[MOVIE REVIEW by Charlie Jane Anders]
Like The Hobbit, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand was too awesome to adapt as just one movie. And now at last, the movie trilogy is complete. And the third movie is by far the most entertaining, because it focuses on the torrid romance between railroad genius Dagny Taggart and the dreamy, lion-coiffed John Galt. Spoilers ahead…
The first two parts of Atlas Shrugged were mostly about depicting the somewhat cartoonish dystopia that oppresses geniuses like Dagny and her one-time lover, Hank Rearden. Geniuses invent everything, and the government tries to take it away in the name of “fairness” — so the ruling mooks are constantly passing weird rules like “You must sell equally to every one of your customers,” which don’t even make sense in terms of Socialism.
But Part III is pretty much just about the relationship between Dagny and John Galt, interspersed with glimpses of the perfect society John Galt has built in his gulch and the rest of the world falling apart. The biggest departure from the book — and the reason this final movie is able to fit into a tight 90 minutes — is that Hank Rearden is largely cut out, and the only characters in the movie who matter are Dagny and John.
We start out with a flashback to John Galt walking out on the 20th Century Motor Co., and announcing “I’ll stop the motor of the world.” (He doesn’t add, “And melt with you,” which seems like a wasted opportunity.) Then we zip forward to the present, when Dagny has just crashed her plane inside Galt’s secret domain. She’s lying injured on the ground, and John Galt appears, wearing a plaid mountaineer shirt and leather jacket. He scoops her up in his arms — even after she says she can walk, he still carries her.
John Galt’s hair looks so great — he has a flowing mane of curly brown hair that catches the light in every scene he’s in. He looks like a young Michael Landon. He’s so damn rugged, his jaw is a perfect square, and he’s constantly squinting at the camera with a mixture of sarcasm and adorable whimsy. She literally sweeps Dagny off her feet and carries her off to his rugged cabin, where the ceiling is engraved with encouraging messages from moguls who have left behind the evil world of fire departments and sanitation workers.
This leads to a long sequence where Galt sort of throws negs at Dagny, who is there uninvited and hasn’t agreed to join Galt’s “strike” of geniuses. She isn’t sure whether she agrees with this incredibly hunky, divinely coiffed man who has been basically sabotaging her efforts to build a rail line that can save people from starvation and stuff. (Because the whole East Coast will starve unless the wheat harvest is brought from the Midwest, and only Taggart Rail can do it.)
John Galt shows Dagny around his incredible world of happy white people (except for Francisco D’Anconia, the copper magnate) where everybody pays for everything using special gold coins with giant dollar signs engraved on them. You want a croissant from the happy croissant seller? Give her a piece of gold. The “gold coin” economy is made possible partly by a pirate named Ragnar, who goes around raiding shipping vessels to “take back” what the government has stolen from the hard-working wealthy people.
John Galt’s community is full of technological miracles, all of which are the work of a single inventor. There’s a magical holographic forcefield that hides his “gulch” from outsiders (which took out Dagny’s plane engine when she got too close). Galt has invented an engine that takes energy from the atmosphere and turns it into electricity, with zero cost — it could power the entire West Coast of the U.S., but Galt is keeping it for himself because he hates government regulation. A neuroscientist who came to live with Galt has invented a super-futuristic medical tricorder which can scan Dagny’s entire body for injuries in a second — he could invent this miracle device (smaller than an iPad) overnight because he had “no red tape” to deal with. (In addition to being a neuroscientist, he’s apparently also an electronics genius and programmer, who has the means to manufacture tiny components by himself.)
In this world, all inventions are the work of a single inventor, and as soon as you take the government out of the individual’s way, you can instantly have aStar Trek future.
John Galt slowly melts Dagny’s heart with his incredibly great flowing hair. Seriously, his hair is so great. And his steely gaze. He tells her that she has to pay her own way in her world, and she didn’t bring any gold with her. She’s penniless! So she says she will cook and clean for him, and do his laundry. He agrees, and advances her a few shiny gold coins against her first wages. It’s so romantic!
