Thursday, June 17, 2010

Culture Shock 06.17.10: 'Atlas Shrugged' film is not what anyone expected

The saying in Hollywood is no one sets out to make a bad movie. But sometimes, that's exactly what happens.

Take "Atlas Shrugged," the long-awaited film adaptation of Ayn Rand's best-selling, 1,300-page novel, first published in 1957. Rand's fans have waited 50 years for the book's leap to the big screen, and plans for a movie version have circulated for three decades.

Now the movie is finally happening, but it's likely to leave even Rand's most ardent admirers shrugging.

The adaptation that started production this week is like nothing anyone had expected, or wanted. Instead of a star-studded epic befitting a novel of "Atlas Shrugged's" size and scope, this "Atlas" looks like it'll be something you might one day stumble upon on Lifetime Movie Network, late at night, when no one else is watching.

Paul Johansson, best known for his role in The CW's "One Tree Hill," is both directing and playing the pivotal role of John Galt, who leads a "strike of the mind" against the twin forces of big government and the unproductive businessmen who run to the government in search of bailouts and subsidies.

You could say the story is topical.

I don't know about you, but when I think of Rand's personification of the heroic ideal, I don't think of "One Tree Hill's" Dan Scott. Actually, I never think of "One Tree Hill," period.

Starring opposite Johansson is Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart, around whom most of "Atlas" revolves.

Schilling's resume is thin. She is fresh from playing the lead on NBC's critically panned — and canceled — medical drama "Mercy." But according to the Internet Movie Database, her only previous role was in the 2007 film "Dark Matter."

Helping round out the cast of virtual unknowns is Grant Bowler ("Ugly Betty") as steel magnate Hank Rearden.

Not to slight any of these actors, but we are talking about a project that has, over the years, drawn interest from A-list talent like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and, most recently, Charlize Theron.

Proposals to adapt "Atlas Shrugged" for the screen have ranged from film adaptations, sometimes breaking the novel into multiple movies, to a TV miniseries. Suggested budgets have gone as high as $40 million, no doubt with the hope that top talent would take pay cuts in exchange for coveted roles.

Instead, we're getting a rush job with a no-name cast, a budget of just $5 million and the promise — or is it a threat? — that at least one more movie will pick up the story where "Atlas Shrugged Part One" leaves off.

How did it come to this?

John Aglialoro, CEO of exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex International, paid $1 million for the movie rights to "Atlas" in 1992. Yet, despite years of false hopes and false starts, he failed to get the movie going, and his time was running out. If "Atlas" had not gone into production this week, Aglialoro's option would have run out.

So, Aglialoro is pressing on with what he has, which isn't much. That's why his "Atlas Shrugged" looks like more of a scheme to hold onto the film rights than a proper movie.

This wouldn't be the first time someone has rushed a low-budget movie into production just to retain the right to make a better version later on.

In the early 1990s, a German company held the rights to make a movie based on Marvel Comics' The Fantastic Four. With their option running out, the German producers brought in American B-movie king Roger Corman to make a quickie FF movie so they could keep their option alive.

With a reported budget of $1.4 million — would that even cover the catering on most films? — and featuring a no-star cast, Corman's "The Fantastic Four" became the stuff of legend. It was never commercially released, and it exists today only as bootleg DVDs you can sometimes find at comic book conventions. It's the "Star Wars Holiday Special" of superhero movies.

Eventually, 20th Century Fox would release two big-budget Fantastic Four movies. But they aren't particularly good, either, come to think of it.

Will this B-grade "Atlas Shrugged" movie ever see daylight, or is it destined to follow Corman's FF into obscurity? Who knows?

Who is John Galt, anyway?

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