Why “Atlas” Collapsed: Everyone Missed the Point
Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” finally hit the big screens last April 15th— a coy nod to America’s traditional tax day (though not actually the case of 2011). After five weeks, the film has sputtered to a box office haul of $4.5 million…crushed beneath a rumored $15-20 million production. Moreover, the film garnered 13% rating on RottenTomatoes.com and achieved just enough publicity to likely get a couple of nominations in next year’s incessantly bland Razzie Awards. The apex of this cinematic thrashing came when producer John Aglialor despondently coined the film’s epitaph sound bite, saying, “Critics, you won.”
Films lose money all the time. I even once heard some ridiculous claim that “only one in ten films ever makes money.” Regardless, “Atlas Shrugged” strikes me as an anomaly. That is, why wasn’t this movie a hit? The novel has had at least a cult following since the 1950s and a film adaptation was attempted in the 1970s, and about every ten years since. With the Great Recession and, more importantly, the election of Barack Obama, the loudest conservatives in America resurrected the novel with the phrase “Going Galt”—a catchphrase as stirring, inspired and thought-provoking as only the most mediocre beer commercials could stammer. As was, the book still struggled to get financiers. Due to Hollywood liberalism? Not likely, not with the financial success of other so-called conservative films—a classification that I feel is ludicrous—such as, “Passion of the Christ,” “300,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Gran Torino” and others. Conservatism aside, author Rand has credibility with young people thanks to her intellectual chest-thumping in oft-referenced “The Fountain,” but notably so in “Atlas Shrugged.” Young people like feeling unique; Middle America likes feeling validated; Hollywood likes turning ideological novels into (inane, 3-D) films.
So why the failure? Sure the movie has pointless CGI, seemingly regurgitated from some daytime SyFy original movie. And sure, the cinematography and acting resemble work complied by film school freshmen (present readers excluding, of course). But that’s all not enough. No, the real reason “Atlas Shrugged” failed is because everyone on every level drove a hundred miles past The Point, USA. And that is that “Atlas Shrugged” is a satire of Ayn Rand’s explicit ideology.
And the train comes to a screeching halt. The entire story is based around the concept that corporations are pushed around by the U.S. federal government. Specifically, that America’s wealthy are not only vilified but that they discriminated against and silenced. Continuing, each of the “successful” peoples are deserving of their wealth, undeniably due to some unexplainable Tony Stark-esque intelligence and/or Tony Stark-esque strength, looks and charm. Ayn Rand’s fictional world is not an exaggeration, but completely opposite to any situation America has ever seen.
“What are you talking about Nick,” I hear my Wonder Bread readers say, “Rich people are vilified in culture…look at Monty Burns in The Simpsons!” To which, I say, “Not really.” The nation is run by corporations, CEOs and boards of executives. The FEC, Congress, other government agencies and the private sector trade business-insiders like baseball cards. Even with this Great Recession and inflated accusations of socialism, bonus-pay outs and top tier salaries have skyrocketed—unlike so many NASA projects. But Ayn Rand couldn’t have predicted the future, could have she? Well, this is the humiliating part: she didn’t have to!
Trains—the primarily discussed industry in the movie/novel—were not that big of a deal in the 1950s, less so now. However, they really were a big deal in the 1890s. Also in the 1890s, wealthy capitalists bought political offices, outsourced labor, formed monopolies and prided themselves on their own nameless skills. And really, similar sentiments can be said in the 1920s, the 1840s, 1770s and you start to get the point. However, each of these periods are also marked by the somewhat forgotten philanthropy of the nation’s millionaires and billionaires. Indeed, even nowadays, several of the world’s richest are the most generous—in terms of raw dollar amount AND percentage of wealth. I don’t give a damn if they’re still rich, let’s see you give away half of your money.
This all comes back when John Galt and Rand’s other fictional industry titans fail to embody any self-inspired philanthropy—you know, like creating the world’s most profitable charity. Instead, the characters “go on strike.” Also note that the Pinkertons, the mafia and, recently, state governors have historically crushed this lone tactic wielded by organized labor. No, Ayn Rand’s wealthy citizens aren’t acting like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, David Packard, Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and others. And it’s really not even entirely a question of morality. If you want more consumers for your goods, you have to make sure the consumers are healthy/alive enough to buy your goods. Oprah Winfrey can’t make any money if her audience is dying from preventable diseases. Indeed, there are plenty of selfish reasons to donate money. Ultimately though, intentions don’t even really matter, just the actions.
And so Rand wasn’t detailing the likely departure of America’s most ambitious industrialists, but rather demonstrating the inappropriate outrage of the middle class. People don’t see the entire suffering of one another and so with a common passing glance retirement and unemployment have enough similarities to frustrate the middle 68% of Americans who feel themselves as equally talented as their financial superiors, yet more determined/moral than welfare queens, runaway fathers, gang bangers, immigrants, hicks and other flippant nomenclatures.
Much has been made of the book’s 70-page monologue by the secretive John Galt, wherein he describes the plot of “Inception,” describes the incredible sandwich he ate earlier or otherwise laments the necessity of brevity. All too late I wonder if I should have read the entire Wikipedia article on the novel—as I couldn’t have been bothered to actually read Rand’s magna opus or watch more of the film than the 2 minute trailer. Before I start “Galt-ing” you to death, I would liked to point out that Rand’s/Galt’s supposedly persuasive (and almost certainly unchallenged) sermon about rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez faire capitalism is further evidence for my satirical reading. Gordon Gekko was inspirational in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” Similarly, Lucifer himself is extremely charming and convincing in John Milton’s classic epic, “Paradise Lost.” Not only can a story’s villain be persuasive, but, frankly, they need to be. Bad influences wouldn’t be influences if they couldn’t change people. More times than not, though, the worst influences are just ourselves. For instance, I know I shouldn’t have another beer…but then again, I like this toasty feeling and fear my dumb body will start sobering up.
Galt is convincing, sure…but so is Stephen Colbert. The question then becomes, what is he convincing you of? Because interpretation is in the eye of the beer holder. As a last point, I’d like to show you a picture of a beatnik.
Sike! It’s not a beatnik, it’s Ayn Rand—scourge of the downtrodden, rustic and oppressed. Yeah, right. Rand was clearly a 1950s beatnik herself. If someone really thinks rich industrialists could, and deserve to, go on strike I want them to be wearing at least one—but preferably two—monocles…also holding at least one—but preferably two—glasses of brandy. No, Ayn Randy was scathingly sarcastic but on a current far below most people’s radar. The newly astute reader might now be asking themselves if I, writing this review-of-sorts, am being sarcastic. Truthfully, I don’t even know anymore. I just think Rand’s novel and the subsequent film would have fared better had each ended on a scene with one of the main characters turning towards the camera and giving the audience a sly wink.
But maybe that’s just me.