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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dawn of the Dead (1978) -- Theatrical Version


Written, directed and edited by George A. Romero
Makeup and cosmetic special effects by Tom Savini

David Emge:  Stephen
Gaylen Ross;  Francine
Ken Foree:  Peter
Scott H. Reiniger:  Roger

This movie was released to theaters with no rating because the ratings board at the MPAA was going to give it an X for pervasive gore the likes of which I'm willing to bet they'd never even imagined. It turns out that the Motion Picture Association of America can't really do anything to you if you decide to release your film unrated; this movie, which was made for $650,000 in 1978, grossed $55 million even without a letter in a square on the posters telling Americans that it's probably not a good idea to bring your kids along. Here's hoping that the concerned parents of America actually figured out that little Billy and Susie probably didn't need to watch screaming people torn apart and devoured by the living dead before they had a drivers' license.

I'm positive that it's Romero's politics and views of authority figures that the MPAA hated even more than the 1001 different horrible things that can happen to a human body depicted therein. His films (with one notable exception) are as left-wing as Hollywood is always accused of being; Romero's view of governments, authorities, and the American system are as black and corrosive and negative as anything you'd be likely to come across in a Howard Zinn history. And he puts lots of monsters in the film, too, the spoonful of sugar that helps the message come across.

And it's very telling that a nobody from nowhere (as Romero was in 1968, when his Night of the Living Dead created a genre through sheer awesomeness) wouldn't have made this sequel the year after his massive success breakthrough film. He waited a decade before following up his debut film with another tale of shambling corpses that devour live humans. I'm betting at least part of the reason he waited was to see if he could catch lightning in a jar again was to see if he even had to try--he's got seven different projects on his IMDB page in between his Night and Dawn. But when the Muse got to him, Romero had no choice but to make this film, and do the best job that he could do.

Since Romero was the sole person writing, directing and editing the film I'm guessing that the images on the screen are the closest he could get to the images in his head, using the resources available to him. And lucky for the viewer, he did a genuinely amazing job, giving a movie that is by turns a look at America ripping itself apart like a wolf tearing at its own bowels, a late-70s consumerist satire based on Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and, for a few moments, a slapstick comedy starring a biker gang. I'm not sure what's entirely up with all of that (and not all the elements fit together perfectly) but this is a genuinely amazing film. If I had to pick one single movie that was my absolute favorite of ever, this would be the one.

The movie wastes no time dropping its characters--and the viewer--into the thick of it. The first scenes are at the WGON-TV studios in Pittsburgh, where one would assume that Emergency Broadcast System tone has been playing on and off for the last several days. The reason for that? Well, funny you should ask. Dead people are rising up again after their hearts stop beating and their brains quit functioning. When they reanimate they wander around in search of living humans, who they attack instinctively with hands and teeth. There doesn't appear to be any cause to it--someone who gets partially devoured by one of the living dead gets up again to attack the living, but so do gunshot victims, people who drowned or starved, and people who died of cancer. That would mean the end of the world pretty quickly; cities would be million-victim slaughterhouses and hospitals would turn into waking nightmares within minutes of the catastrophe's start. As things stand at the start of the film, there is still a semi-functioning government and responses to the ongoing disaster ranging from effective to useless to fatally misguided. At least the government spokesperson on this show lets people know that decapitating a ghoul or destroying its brain will eliminate the threat from that one particular roamer. The problem, of course, is when someone has six bullets and seven undead assailants.

