Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part One

For me, Atlas Shrugged is one of the ten greatest novels ever written, and I can say that even though I do not necessarily agree with Objectivism. So I went into this flick with high demands but not super high expectations. While this is not a stellar film experience, I must say I was engrossed! For me, an Atlas Shrugged movie would have to do three things really well: convey the philosophy, rock the plot, and get the characters right.

Rand's philosophy gets very little air time here, but I'll give Part 1 a pass because this is a trilogy. The director may be relying on the second or third 'acts' to develop the philosophical angles. Since Rand did her philosophy to death in some portions of her book, a less heavy-handed approach could be a plus.

In terms of distilling Rand's mammoth plot, I think they made some good choices. As opposed to the slow economic decline Rand painted, we start out in the middle of a crisis. This was a brilliant choice as it allowed a good deal of explication to be avoided. We now know what the problem is, so the film can focus on who caused it, who can stop it, and what's in their way. I also like how they drew the crisis into parallel with some of the feelings and issues Americans have today. They also quickly deal with the obvious plot problem: why should the audience care about railroads? This issue is credibly handled in the first minutes of the movie, and it was wise not to dwell on it. The use of blackberrys and texting seems shocking in Rand's speechifying world, but they are a perfect way to telegraph some of the conversations and keep things moving.

On the downside I'm not keen on the early revelation of a man behind the 'disappearances', perhaps because I felt the mystery aspect of the novel was one of the key plot hooks. Even though the way they have the men 'disappear' makes good dramatic use of the visual medium, I still feel they could do more with it. The 'destroyer' could be portrayed in a horror movie, stalker way (he kind of is already with the shadows and waiting for people to be alone). Have some fun with it! I also found the pacing a bit rushed, but I also find Gone With the Wind rushed compared to the book. Perhaps any movie based on a book this big can't help but seem rushed by comparison. No matter, a longer run time (an extra 30 minutes would only take us to 2 hours) is clearly needed. Given the trilogy approach, a longer run time would help with pacing but wouldn't burden the audience too much.

As for the actors inhabiting these larger than life roles, I like the choices they made though there is some wooden acting. The actress who plays Dagny is sometimes a bit stiff (and I'm not sure she knows how to walk in heels), but she definitely 'gets' the character and conveys her aura. Hank Rearden is also well-played, and the actor is physically perfect for the role. The jury is still out on John Galt and Francisco D'Anconia who each get minimal screen time, although the updating of playboy Francisco into a 'playa' is pitch perfect. Likewise, the updating of James Taggart into the typical do-nothing, pampered executive all too common in the business world today is spot on. We'll see how the actor does as his character starts to show his true colors. A big plus is the guy who plays Ellis Wyatt! He totally sinks his teeth into the role and steals the scenes he's in. On the other hand, the woman who plays Lillian Rearden needs more juice. She's playing the vixen-bitch in this philosophical soap opera, and she should camp it up a bit. The actor playing Hugh Akston was able - in one minute of screen time - to repel me. He played Akston with the aura of a surly Walmart check-out clerk rather than a brilliant scholar. Terrible choice and actor.

One surprising note is how the saggier acting moments were more than offset by the benefits of the cast of virtual unknowns (or at least a cast with low recognition quotient). These actors were definitely committed to their roles. Besides, I find it terribly distracting in dramatic movies to have recognizable stars onscreen. It's like when I saw a biopic on Jane Austin starring Anne Hathaway. I never got past the fact that I was watching Anne-Hathaway-playing-Jane-Austin. Of course some of that was her poor performance, but some of it is just the star power. You really have to be as talented as Meryl Streep or Colin Firth to overcome that so that the viewer can forget they're watching a film with a star. I don't think I would have enjoyed this movie as much if Dagny had been played by Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson or whoever, even if they did the job perfectly. Brad Pitt as Hank Reardon? Ick.

Bottom-line, Atlas Shrugged is technically a low-budget movie, but it looks and functions very well all things considered. I thoroughly enjoyed it and, like I said, my demands were pretty high as I can easily hate adaptations of my favorite novels. Part of the fun here was anticipation: how will they handle the lighting of Wyatt's Torch? What will Wesley Mouch look like? From what I understand, Part 2 is coming in Fall of 2012 and I'm looking forward to it very much!

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