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Atlas Shrugged: Part I

April 29, 2011
Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus is Atlas Shrugged, which follows the story of a group of ultracapitalists who get fed up with the socialist tendencies in a dystopian America and rebel by, naturally, forming a commune. And now a real American ultracapitalist, has sunk millions of his own dollars into the first part of a prospective trilogy — one surmises as a triumph of his will to honor his idol. And indeed it lives up to its source material: a massive, amorphous hulk that lays squelching on the table and breathes vaguely menacingly from some unseen point deep within.

This section — others will be dealt with if and when they are produced — centers on two people: Hank Reardon (Grant Bowler) and Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling). Taggart is a driven businesswoman, partly in charge of the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, though her brother, Jim (Matthew Marsden) is the CEO. Reardon is a Self-Made Man: a captain of industry who seeks only to profit. Mind you, this is actually supposed to be admirable. He owes nothing to anyone, though he is afflicted with an insipidly shrewish wife (Rebecca Wisocky), among other remoras. Reardon is also profoundly unhappy, which we are told comes from being weighed down by all these hangers-on rather than, say, a fundamentally empty and meaningless existence.

An aside here: I am specifically choosing the word “told” here. The script, like Rand, never passes up the opportunity to tell rather than show, which is partly why her thin ideas make for such thick books. The necessary setup to make the book’s climactic drone even remotely plausible is so baroque that even with three movies’ worth of time we must still rush from one clip of exposition-as-dialogue to another.

Anyhow, in 2016, the global economic crisis has taken a worst-case scenario. With gas prices so high, railroads make something of a comeback. Of course this is helpful since Rand’s book centers around railroads, even though they were on the decline even when she originally wrote it. Unfortunately, infrastructure isn’t really up to the task, though this is evidently not the result of robber-barons pocketing profits rather than prudently reinvesting them. Taggart Transcontinental is in trouble, with the competition beating them out of a key shipping route in and out of resource-rich Colorado.

Jim Taggart would solve this by a sequence of increasingly improbable political stunts, while Dagny ties her hopes to Rearden’s new alloy, “Rearden metal”, which is Rand’s code-word for unobtanium. Rearden metal promises to be dramatically lighter, stronger, and tougher than steel, and can somehow keep a train on a twisting mountainous course at 250 miles per hour, though there’s no word on whether it cures cancer. However, it’s a source of controversy since the “State Science Institute” — evidently having a monopoly on scientific testing and press releases — decides to pan Rearden metal and cover up its own studies’ results for some hazy notion of “fairness”. The SSI is, ironically, headed up by Armin Shimerman, who is probably most famous as the ultracapitalist Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9. So Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden must forge ahead and build their super-railroad despite the opposition of, it seems, the entire country. It’s no great surprise that they do.

I should mention that there’s a side plot or two running along that has very little importance to the main plot of this section. As such, I’m going to ignore them because they really don’t add anything and act mostly as a distraction at this point. The problem is that the lines are so woven together that to stick to the book makes for a tremendously unbalanced stand-alone movie. Peter Jackson wisely rearranged large chunks of The Lord of the Rings so that each movie could be somewhat self-contained, and Paul Johansson’s failure to do so here is an even bigger failure of imagination and creativity than his failure to leave the ultra-Freudian railroad motif behind.

Thankfully, it seems that the other two movies in the trilogy will never get made, the first having been so soundly panned. The irony that this puts the producers into the roles of Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon and the critical press into the role of the SSI is evidently lost. In the real world, ardent Randians are evidently bullies who run crying from someone who fights back.

There is little point in using my space here to systematically take down Objectivism or Rand’s writing; better critics with more time than I already have. Simply put: it’s a mess. The characters aspire to one-dimensionality, and what glory or honor they have comes from the fact that any adult can see they’re only ever fighting cardboard. Objectivism itself is the same: seemingly inspiring only so long as you don’t actually ask any questions. That said, Objectivists are nothing if not zealous, and they indeed have answers for most objections in the same easy that intelligent design proponents do. And like IDers, it’s not nearly worth my time to be as well-versed in the rules of their little sandbox as it is to them, and so I wash my hands of the debate and point you again to what has already been said; I recommend you start with Gore Vidal’s review of the novel.

And yet, I want to raise one of the most incisive critiques, which I don’t think I’ve seen bright to bear in any serious Rand takedown: the story of Golgafrincham. With apologies to Douglas Adams, I summarize it here:

The planet of Golgafrincham was doomed. A plan was formed to load everyone onto three giant spaceships to flee to safety. The into the first ship would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, and the achievers; into the second ship would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things; and then into the third ship would go everyone else, like telephone sanitizers, hairdressers, TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, and so on. The third ship was sent off first, so the rest could arrive on a planet with clean telephones and hairdressers and such.

But as it turns out the whole thing was a ruse to rid Golgafrincham of this entirely useless third of its population. The other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

The difference between Golgafrinchans and Objectivists is that Objectivists say to hell with the workers, too.

Worth It: in no way whatsoever.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    December 1, 2012 07:53

    I have a much more concise summary of the movie (just watched on DVD). About a quarter way in Reardon says to Taggart “with my steel and your rails, we can’t fail” or something to that effect. I waited the rest of the movie for him to run his steel down her rails, and finally, finally! it happened. Seriously, that tension was just about all this movie had going.

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