If I were going to give the full benefit of the doubt to Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? - and I shall give it that benefit, for am I not a generous man? - I would immediately suggest that, compared to the two prior Atlas Shruggeds of 2011 and 2012, this one comes a lot closer to resembling a functional movie. It has location shooting that resembles an actual location, even if it's the wrong one: the extremely distinctive redwood forests of California can't convincingly play anything other than themselves (or forest moons populated by warlike teddy bears), and despite the film's game attempt to insist that its first half takes place in the Colorado Rockies, it doesn't work even a wee tiny bit. But at least it looks like a forest of any sort at all, and this puts it miles ahead of the "it's not a convention center lobby, it's an executive office!" vibe of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, which remains the most goofily enjoyable of this now-complete adaptation of Ayn Rand's infamous novel, and which we can now with authority and confidence decree to be among the most ill-conceived, hapless attempts to translate a work of literature into cinema since the Lumière brothers were in short pants.

Correctly assuming that absolutely not one goddamn soul will bother watching this film if they didn't bravely soldier on through the first two, Who Is John Galt? opens right in the thick of things, with Dagny Taggart, fearlessly selfish train magnate, having crashed her plane in "Colorado". Actually, there's something that functions like a recap of the previous movies (short version: the U.S. government hates, hates, hates, hates rich people, and passes law after law serving no function other than to tax them into a pauper's grave; one fearlessly selfish engineering wizard named John Galt has been sneaking billionaire entrepreneurs into his mysterious grotto where free enterprise reigns supreme and nobody has to care about the well-being of others), but it's presented so swiftly and with such a crazed melange of words and concepts that it resembles traditional exposition about as much as Schizopolis does. What we find is that poor Gander Rotgut has died in the crash, but also that she is a Time Lord, and is thus able to regenerate her body, and is now played by Laura Regan (Samantha Mathis and Taylor Schilling, who played Danged's two previous regenerations, aren't even permitted a The Five Doctors-style cameo).

She's recovered by a handsome but stubbornly bland and emotionless Land's End catalog model, played by Kristoffer Polaha, who takes her back to a place that looks for all the world like a run-of-the-mill hippie commune, except that all of the people who live there hate the thought of letting somebody have something for free the way that you or I might hate the thought of watching our loved ones being slowly crushed to death under the treads of a tank. And also, the production design budget didn't quite extend far enough to cover props, so the town is filled with things like Solo coffee cups and off-the rack clothing, and we have to really stop and consider what the hell kind of off-the-grid commune of arch-libertarians this could possibly be, if they're importing Solo cups and hosting farmer's markets? I have no idea if the book presents a different idea or not, but the way that the screenplay - adapted by series producer John Aglialoro, three-time Atlas Shrugged writer Harmon Kaslow, and newcomer James Manera - frames this nameless town that even I know is supposed to be called "Galt's Gulch" makes it unambiguously clear that it cannot function in any meaningful way: it lacks a laboring class to get the food, build the buildings, maintain the infrastructure. We see a few people working in a copper mine, but surely John Galt -the Land's End model, by the way - wouldn't have spirited away dozens of hundreds or workers on top of the captains of industry that we know he's seduced?

But, of course, Atlas Shrugged is an obvious fantasy, not a real blueprint for anything that could be carried off in the real world, and Who Is John Galt? merely serves to draw our attention to this fact. Across the three movies, it is by far the worst-performed, and the human-shaped characters inhabiting it don't even feel like the obvious rhetorical devices of the first movies; they feel like an alien's attempt to vaguely replicate Earthlings without bothering about copying our behavior. Nobody in the film is credible, and nothing they say or do is convincing: I expect that it would be likelier to turn someone away from Rand's philosophies than the other way around, with Galt's legendary 70-page monologue-rant about throwing off the shackles of repressive government transformed into a confusing 5-minute scene where director James Manera and cinematographer Gale Tattersall frame the deeply ineffective Polaha with menacing shadows that make him look like a Sith Lord or a terrorist as he strings together a bunch of earnest one-liners that don't form any kind of cohesive argument at all, let alone one that it's possible to agree with or not.

The plot, mercilessly cut down from Rand's doorstop of a novel, is equally incoherent: the bad guys in government keep doing bad things because they're bad, but what is going on, and what effect it has, is wholly unclear. Meanwhile, Gnatty Ratter patiently listens to a succession of libertarian businessman-hippies explain Galt's philosophy to her, only for her to insist that she cares too much about her trains to commit to how little she cares about other people. Along the way, she and Galt have one of the most gloriously bad sex scenes in living memory: a PG-13 rated cornucopia of close-ups of lips and hands rubbing bra straps and a "guide the train forward" punchline applied with a total lack of embarrassment or, apparently, self-awareness.

With virtually nothing that happens onscreen resembling human behavior or emotion to any real extend, Who Is John Galt? can't even function as propaganda: it's more like aimless, illogical claims about freedom lacquered on top of scenes of people looking serenely constipated or cackling with evil, depending on if they're good or bad, though as Danger Garter's venal brother James, Greg Germann manages to find a third way by acting like Will Arnett's sweaty stunt double. So detached from reality is the film that it's impossible to connect its events to real-world concerns even by the standards of a trilogy that has steadily insisted that private industry investing heavily in trains is the way to beat encroaching fascism. It's almost tempting to assume that Manera and his cast and crew were actively trying to subvert Rand's ideology; that Who Is John Galt? is a deliberately sabotaged piece of non-cinema is frankly a lot easier to believe than the notion that at any point during its creation, anybody looked at the pieces they were assembling and thought that the final product would be plausible as a work of human communication.

Reviews in this series
Atlas Shrugged: Part I (Johansson, 2011)
Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (Putch, 2012)
Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? (Manera, 2014)