Sunday, October 14, 2012

Movie Review: "Atlas Shrugged II" -- Better Than The Original

            It''s rare that a movie sequel is better than the original, rarer still that a film made from a book is better than the book, rarest of all that the second movie in a trilogy is both a seamless part of the whole and still effective as a stand-alone film.  "Atlas Shrugged Part Two" succeeds on all three counts.
            First, with the benefit of a larger budget, the director could provide more special effects for the action sequences, of which there are several.  The film opens with a fast-paced airplane chase, ending just before an inevitable crash – and then cuts to nine months earlier for the lead-up story.  The destruction of the D'Anconia mines isn't just reported from offstage but, in good film fashion, shown – in a spectacular long-distance shot.  The crucible-spill in the steel mill, by contrast, is done in a series of really startling mid-shots that include the flood of glowing molten metal right next to the workers frantically shoveling sand to block it – and it's left to the viewer to consider (in later reflection?) how all that sand will make the metal useless even if it's recoverable.  The train-wreck in the tunnel is more spectacular yet, and all the more effective for the detailed build-up.
            Second, the need to cram a lot of background and thematic information into the time-limit of the film creates tight, fast pacing with immense detail in the setting of each shot.  The scenes of sign-waving protesters never exceed thirty seconds, not nearly enough time to read many of the intriguing slogans;  that will take repeated viewing on DVD, which slyly encourages sales thereof.  Hank Reardon's trial is compacted to half a dozen pithy exchanges, with audience reactions.  Jimmy Taggart's courtship and marriage to Cheryl, the innocent but adoring shop-girl, is done in just three scenes – one of which includes another Mysterious Disappearance of the Capable, which is a running theme of the plot.  The only instance of a Randian speech is D'Anconia's rant about money at Taggart's elaborate society wedding – where Cheryl gallantly tries to hold her own, and allows for one of Rand's best punchlines – and even that is mercifully brief.  The result is a fast-moving and densely layered film, inviting lots of re-viewing, that loses nothing of Rand's themes.           
            Third, framing the film with the swooping jet air-chase that starts with a question – "Who is John Galt?" Dagne growls as she flies into what looks like a mountain – and ends by answering it – "I'm John Galt," says the silhouette as he pulls her from the plane's wreckage – neatly shapes the plot into a coherent whole.  Part Two is a taut political thriller, about two capable people trying to shore up a staggering economy and fending off attacks by an increasingly Fascist government, while solving a mystery – the Disappearances.  As such, it's hauntingly reminiscent of the British political-mystery films of the early days of World War Two, intended to persuade the yet-uninvolved Americans that Fascism was a bad idea. 
            At the same time, since the film can't be separated from its prequel, the inevitable references to it are done smoothly and effectively.  TV news clips referring to a disastrous law, detailed in the first film, segue into references to Wyatt's Torch, one result of the first Disappearance.  The dismantling of the John Galt Line almost poetically parallels the scenes, in Part One, of its construction.  Dagne's sneaking the scientist into the underground locker where the mysterious invention is hidden neatly allows her to mention – briefly – where and how she found it, shown in the first film.
            The movie's chief weakness, the almost all-new cast, really couldn't be avoided, since the first film's cast was mostly TV actors who weren't available for Part Two thanks to their regular jobs.  The cast of Part Two is much the same;  look for familiar faces from CSI, Law and Order, Alphas, and others.  Makeup art makes the new cast look similar, up to a point, but the differences can't be completely concealed – either in appearance or performance.  Part Two's Hank Reardon isn't quite as good as Part One's, its Lilian Reardon is better, its Dagne is just as good and its John Galt is just as bad – and, fortunately, just as seldom seen.
            Given all it had to deal with, the script is subtly brilliant – deserving an Oscar nomination, which it probably won't get for political reasons.  It even manages a few flashes of sly humor, such as the one-minute scene from a TV political-talk show, featuring a Hannity character – played by the real Hannity – being downshouted by a Black commentator who bears a more-than-coincidental resemblance to Al Franken.  It carefully sidesteps any accusations of affecting the coming election by never mentioning the word "president", but only referring – even visually – to the "head of state".  It's unlikely that many people will notice that the "head of state" is played by the same actor who played the murderous father on Twin Peaks.
            The irony is that the politics surrounding AS II parallel the politics within it.  Having learned from experience with AS I, the producer took care to line up theaters to show it well before the release date.  Here in Arizona, that meant getting a contract with the second-largest theater chain in the state.  It also meant spending some of the film's tight budget on paid TV advertizing, and specifically paying for prime-time slots.  Nonetheless, no less than three of the top Internet sites that usually list movie locations and times managed to lose all references to AS II, and I've noticed that the local media have blacked out mention of the film as efficiently as they ignored the Ron Paul campaign. 
            Nonetheless, the word has gotten out.  When I saw the film there were perhaps 50 people in the audience – at the 10:30 AM showing, on Saturday morning, and it was on two screens of a 24-screen megaplex theater.  I'd love to know what the numbers were for the afternoon and evening shows.
            It's pretty clear that AS II will make its costs, and yes, there will be a final chapter.  The "Atlas Shrugged" movies, like the book they came from, will not quietly go away.

