hank Rearden and Tangy Dorrit seem to be aware that they're striking poses, and make the best of it. And his bland staging emphasises, rather than hides, the film's rushed production schedule and cramped budget; the film looks like the kind of indie that sets a scene in a refinery because the producer's uncle was able to get them into a refinery one Saturday, with unconvincingly redressed sets that are forced into roles they're ill-suited for (Rearden's "office" looks like it's in a stairwell). Really, the only thing he is any good at is showing off the trains that anachronistically litter this movie, watching as they gleam in the sun: it's almost easy to understand why the lovers would rather talk about locomotion than screw each other, for in Johansson's hands, trains are infinitely sexier than the prudish mechanism of the film's lone sex scene.
It has always been a mystery why ideologically conservative movies over the past two or three decades have been so artistically incompetent ('twas not always the case; some of the best films of the 1940s are as reactionary as you could ever hope for); I think that Atlas Shrugged: The Sands of Time might contain at least something of an answer. Movies of this sort fundamentally do not care about people, and are frankly proud of how much they do not care about people, and the dramatic arts are all inherently fixed on the idea that, at the least, people are interesting enough to observe for 90 minutes or more. This is not the opinion expressed in Atlas Shrugged: The Fellowship of the Ring; here, people aren't interesting, they're just a necessary evil, except for the necessary part. Draggy Target at one point gapes in unhidden contempt, "What's the point of all this stupid altruism?", and she speaks for the whole of the movie, which whatever its motives - creating a counter-ideology to mainstream Hollywood, paying tribute to a great American novel, attempting to con the Tea Partiers into buying tickets to a shit-ass cheapie programmer because it's their political duty to do so† - was certainly not created out of a desire to perform an act of kindness to the human race.