The WGON studios provide examples of all those things at once in microcosm. The security guy at the front door is still checking IDs of anyone trying to get in, while the camera and sound crew are still at their posts getting information out over the airwaves. On the "misguided" side, there's some kind of public affairs show where a government representative is being grilled by the host--but the host doesn't have to worry about keeping his audience's interest. Being informed about the crisis is literally a matter of life and death; there are no higher stakes, but he's still asking questions like it's a political-affairs Sunday morning talk show rather than just trying to help his audience. And the station director appears to have lost his motherfucking mind completely. He's openly concerned about the station's ratings to the point where he wants a list of "rescue stations" superimposed on the screen at all times, even though half or more of those stations have already been overrun by hordes of flesh-eating reanimated corpses. When station employee Francine dumps the superimposed crawl off the air he chews her out because without that list being broadcast, people won't be tuning in. She asks him if he's willing to murder people by sending them bad information and he just demands that someone puts the list back up on the screen (tellingly, he has no idea how to do it himself). The guest and host on the soundstage are openly pissed off that everyone around them is yelling or screwing up. This is a safe spot (although I'm willing to bet that everyone who stuck around to try and inform the Pittsburgh audience what was going on died at their post) and the atmosphere is still full of hatred, fear, panic and rage.

If things are deteriorating in the studio, they're downright apocalyptic out on the streets. With barely any transition (the government spokesman mentions that private homes are no longer considered safe by Presidential fiat, and that everyone's going to be consolidated in huge bunkers for their own protection); that's all we hear before the scene starts. The SWAT team laying siege to a housing project is made up of steely-eyed veterans, scared kids and at least one total psychotic (the WGON station director isn't the only one whose mind collapsed during the end of the world). The negotiators try to get the people holed up inside to come out peacefully, which doesn't work. A couple of young men with pistols try to make a run for it and there's an overwhelming response from the boys in blue.

The SWAT attack sequence pulls quadruple duty for the film--it's an unrelenting assault on the audience's sensibilities, with more than a dozen gunshots to the head showcasing Tom Savini's makeup effects (if the Academy was capable of recognizing the quality of work in independent horror films, this film would have earned him his first Oscar of many). It's a way to show just how badly everything in the filmic world has deteriorated--there are multiple rooms boarded shut full of flesh-eating corpses where the project residents have dumped their dead relatives, children and spouses; when the police break into those rooms they come close to getting wiped out more than once. Third, it shows that the ghouls don't retain any knowledge of their previous life--one woman gets two chunks bitten out of her neck and arm when she embraces the husband she thought she'd never see again (up until 2015 I could only imagine how grotesque that would look on the big screen, and now I know--it's astonishingly brutal and made me cringe even though I had seen the movie two dozen times and knew it was coming). And lastly it's a way to almost subliminally remind the audience of the human cost of everything that's happening. When "Wooly" the SWAT member goes berserk and starts shooting random innocent people there's one of the great exploding heads of world cinema.

But rather than simply showing a catalog of Bad Stuff Happening To The Human Body, Romero is playing a deeper and more subtle game. Right after Wooly kicks down an apartment door and blows a random guy's head clean off Romero cuts to a screaming woman in the same room. Is she the victim's wife? Sister? Mother? It's hard to tell because of how quickly the scene is cut together, but regardless of who she is (and who the man is that Wooly murdered) it's a reminder that everyone who dies is leaving someone behind. The streets are full of shambling corpses but every single one of them--at least this early in the apocalypse--is remembered by someone and is leaving a space in the world with their absence. (And later on, when there are streets full of the walking dead rather than just one building and there are no shots of living people traumatized by the way the world has changed, the viewer's sympathies are overwhelmed--after all, one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic.)

I just called this "subtle". Deal with it.

After the housing project raid it's not just obvious to the audience that everything's going to fall apart; it's obvious to the characters in the film as well. WGON traffic helicopter pilot Stephen is dating Francine the control board operator; they've hatched a plan to bug out and run away from the city while it's still possible to do so (the undead are thick on the ground, but they're strictly terrestrial). They know a SWAT cop named Roger, and they're planning to offer him a seat on the chopper in exchange for his firepower. Roger, after having just exactly as much as he could take in the housing-project raid, plans to desert his police buddies and run while he can, and extends the offer of "get out of town while the getting is good in exchange for your skills with a firearm" to Peter, another cop who got a taste of the apocalypse while shooting ambulatory corpses in the head in the housing-project basement. Both of them see the writing on the wall and decide not to stick around Pittsburgh till the bitter end.

