Every cult needs its own wacky trainwreck of a movie. Scientology got Battlefield Earth, and now the cult of Ayn Rand gets Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. But how does Atlas stand up to Battlefield Earth?
Quite well, actually. Atlas Shrugged Part 1, which just opened in theaters today, is a grand addition to the roster of movies that are both kooky and clunky. A movie this hideously wonderful really ought to be against the law.
Actually, scratch that. The federal government shouldn't outlaw dreadful movies like Atlas Shrugged – rather, the feds should just regulate them. For example, we could have a federal mandate that all such movies must star Nicolas Cage or a comparable actor – someone who knows how to bring the right level of gravitas to dialogue like, "Which do I sacrifice: an excellent piece of smelting, or this Institute?"
Call it the Nicolas Cage Full Employment Act. Or better yet, since Nic Cage is a precious national resource that's currently being distributed unevenly, the Nic Cage National Equalization Act. It should be up to the federal government to make sure that as many ludicrously insane movies as possible have access to the vital panacea that is Nic Cage.
The good news is, according to Atlas Shrugged the movie, all it takes to pass a new federal law is three people sitting in an upscale restaurant, as long as one of them has a cigar. Any time someone with a cigar mentions some completely demented idea for a federal law, it becomes the law of the land within five minutes or so.
In Atlas Shrugged Part 1, it's the dystopian year of 2016, and a lot of stuff has gone off the rails (literally) in just five years. The economy has collapsed, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is under 4,000. Because of unrest in the Middle East, there's no more oil, and gasoline is $37 a gallon. We see lots of scenes of the rusted, decaying landscape, with former corporate vice presidents standing around wearing sandwich boards proclaiming that they will vice-preside for food. (And even though everybody's out of work and there's almost no industry, people talking about runaway inflation, presumably because elves are on a buying spree.)
So everybody has to travel by rail – which makes it a shame that the antiquated rail lines have something like a 50 percent derailment rate. The federal government seems totally uninterested in mandating safety standards for the rail industry, since all the feds care about is outlawing competition and efficiency and stuff.
So we meet the Taggarts, head of the amazingly Taggart Railway, which practically has a "Days Without Derailment: 0" sign hanging in its headquarters. There's Jim Taggart, who'd rather beg the government to put his slightly less derail-y competitors out of business than replace all his railway ties that are currently made out of cotton candy. Meanwhile, there's his amazonian sister Dagny, who wants to succeed in the rail business by actually having rails. It's one of those radical ideas that might just work.
The trouble is, Dagny is having trouble getting new steel rails made, probably because of the government. So she turns to a new company, Rearden Metal, which has a new metal that's twice as light as steel and yet twice as sturdy. People keep warning Dagny that metalologists think this new metal is unstable, and it's never been tested – because in this dystopian future, everyone's forgotten the secret of testing metal. The Senior Metalological Institute of Metalology is extremely perturbed.
But that's okay, because Rearden Metal's metal, called Rearden Metal, is made out of pure Individualism. It is sturdy and shiny and brilliant and rugged – much like its inventor, Hank Rearden. Early on, we see Hank Rearden telling his secretary to throw away all his phone messages from the Metalosophers and all those people who think they know about metal.
So anyway Dagny decides to use Rearden Metal's new Rearden Metal to replace her rails, without testing it first, because the Invisible Hand. Dagny and Hank begin a sweaty, lustful, entrepreneurial courtship, which consists of them looking into each other's eyes and talking mistily about the power of selfishness. They're the only two people who understand each other, in a world of frivolous, decadent rich people who just want to be part of the system and drink endlessly fizzy cocktails.
And of course, all the other business people, who can't compete with Dagny and Hank, want the government to drive them out of business. Cue lots of scenes of those three guys coming up with ever more cracktastic ideas for new laws, such as the idea that one person can only own one company. (And for some reason, Rearden Metal, Rearden Smelting and Rearden Ore are three different companies. Hank should fire his lawyers.) People talk seriously about the "Dog Eat Dog rule" outlawing competition between companies, and the Equalization of Opportunity Bill outlawing some states having more money than others. You start to wonder just what is in those cigars they're smoking – and can we in the audience have some too?
Meanwhile, the debate over whether Rearden Metal's Rearden Metal is safe goes on and on. At one point, the State Science Institute apparently decides the metal is safe – but issues a statement saying otherwise, because they're worried about losing their funding. They're the last remaining science institute in the country and they're hanging on by a thread. (That's where we get the great line about "excellent smelting," which sort of sums up the movie right there.)
My absolute favorite scene in the movie comes soon after, where Armin Shimmerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) shows up to portray the ultimate personification of central planning – the Anti-Quark, if you will. The Anti-Quark wants Hank Rearden to sell his company to the government, so he'll stop putting all those poor steel companies out of business. Hank tells the Anti-Quark that he'll sell the company if the Anti-Quark can answer the question, "Is Rearden Metal good?" He asks this like ten times, and the Anti-Quark refuses to answer, finally saying that it doesn't matter – if the metal is bad, then it'll cause horrible fatalities on this new railroad. If the metal actually is good, then it'll put these other companies out of business. So it's either a safety risk or a social risk.
Oh, and Armin Shimmerman gets the amazing line, "During a steel shortage, we can't allow a company that produces too much steel."
The whole business left me wanting to meet the Anti-Odo.
So the movie, in general, is about the development of new technology, and whether society should welcome or fear scientific innovation. And the two choices appear to be: A) test the new metal by running a train over a suspension bridge made out of it, going 250 miles per hour; or B) condemn the new metal without any testing whatsoever. In a sense, this movie aims to fulfill that great mission of science fiction: exploring the impact of new scientific discoveries on the world as a whole. Unfortunately, we get only one or two moments where anybody takes seriously the idea that a metal half as heavy and twice as strong as steel could have some interesting uses. Damn those metalologers.
And then towards the end of the movie, we suddenly take a sharp left turn, because Dagny and Hank find out a miraculous engine that uses the Casimir Effect and has a miniature particle accelerator in it to create atmospheric intensity. It's like the engine equivalent of Rearden Metal's fabulous Rearden Metal, except that it was never produced because the company that was making it turned Socialist.
So Dagny goes on a quest to track down the inventor of this engine, which leads her to a former physics professor who now runs a diner in the middle of nowhere. He tells her, "The secret you're trying to solve is greater – and I mean, much greater – than an engine that runs on atmospheric intensity."
What could be greater than an engine that runs on atmospheric intensity? We may never find out (unless we read the book, which seems like too much to ask) because the movie ends soon afterwards. This is only part one of a
two three-part movie – because just like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, there's too much story in Atlas Shrugged for just one movie.
I don't want to give away the movie's cliffhanger ending, but it's basically the culmination of a running subplot in which men of genius are all vanishing to join the mysterious John Galt. And it ends with Dagny on her knees, surrounded by flames and giant libertarian placards, looking up at the camera and shrieking, "Nooooooooooo!"
Somehow, I think everyone in the audience knows how she feels.