There’s a money line late in Atlas Shrugged: Part I where Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), a high-powered executive at a railroad company, examines the rubble of a once-promising manufacturing outfit and wonders aloud about the altruistic policies that brought it down. The question is meant to be rhetorical, but she sounds a little like a robot in a science-fiction movie asking, “Why do humans cry?” The concept just doesn’t compute. This is the major problem with Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first of a proposed three-part adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel: Its ideas are squandered by aesthetics. Given the novel’s centrality to the Tea Party movement, which has made “going Galt” its call to arms, the film is curiously sterile and lifeless, hardly the stuff of revolution. It feels more like an ideologically reversed Tucker: The Man And His Dream, written and performed by robots.
Set in 2016, Atlas Shrugged hastily establishes a future in which Middle East wars and dwindling resources have destroyed the economy and once again made trains the most important means of trade and transport. After inheriting Taggart Transcontinental from his father, Dagny’s brother (Matthew Marsden) and his Washington cronies have run the company into the ground. But she has a plan to save it, teaming up with Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), a rock-ribbed entrepreneur who has devised an awesome new metal that makes conventional steel seem like the rusted tin of a hobo’s bean can. Their great rail experiment commences in the now-utopian state of Colorado, but The Man is working on legislation to shut it down, or at least bring it back to an acceptable level of mediocrity. Meanwhile, the country’s most productive business leaders are disappearing, leaving behind the question, “Who is John Galt?”
Much of Atlas Shrugged takes place in cool modernist office spaces or swank parties and restaurants, where the powers that be plot to make the world either a more efficient, liberated, and profitable place, or to maintain the stupidhead status quo. It’s almost adorably wonky, all the more so for obsessing over trains as the anachronistic beacon of the future, and the lead actors, Schilling especially, deliver their lines like GPS navigators. Perhaps the passion will come in Parts II and III, when Voldemort finally makes an appearance, but the action in Atlas Shrugged is worse than unconvincing. It’s enervating.