The spirit is willing but the filmmaking is oh so weak in “Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?,” the last installment of a cinematic trilogy based on Ayn Rand’s 1957 screed in epic novel form. Pic represents a certain leap of faith, as 2011’s “Part I” bombed in expansion after a promising limited opening, while 2012’s “Part II: The Strike” flopped outright. This finale to the free-market goddess’ pulpy ultimate tract answers not only the titular question, but also the matter of “What box set to get my favorite libertarian this Christmas?” (S)he probably won’t have seen this chapter already, as the shoddy pic took a B.O. swan dive in its opening U.S. weekend, grossing a reported $355,000 on 242 screens.
That must be the fault of those damn freedom-hating socialists, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that so few of the Tea Party types the series’ producers once hoped would queue up are, er, the literate sort. Or maybe it’s just that the prior installments weren’t very good movies, and it should surprise few that this last one is the worst of the lot. You can’t really blame the filmmakers: Stuck with a budget that again halves its immediate predecessor’s (now down to $5 million), they’re hapless to convey the grand scale of events Rand intended.
Also, cast and crew have been almost entirely overhauled yet again. Now it’s Laura Regan playing railroad heiress Dagny Taggart, last seen crashing her plane in pursuit of the mysterious John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), whose name has become a byword for truly free enterprise in a “People’s State of America” turned corrupt, collectivist, self-destructive and dysfunctional under the thumb of government toadies like Head of State Thompson (Peter MacKenzie). Turns out engineering genius Galt opted out of a society that now disgusts him, luring other titans of industry and innovation to his secret, self-sufficient Atlantis community in the mountains.
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Having barely survived her landing there, Dagny is duly impressed by this group of rugged rich individualists who, feeling unappreciated, took their toys and talents out of circulation. (They’ve also helped the outside world’s infrastructural collapse along by sabotaging their old businesses.) They say tsk-tsking things like “You’ve been told people have a right to a living, just because they’re human.” Perish the thought.
Though she’s found her utopia — and her sexy capitalist superman — Dagny returns to the outer world, unwilling to see her family’s hard-built business flushed down the toilet by government “takers.” The latter, facing various crises and rising citizen unrest, are furious when John commandeers the airwaves to deliver a big speech of vague libertarian philosophy. (Well, bigness is relative, as what took Rand nearly 60 pages is here reduced to under four minutes.) Shadowing Dagny, he’s captured by the evildoers, then tortured and rescued in a ridiculous action climax.
Helmer J. James Manera sports the thinnest resume among the trilogy’s directors, but it would have been hard for anyone to pull this enterprise off. Crowd scenes that should be vast boast a cast of dozens. Stock footage, still photos and an omnipresent narrator awkwardly patch large gaps where the grandiose story goes beyond this movie’s ability to realize. Though under the circumstances tech contributions are OK, “Who Is John Galt?” has the feel of a low-grade TV soap opera, with acting to match. (The biggest name here, Rob Morrow in the hitherto major role of steel baron Hank Rearden, makes just an eyeblink appearance.) Rand would have been embarrassed by its tacky reductionism, even if the literary “Atlas” is pretty sudsy itself.
Then there’s the problem all three movies suffered from, namely their choosing to avoid a costly period setting, but failing to compensate by adequately updating a narrative very much rooted in the American economical logistics of more than a half-century ago. A more abstract, even sci-fi approach might have made the story still work as parable. But the dully literal-minded execution that producers John Aglialoro and Harmony Kaslow have carried through each installment only makes Rand’s creaky plotting seem more archaic and illogical. “Atlas Shrugged” may be a terrible novel, but its still-controversial philosophies will always attract avid followers. (Prominent conservative pundit types including Grover Norquist and Sean Hannity duly make cameo appearances as themselves here to further the cause.) It’s hard to imagine anyone, however, having a “Eureka!” experience watching these lame movies, this latest least of all.
Though publicized without the numeral, the pic’s onscreen title is “Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt?”