The best scene in the movie involves Stephen Tobolowsky (the only actor you’ve heard of in this thing) explaining Ayn Rand’s philosophy to Dagny at great length — they’re sitting in a field together, and a huge swarm of insects is flying around them. The insects keep landing on Tobolowsky, and his face has a few bugs sitting on it by the end of the scene. Tobolowsky is a pro, and does not flinch or go off his script about the virtue of selfishness. But this is like a perfect metaphor — they’re away from government interference, and also all the people who might do pest control, apparently. It’s kind of weird that they didn’t reshoot that scene, but I’m glad they didn’t.
But Dagny still believes that allowing millions to die just to make a point is wrong, and she doesn’t want to abandon the company her father built. So just like in the book, Dagny can’t stay in John Galt’s paradise — she has to go back to the dystopian Hell of New York, and try to save her railroad from the government creepazoids. And John Galt decides to stalk her. I mean follow her. That’s what I meant. (Follow her, without talking to her, or letting her have any say in any of it — he tells her not to look for him, but he’ll find her whenever she needs him to.)
On the plane ride back to the outside world, John Galt blindfolds Dagny before he leads her into the cockpit, so she won’t lead anyone back to his gulch. It’s a moment that pretty much invents the concept of “objectivist kink.”
The second half of the movie involves Dagny back in New York, away from Galt’s sunny paradise. There, she’s back dealing with her lazy, venal brother, who just wants to sponge off the government. And the evil bureaucrats like Wesley Mouch, who wear super cheap suits but still have servants in fancy uniforms use little brushes to clean their crappy ill-fitting dress shirts after lunch. There’s a fantastic scene where a bunch of tuxedo-wearing guys smoking ginormous cigars decide to divert Dagny’s railroad, while she protests in her evening gown.
Later, after Dagny has solved a huge railroad problem with sheer grit, still in her evening gown, she spots John Galt and they go into the tunnels under the tracks and have torrid train-track sex. The wind machine is cranked up to 11 and her hair is streaming everywhere, but his hair is perfect. John Galt’s hair isalways perfect.
I won’t spoil how the romance between Dagny and John turns out, or whether she chooses romantic selfishness over cynical sacrifice — suffice to say that his big speech consists of just his eyes, creepily lit up while the rest of his face is in shadow, and in the end he’s shirtless and in bondage and she leads a crew of moguls to rescue him from the evil Project F. The most important thing is, John Galt’s hair just gets more and more flowy and heroic. All of the government moochers have terrible hair, and when they confront John Galt, and he smiles at them, his whole head of beautiful locks is rebuking their collectivist alopecia.
Honestly, I wish someone would make a piece of left-wing agitprop as ridiculous and un-self-consciously bonkers as this movie. It’s a crying shame that there’s no ludicrous propaganda like this on the left — someone is not doing his/her job here.
The one thing that jumped out at me, watching this third movie, is how retro-futuristic it is. Not just because it’s based on a novel that was written nearly 50 years ago, but because of its attempts to update that vision for the 21st century. The government-wrecked dystopia is full of 1930s Depression imagery, which is something Gary Ross’ first Hunger Games film played with in a somewhat more artful fashion. The sun-dappled paradise of John Galt’s Mulligan Gulch is also full of retro imagery, including the old-fashioned trucks everyone drives and the cabins. A few random touches are lifted right out of other recent science fiction films, including the look of John Galt’s force field and the magical medical technology. But those things stick out, precisely because they’re the only “futuristic” things in a movie that otherwise clings to a comforting old-timeyness in its vision of both utopian and dystopian futures.
And in a series that celebrates fearlessness and ruthless questioning, it’s interesting how timid this movie (and its source material, to some extent) are about interrogating the implications of its fantastical technology. If you really had unlimited clean energy, and a miracle diagnostic tool that could do instant body scans, what else would change? What other technologies could you invent on the back of that? Would we really still need old-fashioned railroads? It’s an interesting failure of worldbuilding.
All in all, though, the storytelling energy of this third Atlas Shrugged movie is entirely focused on the love story, in which Dagny is the stand-in for the audience. We, too, are swept off our feet by John Galt. He takes us in his manly arms and we look into his perfect brown eyes as he explains to us why we should not care for anybody but ourselves. He doesn’t let us drop, even while he unravels a philosophy entirely devoted to letting others fall. It’s the ultimate contradiction, and thus the perfect romance.