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Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt?

There was a third Atlas Shrugged movie.

If you weren’t aware it existed, that’s understandable. The first movie was made with a respectable $20 million budget and bombed horrendously, earning back less than one-quarter of that. The second movie was made with just half the budget, and it showed. Despite opening on three times as many screens, it bombed even worse than the first one. You’d think that by this point, a Randian supercapitalist would recognize that the market had spoken.

Despite this completely unambiguous verdict from the free market, however, the filmmakers pressed on. They resorted to a Kickstarter campaign and made the third movie even more cheaply than the second, with a total budget of just $5 million. It limped into theaters in September 2014.

You can guess where this is going. The third Atlas movie was the biggest failure of them all, making under a million dollars in its entire theatrical release (!) and earning a 0% positive review score on Rotten Tomatoes (!!). It sank from sight so quickly that most people never even heard it had been made.

How can we explain this dogged persistence at failure? Were the filmmakers hoping against hope that the third and last film would tie together the trilogy in such a way as to turn all three into massive hits? (If so, they lacked the unerring ability of Randian heroes to know which business ventures will succeed and which will fail.) Were they spitefully determined to broadcast Ayn Rand’s message to the world, whether the world wanted to hear it or not? (If so, they also lacked John Galt’s sci-fi device for commandeering the airwaves.)

It’s not hard to see why the movie belly-flopped. The first and second Atlas films, while terrible, had at least a minimum of technical competence. But the cut-rate budget and slapdash production of the third, subtitled Who Is John Galt?, is painfully apparent in every scene. If it had been a high school drama club production, it could be judged reasonably competent. But for filmmakers who claim to worship the best that humanity is capable of, it’s laughable. No one but the hardest of the hard-core would sit through this amateur hour.

Take the opening scene. It’s a dramatization of the scene where John Galt quits the Twentieth Century Motor Company in defiance, vowing to crash the world’s economy. In the right hands, this could have been cinematic: sweltering crowds packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the grimy, airy space of the factory floor, sweating beneath the glare of hot lights, a rotund speaker at the podium yelling about their responsibility to the common good, his glasses fogged up with the intensity of emotion, when suddenly the crowd parts like the sea so a single gold-lit figure standing alone can speak.

But not this one. In this cheapo retelling, the great moment appears to be filmed in a high school gymnasium. The music tries its very hardest, but you can almost hear the sneakers squeaking and basketballs bouncing in the background:

YouTube video

And yes, that bland chunk of manliness is supposed to be John Galt. More on the casting later.

Something else which quickly becomes obvious is that the movie didn’t have the budget to depict most of the events from the last third of the book. Instead, the filmmakers resort to showing stock footage while a narrator – yes, there’s suddenly a narrator, another jarring touch – just tells us what happened. It’s every bit as intrusive and awkward as you’d expect:

YouTube video

My hat is off to the filmmakers for finding a method of infodumping even worse than the first movie’s clumsy exposition. It’s the filmic equivalent of “Take our word for it.”

At least in this clip, the dialogue implies that the narrator is Jeff Allen, the hobo who in the book tells Dagny about John Galt, but nothing else in the movie either substantiates or refutes that. After this scene, he just becomes a disembodied, free-floating presence informing the audience about events from an omniscient viewpoint.*

Other characters and plotlines are jettisoned entirely. Poor Cherryl Taggart’s suicide takes place offscreen; she doesn’t even get the dignity of a good death scene. Project X is left out. The collapse of the Taggart Bridge, a major plot point in the novel, is likewise relegated to stock footage and voiceover exposition – and because there’s no sci-fi sound weapon to destroy it, the narration just says that it collapses due to “regulation” and leaves it at that.

But the biggest omission must be Hank Rearden, who’s almost completely excised from the movie. He’s on screen for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, and he has one line of over-the-phone dialogue. His abrupt disappearance means that his plotline is never wrapped up. We never hear about the fate of his scheming wife, nor do we get Dagny’s defiant public confession that she slept with him, nor do we see the riot at his steel mill, which could have made for a good set piece. All we get is more stock footage and a line of narration blaming it on “government-sponsored union thugs”.

Naturally, we do get John Galt’s speech, albeit in highly abbreviated form. Rather than the multi-hour filibuster in the book, here it takes a grand total of five minutes. Even that feels long and draggy. Try as the filmmakers might, it’s just not interesting to halt the action and turn your film over to one guy to deliver a monologue. (In the book there’s no picture at all to accompany his broadcast blathering; in the movie, he sits in shadow like an anonymous informant on a news report.)

The ironic thing is that, budget constraints aside, there’s no reason the movie had to be this bad. Whatever else you might say about her, Ayn Rand had an eye for the cinematic. A filmmaker with the competence to do her retro-futuristic Art Deco vision justice – and the courage to cut the assaultive philosophical lecturing – could have made a sleekly watchable movie out of Atlas Shrugged. It would have been in the same mold as other Ocean’s Eleven-type stories where we root for the protagonists despite their being arrogant, bad-boy antiheroes, because they’re taking down someone even worse. Alas, these filmmakers chose to leave in the clunky, cringeworthy monologues, the hilariously rigid self-seriousness, and the painfully condescending, beat-the-viewer-over-the-head didacticism, while leaving out almost everything that could have made the story exciting.

* They could have pulled back the curtain and revealed at the end of the movie that he’s an old man living in a future Galtian utopia, telling good capitalist children the story of the Dark Ages. That would have been a genuinely interesting and clever way to reform the “narrator” conceit. But they don’t.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...