Thursday, October 18, 2012

Culture Shock 10.18.12: 'Atlas Shrugged: Part II' and so will you

"Atlas Shrugged: Part II" is a success on at least one level. It's a marked improvement on "Part I."

With a stronger cast, a more experienced director and a larger budget, it almost couldn't help but be a step up from the first attempt to bring Ayn Rand's epic, 1100-page novel to the screen. Unfortunately, "Atlas Shrugged: Part I" set a low standard to surpass. So while "Part II" is better, that's like saying a SyFy original movie is better than a Lifetime original movie. They're both bad made-for-TV movies, and that's what "Part II" looks like, too.

We're left still waiting for an adaptation that can do justice to the sweep of Rand's tale.

Picking up where the second third of Rand's novel starts, our heroes, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden — now played by Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe — have thwarted both the government and their jealous, bailout-seeking competitors. Together, Dagny and Henry have opened the John Galt Line, the latest addition to the Taggart rail service, made with rails of light, durable Rearden Metal. They've also discovered, in an abandoned auto plant, an engine that promises access to near limitless energy, if they can find anyone who can figure out how it works.

That's the hard part, because the very sort of talented, creative people who might be able to unlock the secrets of the mystery motor are disappearing one by one, abandoning everything they worked years to build.

This is the second of three acts, and the situation is about to deteriorate, and fast.

Energy prices are soaring, making travel by car and plane too expensive for all but the very rich, which is why trains have re-emerged as a vital mode of transport. And as the economy crumbles, businesses rush to the government seeking favors, while the government, led by Head of State Thompson (Ray Wise), passes more edicts and restrictions each day. The same government science board that once said Rearden's metal was dangerous now says it's a vital resource that must be shared equally among all who want it.

It's an America where getting ahead in business, in art, in anything has become more a matter of political pull than achievement.

One thing "Atlas Shrugged: Part II" does surprisingly well is bring viewers up to speed with a minimum of plot exposition. You don't need to have seen "Part I" to know what's going on. But Rand's own exposition — especially her characters' lengthy speeches — is the film's undoing. Everything stops cold during the repetitive scenes where characters complain about the government or taxes or their spineless rivals. We get the point.

I'm a fan of the book, but even I admit its speech-making can go too far. And what barely works in the novel is a disaster in the movie. Only Esai Morales as the underused Francisco d'Anconia comes close to pulling it off.

Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart appears in a
scene from "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," the second
film in a planned trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's novel.
An airplane chase that opens and closes the film is its most thrilling set piece, despite the shoddy special effects. It's the one time the film truly embraces the pulp-fiction sensibility that runs through and ultimately drives Rand's book.

The way to approach "Atlas Shrugged" the novel is to recognize that it's essentially a pulp-magazine sci-fi story — complete with sci-fi tropes like a cloaking device and a motor that runs on ambient static electricity — presented as a talky, philosophical Russian epic. Films are primarily a visual medium, so to make "Atlas Shrugged" work as a movie, it has to be more pulp and less talk.

If the producers make "Part III," maybe they'll finally get the formula right. But with two box-office duds in a row, "Part III" seems unlikely. So far, the only ones doing much shrugging are the audience.

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