When it comes to the Rocky Mountain Pictures film Atlas Shrugged: Part I, based on the novel of the same name by Ayn Rand, there are a few ways you can look at it. As a bad film that only wishes it had the high pedigree of other complex narratives, as a film that couldn't be adequately adapted from its massive source material, no matter who was writing and directing, or as a relatively enjoyable film that tackled a dense and philosophically dry book and made it as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible. If not those, then perhaps something else. There's certainly something for everyone.
As Objectivism As Possible
One key component of this film, which must be addressed and understood as much as possible, is the philosophy that's ever present. You really can't escape it. Turn one corner and there it is again. It's called Objectivism, and it's a philosophy that needs defining. I wish I could be the one to simply state it, but I can't be. As much as I feel I know a lot about it, it's not enough. I'd never do it justice.
Objectivism, according to The Atlas Society, is the philosophy of rational individualism. Rand dramatized, in both novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, that this is embodied by the, “ideal individual, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved, who honors achievement and rejects envy." Whew! And even now, that definition seems complex. It is, but from a film standpoint, which is where we see ourselves today, it will most certainly suffice. It gives you the basics, and if you want to learn more, feel free! More power to ya! Or, better yet, watch the movie and see for yourself.
I say that as someone who's read the source material. All 1,168 pages. It was a fascinating experience. Nine months of dragging that book just about everywhere I went. Any opportunity I got to read it, I took! Having read the book, I was able to go into this film a bit more prepared. I could also just go in expecting to see certain things depicted. Keeping strictly with the philosophy, what the writers did, was perfect. Seeing as I'm not some sort of scholar on the subject, I see it as all having been as true to what Rand was aiming for in the book as it could possibly have been. It wasn't overly simplistic nor was it too complicated. It was just right. So much so, that I believe that any layperson who hasn't read the book, or done even the tiniest bit of research on the subject, could easily understand what was being conveyed. Again, there were examples of this philosophy and its many tenets at every turn. For a film that truly doesn't seem to have a whole lot going for it in the positive column, this fact alone should be enough to entice people. That being said, of course there are still limitations. If I can't fully explain it to someone else, let alone comprehend it outright, then how is a film going to do that? It can't. There's only so much that can be achieved, and I'd say it was.
If that doesn't fully intrigue you, here's a scene to give you a taste:
Appearances Are Deceiving
This film has a certain look and feel to it. From the moment you start watching you can tell. It's like this small little indie film or some low budget made for television movie. Graphics, actors, and even various props and sets can only look so good. The upside here, it still sells you the world needed to make this story possible. However, when digging deeper, it turns out this film isn't as low budget as it appears. The film had, according to the HuffPost, an estimated $20 million budget, but it looks and feels more like something with about a $5 million budget or less. Mind you, many smaller and far excellent films have been made in these price ranges, but that's just it, they're better. These films also resemble that. Care was actual put in. The people working on the film really wanted the best. Now, that's not a fair comparison, but it is deserved. And while I want to say this film doesn’t resemble that of a typical independent film, factoring in its estimated budget, it certainly qualifies.
However, you can find something positive in this revelation. The film got made. It's that simple. The film got made. For all of its weaknesses, of which there are many, perhaps even the complex nature of the philosophical material that's trying to be covered, it got made and isn't the worst thing in the world. This came out in 2011, so what was worse? I'm sure there's something. Some SyFy Original Movie or a Lifetime movie, or even some crappy big budget comedy that wasn't funny in any way, shape or form. The fact that this film got made, after years, if not decades of attempts, allows you a slight peak into the filmmaking industry as well. For me, knowing this tidbit, even if I feel slightly deceived, allows for me to have a different kind of regard for it. It may still be a relatively bad film, but because of it’s limitations in production and complex material, I can view it with less disappointment than I’d typically assign to low budget pieces of crap. Regardless, if you can get into this film enough, have enough curiosity and even simply look past the bad quality of filmmaking, there's still a few things that make it worth it.
True To Its Source
It’s a faithful adaptation, Given that this film encompasses only a third of the book, which really is the smallest bit of it, it’s not that surprising. What is surprising is how much is able to be balanced and thus achieved. There’s an actual story and it’s easy to follow. So much, in so many ways, may be dictated by the presentation of the objectivist philosophy, which is Rand’s fault, but that doesn’t stop a full fledged narrative from being seen to. You have a beginning, middle and end. Along the way, there’s also many elements that make this a mystery, romance and even dystopian sci-fi film all rolled into one. That’s a quite a feat for such a small and little seen film.
It’s also faithful from the simple straightforward fact, that so many scenes play out like in the book. I was amazed (still am), at how many scenes looked like I imagined as I read. Of course, this too could be an indicator of Rand’s abilities as a writer. Of her ability to visualize a moment and then make it as vibrant as possible. Granted, she is also the same woman who spent several pages describing Dagny Taggart sitting in a diner and looking around, before finally moving back to the story at hand. You also have the fact that some of the dialogue featured in this film was taken straight from the book. When I was watching one of the scenes released before the film came out, I not only enjoyed it, but had a feeling it seemed familiar. After looking for the scene in the book, I discovered why. The dialogue was almost word for word. This isn’t new for films, but here it also makes a lot of sense. Complex ideas need to be explained as best and as simply as possible. By using exactly what Rand wrote, with some minor changes here and there, that can be accomplished. I certainly was able to get the full understanding and not feel lost at all. If I had gotten lost, which some still may, I was able to focus on the story that was going on.
Like with any film, there are characters you like and characters you don't. However, most aren’t guided by such a strict and complex philosophy. While each character may be guided by the examples and points that Rand was repeatedly making, and fulfills the demands of the film, there’s still so much to get from them and appreciate, especially as much of the acting just isn’t all that great.
The prime character example is that is Taylor Schilling’s Dagny Taggart. She’s by and large, an inspiration. You don’t have to like what Rand and the writers and producers of this film are going on about, because the story is fascinating enough and has a strong character in Dagny. She’s smart, independent, not afraid to stand up to those in power, and not kowtow like Matthew Marsden’s James Taggart, her brother, and overall quite capable. She’s really the heart and soul of her family’s business, Taggart Transcontinental. She gets it and genuinely cares about what happens to it. She has to be as she’s in the business of making money. It’s because of these qualities, that not only makes her one of my favorite literary characters, but is probably why Schilling was so easily able to bring her to life, even if she thought that the project was a waste of time and somehow beneath her. It’s possible, but as some actors understand it, a job’s a job.. All the way through the film she’s consistent. She’s fiery. She determined and passionate. It's more than evident, and while it’s still not even the best acting she’s done (see: Orange is the New Black), it’s still enough to allow for you to understand the stakes and why she keeps on like she does. As far as characters are concerned, if there’s only one reason to watch this film, it’s for Schilling’s portrayal of Dagny Taggart. The rest you can decide after, assuming, of course, that you make it that far. You won't know until you try.
Director: Paul Johansson
Writers: Brian Patrick O’Toole and John Aglialoro
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden Edi Gathegi, Jsu Garcia, Graham Beckel, Jon Polito, Patrick Fischler, Rebecca Wisocky, Michael Lerner and Neill Barry