The second installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy is out today, just a few weeks before the presidential election. And in the proud tradition of sequels, this film ramps up the action. The government mandates are crazier. The political speechifying is more intense. And the principled statements about freedom and personal responsibility are twice as principleder.
Most of all, this film is about the wrath of John Maynard Keynes. He hasn't killed you, merely hurt you. And he wishes to go on... hurting you. Spoilers ahead...
Atlas Shrugged Part 2 picks up pretty much where Part 1 left off. It's the near future, and the world has fallen into deep economic depression. There's no more oil, and everybody travels by train instead of car or airplane. People of genius (inventors, scientists, and rich entrepreneurs) are vanishing and leaving behind the phrase, "Who is John Galt?" And the government is responding to the economic crisis by trying to control absolutely everything.
Oh, and one of our heroes, Hank Rearden, developed a fantastical new metal that's super light and super strong, which the government both denounces as unsafe and wants to control. And meanwhile, his girlfriend and comrade Dagny Taggart has discovered a miraculous machine that can draw free, clean, unlimited energy from static electricity in the atmosphere — if only she can get it working. These are the kinds of unbelievable science fiction innovations that we could have right now, if the gummint would just stop trying to control every darn thing.
In one of the most hilarious subplots in the film, Dagny Taggart first shows the "free energy" machine to a government scientist played by Robert Picardo, who can't help make it work. Then she hires an engineer played by Dietrich Bader, who takes it to his lab in Utah where he works on it — completely alone, no lab assistants or anything — by scribbling lots of equations on a transparent blackboard through which we can see his scowling face. (All the other scientists are already gone because of John Galt.)
These miraculous inventions are just minor threads in Atlas Shrugged Part 2, however. The main storyline, of course, has to do with the vanishing geniuses who are following John Galt. And the government's ever-crazier initiatives to "fix" the economy.
Dystopias are contrived, by their very nature. It's part of what makes dystopian storytelling fun. Anybody who's looked at the most recent raft of dystopian YA novels knows just how ridiculously outlandish a future oppressive regime can become. But the dystopia in Atlas Shrugged Part 2 might just take the cake.
The government keeps coming out with crazy new edicts — the Fair Share Law! Rule 10-289! — that make no sense even if you're a loonie socialist. It's basically along the lines of, "All business people must wear shoes on their hands! And conduct business meetings in Pig Latin! Every single private company must change its name to the Acme _____ Co., to make enterprises more Wile Coyote-compliant."
Actually, those would make more sense than the rules that you see apparently sober adults promulgating in Atlas Shrugged, Part 2. Forget "Straw Man" arguments — the left-wing arguments in this movie are more like leaning towers made of drinking straws.
As a journey into the darkest recesses of the Randian psyche, Atlas Shrugged is fascinating. There are approximately 100 scenes where an upright, morally pure person stands up and denounces the "looters" who want to take their rightfully earned wealth, and the influence-peddling parasites who gain power from connections to the government. And the people they're denouncing only ever mutter nonsensical phrases about the public good and fairness.
The good news is, if you're going to listen to people speaking in paragraphs and chains of slogans for two hours, at least you're mostly watching actors rather than amateurs. That's the big innovation that Part 2 makes over Part 1: They actually hired some actors this time. In addition to Picardo and Bader, there's also Richard T. Jones from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. And D.B. Sweeney as John Galt himself. Ray Wise plays basically the President (they call him "Head of State" for some reason.) And there are a ton of other genre stalwarts that you'll recognize, all camping it the hell up. Every role has been recast, thank Ayn Rand.
But there's one actor who deserves special mention: Esai Morales, aka Joseph Adama from Caprica. Playing one of the main John Galt followers, who gives some of the biggest speeches denouncing the "looters" who attempt to steal the fruits of honest wealth creators, Morales basically decides that camping it up just isn't going to cut it. It's actually somewhat hard to describe Morales' performance, which is somewhere between "swishy" and "maniacal." The more the movie calls upon Morales to make dramatic pronouncements about the few who create and the many who steal, the more he just takes huge chunks of the scenery in his massive jaws and masticates. This film is almost worth seeing, just to see Joseph Adama adding a drunken leer and head-flip to every one of his many pieces of Randian propaganda.
Update: I forgot to mention the best subplot of all: Dagny Taggert versus the other women in the film. This time around, Dagny wears ginormous false eyelashes, and constantly looks like she's about to cry or vomit. And she's pitted against Hank Rearden's scheming wife, who just wants to hang on to her power and prestige at all costs, and feels threatened by Hank and Dagny's affair. Meanwhile, Dagny's brother marries a random convenience store clerk, who falsely believes that Dagny is victimizing Jim Taggart, and she swears to defend Jim against Dagny. During the hilarious wedding scene, the new bride looks Dagny in the eyes and says, "I'm the woman of this family now. "That's okay," Dagny cry-smirks. "I'm the man."
So in the fine tradition of Empire Strikes Back and other second movies, this is the film where everything gets darker, and the "good guys" are dealt numerous setbacks. This is a world where Labor Unions are all powerful (really?), government cronies can make anyone tremble with the flick of a pen, and the world is a crumbling ruin as a result. (It's like a nightmarish, distorted version of the world we actually live in, where ants are the size of elephants and it constantly rains razor blades.)
And yet, it's even clearer watching Atlas Shrugged Part 2 than it was watching Atlas Shrugged Part 1 that there's some bad worldbuilding going on here. It's not just that Rand was writing about a different world, one where America still had steel companies and railroads were super important. (I actually like the idea of a future where rail travel comes back because of high fuel costs.) This is a world where all wealthy people make something tangible, or pull raw materials out of the ground — there are no mortgage-backed securities, no hedge funds, no derivatives. (And you almost never see anybody using a computer, except in a few scenes at Dagny Taggart's railway where everybody stares at big screens showing flashing red lines indicating the RAILROAD IS IN DANGER!)
Oh, and the movie ends with a sequence that's also teased in the opening minutes. An airplane chase! Dagny Taggart is chasing her scientist friend Quentin (Bader) who's flying away in a super rocket plane, while she's flying an "antique" private jet. Quentin's super rocket plane flies through the mountains, with Taggart in hot pursuit — and then it teleports away in a flash, because John Galt has the secret of teleportation! Dagny flies towards the same spot where Quentin vanished — but she's about to collide with a mountain. She whispers, "Who is John Galt" and magically enters a time/space tunnel, full of blue flickering energy and weird trippy lights. Only to emerge in John Galt's beautiful green paradise, which I'm hoping turns out to be a completely different planet.
I guess we'll find out in Atlas Shrugged III: The Search for Hayek.