The people behind the “Atlas Shrugged” series of films have things they want to tell you, and just to make sure that you know what they are, the movies tell you, and tell you, and then tell you again. Whether or not you’re amenable to author Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, the declarations run pretty thick in “Part II.”
Still, despite the fact that screenwriters Duke Sandefur, Brian Patrick O’Toole and Duncan Scott make nearly every scene either a monologue in which a character defines his or her view of the world or a conversation in which people tell each other information they already know, this sequel marks an improvement over the proposed trilogy’s first chapter.
For one thing, director John Putch (“Mojave Phone Booth”) has overhauled the cast of “Part I” and replaced them with a bevy of talented character actors, from his leads down to his one-scene functionaries. (Yes, that’s Teller of Penn and Teller, actually talking in a brief appearance.) And while this film, like its predecessor, seems to take place mostly in offices, lobbies and boardrooms, at least they’re better-lit and more interestingly art-directed offices, lobbies and boardrooms.
Samantha Mathis steps into the lead role of Dagny Taggart, the brains behind the nation’s last railroad company, which is struggling to stay alive in a future American dystopia. The government is choking progress and achievement while society’s best and brightest keep mysteriously disappearing. Dagny continues her affair with married steel magnate Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe) as the two of them appear to be the last corporate moguls who refuse to kowtow to regulation or to go off the grid.
While Dagny continues to pursue the mystery of a motor that runs on static electricity — which was most likely invented by the mysterious John Galt — Rearden battles the government, who had once banned his experimental new Rearden Metal but now, after the Taggart rail lines have proven its efficacy, insists that he sell it to them for the good of the people.
The bureaucratic noose tightens, leading to lots of hissable and cheer-worthy speeches for the Tea Partiers in the audience, while Dagny tries to piece together the clues about all the missing achievers, helped along slightly by her lifelong pal Francisco d’Anconia (Esai Morales), who seems to know more than he’s letting on.
Usually, the middle chapter of a trilogy is where all the excitement happens, since the creators are relieved of introducing the characters or resolving the plot. (See “The Empire Strikes Back” or “The Dark Knight.”) “Atlas Shrugged: Part II,” unfortunately, feels like a tedious placeholder that’s setting up all the big showdowns of the eventual final chapter.
Putch makes the mistake of telling things he should be showing (a former co-worker of Galt’s explains the inventor’s disappearance to Dagny, a plot point that would have made an interesting flashback) and showing things he should be telling (if the special-effects budget is only going to be a notch or two above “Birdemic,” then it would be more effective to suggest a train crash or a mine explosion than to portray them with chintzy-looking fireballs).
Also, a major plot point is built around the supposed scandal that would erupt if word got out that the unmarried Dagny were messing around with Rearden. That’s a plot point that might have worked in the 1950s, when the book was originally published, but in a 21st-century movie that’s set in an unnamed distant future, it doesn’t feel like a big enough deal to kneecap otherwise indefatigable characters.
Not that any of this matters to die-hard fans of Rand and “Atlas Shrugged”; like the “Twilight” faithful, readers who have been waiting decades to see this saga brought to the big screen will no doubt forgive its many clunky moments and revel in the articulation of the book’s messages.
Those fans deserve better, however. You don’t have to agree with the author’s point of view to enjoy the page-turning plot and occasionally purple prose of “Atlas Shrugged” in print. Two movies in, and they’re still cramming in all of the talking points and none of the fun.