It's hard to deal with this film and not address the lengthy shadow of Ayn Rand dripping onto the frame. The enterprise was crafted as a labor of love to the original novel, a passion project of producer John Agliarloro that should have remained firmly locked in his heart. Here it is, at last, the most boring possible reproduction of the most hilariously overblown work of fiction accepted by far too many people.
Atlas Shrugged is supposed to be Ayn Rand's magnum opus. At least, that's what she intended it to be, condensing her slowly honed philosophy of Objectivism into a novel where the monologues spread out for dozens of pages. I much prefer The Fountainhead as Atlas Shrugged takes any interesting idea presented in the former, crafts a character around it, then let's them talk incessantly for far too long. It's the sort of novel a genius writes when they've become far too ensconced in their own importance.
The film, also supposed to be the first of three parts (though based on box office receipts this didn't burn the Objectivist torch), does not even catch the passion of Rand's words. The characters in the novel, as long winded as they can be, at least talked with the grandiose posturing of deities. Those personalities devolve into a presentation which would barely pass the emotional tension of late-period Melrose Place, let alone the grand statements Rand was attempting to get out so many years ago.
For all it's struggles, the common criticisms against the film's adaption of the novel's plot is a bit silly. We're still a nation run by rails, we would still face a critical situation if they all stopped (just think of food transportation for a moment), and the idea an oil shortage combined with lost confidence in the fuel source would increase reliance on those old trains. Would this really all happen in the next four years? Unlikely, but considering the plethora of issues on display in Atlas the plot is minor quibble.
Consider the aforementioned lack of passion in the film as presented in the performances of the two main characters - Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler). They're both supposed to be self-possessed geniuses capable of cutthroat moves but here the performers can barely muster up the will to breathe powerfully in the other's direction, let alone kiss in a way which suggests more potential romance than cousins. This is in strange contrast to several broadly sketched supporting characters though, to be fair, they weren't exactly conceived as anything less than mouthpieces for specific ideas in the book. Still, by the fourth or fifth scene of Lillian Rearden (Rebecca Wisocky) belittling her husband in front of everyone or Dagny's business partner Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) frothing at the mouth about forced business deals I had dealt with these characters far too much.
Strange none of this emotion ended up in the main characters, but the entire film has a forced feel to it. The production has been in development in one form or another since the '70s, and before finally coming to fruition went through several different directors and casts. The result is a plodding mess, devoted to helicopter shots of trains traveling to bombastic symphonies and a trench coat clad figure emerging in noir shadows to lure the world's geniuses to Atlantis, where they're free to think and do business as they will. Though considering not a single person capable of genuine manual labor is approached, I have to wonder how they're going to build the dream society, but those are more quibbling details.
As far as the politics are concerned, they're restructured to be hilariously on the nose considering the recent rise of the Tea Party (and their strange acquisition of Atlas Shrugged as a model of society). There are many ominous voice-overs intoning "How could this have happened to America?" and decrying economic equality via another montage sequence showing a company that just wanted to pay employees according to their needs rather than contributions. This company, of course, goes under but not before every sentence of the exchange describing its history is enunciated in painful detail over the carcass of gutted buildings.
A movie filled with unintentional humor can be saved by nature of it's entertainment value. Taylor Schilling's overemphasized reading of "Nooooooo!" (the best since Star Wars Episode Three) is pitched exactly where some fun could have been had. But 25-year old productions still bear the weight of expectation. A shame, as I would have loved to see a $20 million parody of something as philosophically hilarious as Atlas Shrugged. Another thirty years perhaps.