Ayn Rand continues to be one of the most misapplied philosophical minds in all free thinking society. Luckily, the Occupy Movement has stolen much of the Teabaggers thundering, rendering their need to channel this devoutly anti-Communist Russian émigré ad nauseum. The funny thing is, Rand is really only famous because of a pair of overinflated novels - The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In between, she worked as a screenwriter, scholar, and social activist. Somewhere along the line, her reality and her limited literary output became confused, considered one in the same thing. Granted, her narratives often reflected her viewpoints, but not without larding same with unnecessary melodrama, soap opera sex scenes, and enough ancillary asides to confuse a class of graduate students. While many have tried to bring her baffling tomes to the big screen, few have succeeded. Conservative producer (and businessman) John Aglialoro finally realized his decades-long ambition to translate Atlas into a bonafide blockbuster. He didn't quite succeed. Actually, he failed by miles.
It's the near future. Transportation and dwindling fossil fuel reserves have sent the country into a spiral of economic depression and social grandstanding. Train travel is once again popular, providing many with the means to move back and forth - and gouge the general public. One of the biggest providers of said service - Taggart Transcontinental Railroad - has just suffered another major setback. An accident causes turmoil within the company, putting brother and CEO James Taggart (Matthew Marsden) and his sister/VP Dagny (Taylor Schilling) at odds. Eventually, she leaves to work with inventor Hank Reardon (Grant Bowler). He has created a new kind of metal -Reardon Steel - that promises to revolutionize the entire industry. Of course, this means that politicians and those in government will stop at nothing to see him fail. While James uses his influence to ensure the company's credibility, Dagny starts her own line - The John Galt Line - and works with Reardon to discover the true identity of the mythic namesake creator of a motor that will transform the world.
Imagine the first Matrix movie where everyone talks about Neo and yet he's never introduced. Better yet, envision V for Vendetta without V. This is the problem facing this first in a proposed trilogy of Atlas Shrugged films. The narrative applies a slogan - "Who is John Galt?" - as a kind of rallying cry, a way around the fat cat corporate big wigs (and their government accomplices) who threaten to bring the entire nation to its knees. True, he doesn't arrive until the third act, but he's still an important cog in this often overblown machine. So what does the cinematic attempt of Atlas Shrugged do? It decides to divide the story up into sections, concentrating Part 1 on the path toward the real meat of the material. For all its attempts at being true and authentic, the results feel flat and superficial. This is like a filmstrip version of the story, a cut and paste production where all the basic plot points are hit but where nary a single aesthetic beat works. It's an epic by way of an Etch-a-Sketch, a massive production pared down to fit within its limited budget means.
There's another analogy that illustrates the success - or lack thereof - of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. Take your favorite film, strip it of its classicist elements, and insert made-for-TV talent and vision...and not the kind of boob tube creativity responsible for such post-modern masterworks as Mad Men. No, this experience sits somewhere above an ABC Movie of the Week circa 1974 and a sloppy, sweeping mini-series from the end of the '80s. Everything about Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 - the cast, the crew, the concepts being forwarded - feels antiquated and dated. While we are supposedly sitting in 2016, this is one future that's more schlock than shock. Even with all the preambles and set-ups, we seem stuck in a place where familiarity fails to breed contempt - it only gives birth to boredom. As characters drone on and one (this is a very talky film), we get snippets of substance and a bit of scope. But then the overall bottom feeder feel of the movie makes one realize we're watching an indie take on the title, not some full blown Hollywood hoopla.
For the most part, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 underwhelms. It misses the majority of what Rand had to say while struggling to keep its politics in place. Granted, we are only working with the beginning, the foundational elements of a much bigger story, but there's a flaw in such an approach. When you take a single object and section it off willy-nilly, the results don't seem to have much of a purpose. We know more is to come, so everything feels anticlimactic. For something so obvious - the connection to the current issues with oil and alternative energy resources have a definite resonance - the motive to remain invested is remote. Rand was a much better speaker on her beliefs than she was a writer. Her books are overstuffed and pulpy, the product of too much time and too much misplaced praise. Unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, who can find a way to make 1000 pages mesmerizing, Rand relies too heavily on convention and contrivance to maintain forward momentum. Perhaps if all three films were complete and available for viewing, we wouldn't mind the partitioning. As it stands, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is not good enough to warrant the final two installments.
Offered up in an overly bright 1080p/AVC-encode, the 2.35:1 digital image is not bad. It's also not very impressive, visually. Director Paul Johannson, making his first foray into feature filmmaking after a career as an actor, brings very little to the mix. While the transfer is taken from a workman-like Red One camera creation, the lack of panache turns everything rote and routine. The production design doesn't help. It's a cold collection of muted earth tones and proposed high tech tropes. There are good details to be found, as well as a couple of sequences of flash, but for the most part, this movie's picture is as mediocre as its entertainment value.
Though it offers a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, the lack of a true aural canvas really undermines the sonic situations here. Yes, the dialogue is easy to understand and the score tries to bring a bit of pomp to the preposterous circumstances, but for the most part, the mix lacks a dynamic element to lift it above the acceptable. About the only time we get any channel to channel action is during the sequences involving the railroad. Otherwise, this front heavy presentation is passable, nothing more.
Offering a decent collection of added content, this Blu-ray release really tries to justify its existence. First up, producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow are joined by writer Brian Patrick O'Toole for an excellent commentary track that really illustrates the struggles and successes (in their minds, at least) of bringing Rand's 'masterpiece' to life. They really lay out the many incidents both on and off the set that forged this particular film. There is also an EPK level Making-of (a mere six minutes) and a longer featurette about the John Galt character. Sadly, it mostly consists of Rand fans screaming the "I am John Galt" catchphrase. Finally, the main music theme is presented over a collection of production stills. Not bad, but not reference quality either.
For those who had to 'suffer' through countless college credit hours discussing Rand's views (which boil down to "objectivism - good...altruism - bad") and her work as a literary figure, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 will feel like the worst of said lectures. It's boring, didactic, and overflowing with pointless pontification - just like the novel. While some may champion the source as philosophically sound, most will see it for what it really is - a bloated, bombastic mess. Earning an easy Skip It, this is for the covert only, the supporter who doesn't mind having their ideals superficially spoonfed to them. What Rand's work needs is an aesthetic editor, not a literal translation. Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, fails at both.