            --Leslie Fish 


Mark Horning said...

Based on the Data at Box Office Mojo part II made as much in it's opening weekend as Part 1, but it took 4 times as many theaters. That's a Pretty good sign it will NOT made back it's cost.

I'll go see it though. Part I was great, and I has very concerned about the change in cast.

Leslie Fish said...

Wait until word gets around about where and when it's playing. Given time to make a groundswell, I think it will do OK.

Paradoctor said...

I've read "Atlas Shrugged". It wouldn't be at all difficult for a movie to be better than that. What an incredibly bad writer.

How does the movie handle the psychosexual disfunctions of Rand's characters? In popular culture, rape and sociopathy are usually characteristic of the villains, not the heroes.

Part 2 has the infamous train sequence? How does the movie handle the book's victim-blaming? In the book, they weren't perfect Objectivists, so they all deserved to die. I think Rand really messed up there; she could have railed against the chaotic injustice of the world, and been a good writer, but no, she had to be an ideologue instead.

KateGladstone said...

Re not losing the book's themes:
I didn't see (in the film) Rand's denunciation of mystics and their beliefs.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nat. Oh yes, Rand wrote like a Russian novelist, and very few Russians were ever able to do that well. The movie handled the build-up to the train crash by showing the actions of the passengers beforehand; they *are* the govt. bureaucrats and crony-capitalists -- and their bimbos, one of whom does the dumb stunt that especially causes the wreck. It's a masterpiece of "show, don't tell".

Hi, Kate. In Part I, IIRC, there's a brief (less than 10 seconds) shot of some preacher railing about how all the world's problems are the cliche'd Punishment for Your Sins -- and everyone but a couple of collapsed drunks passes by, ignoring him. I think there's a similar shot in Part II. Again, "show, don't tell."

KateGladstone said...

Right, Leslie ...but I wish there'd been more of such "showing" ... Both bits were very easy to miss.

Paradoctor said...

The build-up to the train wreck was good, the follow-through failed.

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, I haven't seen Part II yet. I will probably wait for the DVD.

As a big fan of the book, I doubt very much that the movie will seem better than the original to me, as indeed Part I, which I did see, did not.

There is a limit to "show, don't tell." Some of the things Rand had to say shattered the ideology that most people have grown up with:

1) Selfishness is good. (Even the producers of the DVD of the first movie did not get that -- so much so that they had to re-do the packaging because it extolled self-sacrifice.)

2) Sex is good, but not as a mindless hedonistic exercise. Rather, it is an expression of our highest values.

3) Real producers don't work for the money: they work for the pleasure that producing grants them. But it is wrong to use this trait of theirs to rob them of the rightful fruit of their labor.

The problem is that you can't really show that. You need some words to go with, or people will get the wrong idea. Show them a hero fighting for what is right -- and they see self-sacrifice. Show them two people enjoying sex, and they see ... sex. Show them someone working very hard, and they see a strong work ethic -- not an internal compulsion to work.

I agree that Rand was a little too preachy at times. But just showing doesn't always work. You have to explain to people what they are seeing, or they will never escape the established worldview.