Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis taking over for early-model human cyborg Taylor Schilling) is a can-do go-getter who has nonetheless not taken the time to scrape off her incompetent brother, James (Patrick Fabian). Together, they run Taggart Transcontinental — well, actually, she runs it but he is the figurehead and he ingratiated himself to all the right public officials and union leaders in the last movie, so he has the juice. He tried to get in her way as she and steel manufacturer Henry Reardon (Jason Beghe) built the John Galt Line. Now that it’s successful, though, he’s taking all the credit for it.
Because, you see (the movie argues), that’s what this dystopian future has come to — goofuses and do-nothings taking credit while great men are expected to hold up the world, as it were, and get no personal reward. A series of government regulations (called Fair Share) has removed all means of competition and makes it very hard for people to profit from their labors. Damn those sign-waving protesters, such as the one proclaiming that they were part of the 99.98 percent. (Or something like that — not quite 99 percent but enough so you get it.)
Our middle-aged lovers, Dagny and Henry, grow increasingly despondent: Not only are the best and the brightest still disappearing (and often blowing up their accomplishments before they go), but the remaining takers are imposing ever harsher government rules. Even their love child, the John Galt Line, is threatened. Also, Henry’s wife refuses to give Henry a divorce so that Dagny and Henry can go play a little invisible hand without having to sneak around.
Part II does one thing better than Part I: it explains (with some title cards but then with reinforcing details throughout the movie) why we care about trains (gas for cars and planes is super expensive) and makes the world seem just that much more plausible than it did in the first movie. This world still makes no sense — what are the protesters in front of nearly every building protesting exactly? — but there’s a bit more order to it.
I initially wrote “does two things better” but then got stuck trying to think of that second thing. Mathis isn’t quite as comically stiff as Schilling was, but that doesn’t mean she’s any good. She walks around with her face scrunched up in a permanent worry — which I suppose is like showing emotion but doesn’t actually make her a fuller character. This movie also features a new Henry Reardon — Beghe isn’t worse than Grant Bowler was; he’s just bad in a different way. A good chunk of the cast is a replacement and there are some new additions: Ray Wise, good at roles like affable devil in Reaper, shows up here to ham it up as Head of State Thompson. I can’t help but have some affection for a dystopia that has its leader address the people in a TV appearance featuring a tight close-up, Dr. Evil-style. (Step 1 to making your government seem less malevolent: back the camera up a few paces.)
Other fun things about the movie: A scene at a wedding features a toast that turns in to a freshman-level philosophy discussion about whether or not money is the root of all evil. (Best wedding video ever!) They hamfistedly walk you through an explanation of just why the movie is called “Atlas shrugged.” And Diedrich Bader plays a scientist who just sorta cracked me up for no particular reason — something about, I think, his odd expression and his even odder line delivery.
And what about the movie’s point of view, its reason for existing? Eh, don’t care. A well-made movie that I don’t agree with would still be a well-made movie. A movie that looks like it was shot as some kind of charity project or perhaps elaborate practical joke doesn’t get any better if you happen to agree with it. This movie seems to be trying to capitalize on the same character-recognition that might entice you to read fan fiction. (And I’ve read better fan fiction.)
Perhaps because I knew what was coming down those Reardon Steel tracks, Atlas Shrugged: Part II was not quite the delightful bag of crazy that the first movie was. It’s rare that you get a glimpse of truly Ed Wood-level filmmaking; Part I was somewhere just south of late-night infomercial on the quality scale. Part II, with its slightly more famous actors and its smoother overall feel, achieves something just a little bit better, just north of employee safety video but still well south of student film. D+
Rated PG-13 for brief language. Directed by John Putch and written by Duke Sandefur and Brian Patrick O’Toole & Duncan Scott (based on the novel by Ayn Rand), Atlas Shrugged: Part II is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed by Atlas Distribution Company.