Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters
This week in movies you missed: Visit a dystopian future, Ayn Rand-style.
What You Missed
In Atlas Shrugged: Part I (three are planned), we were introduced to a near-future society in which the energy crisis has made railroads central to the economy again. This is convenient for a retelling of Rand’s 1000-page-plus novel, first published in 1957, because the protagonist, Dagny Taggart (played here by Samantha Mathis, replacing Taylor Schilling), is a railroad magnate.
In Part I, our heroine teamed up with Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe), a granite-jawed steel manufacturer who had created an amazing new alloy. Now the government is persecuting him in an effort to make him comply with the Fair Share Act.
Meanwhile, all the great scientists and artists of the world are mysteriously disappearing, which makes it hard for Taggart to find a genius capable of investigating a machine she discovered in an old factory — a device that could end the world’s energy woes forever.
Why You Missed It
I cheated on this one. Atlas Shrugged: Part II did play for a few weeks at the Palace 9 in South Burlington. However, if you are the average reader of Seven Days, it’s quite possible you chose not to buy a ticket to this film produced and funded by committed acolytes of Rand’s philosophy and its libertarian political offshoots.
Should You Keep Missing It?
I’m not an Ayn Rand fan. I like the welfare state. I couldn’t get more than a few pages into The Fountainhead. But I do find her a fascinating cultural figure, and occasionally enjoy reading the more literate internet arguments she inspires . And she seems to be exerting quite a bit of influence on Republican politics these days, so yes, I was interested.
Having seen Atlas Shrugged: Part II, I still think the best Ayn Rand movie ever made is Gattaca . No, it isn’t based on her work and doesn’t reflect her philosophy (overtly, anyway), but it portrays a world where the wealthy have been genetically engineered to be even smarter and prettier than they naturally are. Everything and everyone in the movie is sun-soaked and superior, even the physically imperfect hero who must trick his way to the top (meritocracy!).
You may not approve of Gattaca’s world, but it’s very seductive to imagine yourself among those titans. I can only imagine how Atlas Shrugged: Part II might have looked with the budget and talent of Gattaca. Instead, it has the production values and acting of a Syfy movie, with touches of Lifetime-style soapiness thrown in.
And that isn’t so seductive. Some of the time, like when the film is exploring Rearden's marital woes, it's dull. When characters are earnestly spouting dialogue like “I refuse to be either a slave or a slave driver,” it’s laughable.
I will say one positive thing: It's rare to see a movie where the heroine's struggle to keep a business afloat takes precedence over her romantic issues. I'm all for movies about hard-working ladies (or men) making tough decisions. But in this case, Rand and her stand-in, iconic rebel John Galt, seem to have made all the decisions in advance. Taggart is just waiting to have her eyes opened to the glorious truth.
If you’re a fan of the series, you already know this critique is merely inspired by the parasite’s natural envy of society’s true creators.  I won’t bother to argue with you. For the uncommitted and curious, however, here are a few things I learned from Atlas Shrugged: Part II:
1. Society’s true creators are all old-school industrialists, scientists or artists. (Rearden invariably has sparks flying behind him in the scenes at his steel mill, to remind us how sexy the Rust Belt can be.) Society’s parasites work for the government or loiter on the street calling themselves the 99.98 percent. Software manufacturers, internet moguls, the financial sector and China don’t seem to exist in this world, though personal computers and cellphones do.
2. Society has a limited supply of geniuses; if they went on “strike,” we peons would all be screwed!
3. You have two choices: to believe that “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue” (the Rand quote that closes the film) or to be a redistributing do-gooder who insists that “Money is the root of all evil.” Any intermediate stance is craven compromise.
4. Craven compromise will inevitably lead the nation down a slippery slope to the point where the government owns all existing patents and declares inventing new stuff illegal. That’s right: They’re so jealous of creators, they outlaw creativity!
5. The common people aren’t inherently evil, just kinda stupid. If the government tells them to blame the rich, they will run and start an Occupy-style protest. If a granite-jawed industrialist makes a speech about the virtue of private ownership, they will tear up and declare him their natural better.
6. Samantha Mathis’ career sure has gone downhill since Pump Up the Volume.
Verdict: Films designed to promote an ideology tend to be a deadening experience. (Yes, I also feel this way about the work of Michael Moore.) Atlas Shrugged: Part II at least has some camp value on its side. More liberals should probably watch it just to see what the fuss is about. But don’t expect to be converted.
More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs
Anna Karenina 
The Factory (John Cusack, Jennifer Carpenter, serial killer stuff)
Small Apartments (another offbeat indie with Juno Temple! Plus Billy Crystal, Johnny Knoxville, Rebel Wilson, James Caan.)
Undefeated (doc about underdog high school football team; scored an Oscar nom last year)
Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video , where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video .)