Turns out that Stephen is going to steal the traffic helicopter from WGON-TV and get the hell out of Dodge before World War Z is completely lost (and it sure looks to me like he kills the radio operator at a police depot to do it, but it's barely possible that he just found the man after he committed suicide). Roger and Peter show up immediately after Stephen calls in to Pittsburgh PD reporting that the police dock has been compromised, with the radio man dead and everyone abandoning the facility. Inside, it's a sort of chaotic detente between all the heavily armed deserters. Nobody thinks of hijacking the helicopter (things are desperate, but not completely apocalyptic yet, and besides--Stephen's the only one who knows how to fly it). One goofball cop with his eyes set very, very close together explains his plan:  stealing a police boat and bugging out because "Maybe we can make it to the island". Stephen asks which island, and the cop shrugs and says "Any island" before asking everyone in the area if they have any cigarettes he can bum. He gets no smokes from anybody (two of the people in the helicopter say they don't have any and light up as soon as they're in the air) and proceeds on his probably-doomed effort to leave. There's a magnificent shot of the lights going out in a Pittsburgh skyscraper here--the four protagonists deserted their sworn responsibilities just in time.

And maybe I'm being a little too hard on Doomed Boat Stealing Cop, because the four people in the helicopter don't really have any idea what they're doing either. Stephen even manages to fall asleep in the pilot's seat after pulling a terror and despair fueled all-nighter but Roger smacks the back of his chair before gravity can take over and make it a short subject instead of a film. While flying over rural Pennsylvania Peter takes a look down at the area and realizes that it wasn't just the big city dealing with the surreal terror of the living dead looking for live humans to eat. It's everywhere, and it's just beginning.

Romero takes a detour into showing how badly prepared the world is for this particular apocalypse--rednecks in hunting jackets take to the woods with rifles and Iron City beer in order to shoot the shambling corpses that used to be their friends and relatives and treat it as a grand day out. The army's there as well, pretty much obviously not knowing what to do (I have no idea why they brought those artillery pieces with them). There's some police and ambulance crews as well; it's just a gigantic mishmash of authority figures and civilians shooting at the walking dead and presumably imagining the whole thing will be over in a matter of days or possibly weeks. They're all going to die. And the ones that have enough of their bodies left intact after death will get up and kill others. The amount of denial on display is staggering (my own favorite part of the montage is a bunch of dipshits almost getting attacked from behind because they don't notice a pack of slow-moving, obvious walking-speed ghouls is coming up behind them).

After the Undead Shooting Picnic, the four protagonists land at an abandoned airfield that probably looked kinda post-apocalyptic even before the dead rose and started hunting the living. It's astonishingly dangerous out there in the world now, and the Escape From Pittsburgh almost ends right there. Stephen comes within seconds of being killed by a ghoul while Peter doesn't notice the roamer approaching him while he gasses up the helicopter (the ambulatory corpse is virtually brain-dead, so it does not know enough to keep its forehead away from the whirling helicopter blades in a sequence that should convince even the most hard-hearted viewer that Tom Savini is a wonderful madman). Roger almost gets killed--first he's attacked by a pair of reanimated children, and then Stephen tries to shoot the horribly mutilated revenant (who winds up on the movie's poster) and almost kills him because while he's vitally important to the group as their transportation, he's utterly useless with a rifle. Romero includes the most obvious phallic-symbolism shot I think I've ever seen in a movie during the refueling stop--Peter knocks Stephen's rifle away with another rifle before shooting the ghoul that menaces Roger. Incidentally, the symbolism of characters named "Roger" and "Peter" being good with guns is shallow as a rain puddle but immensely amusing to me.

One "I'm pointing a gun at you so you remember not to do that to anyone else unless you mean it" later, they're back in the air discussing where they're going to run and how they're going to keep the helicopter fueled. Peter drops a little snark at Stephen's uselessness with firearms while everyone tries to figure out the next step in surviving a little bit longer. Peter is also the one who's smart enough to realize that they're looters, thieves and deserters and that whatever civil authority still exists will be really interested in talking to them about that (Stephen rather stupidly asserts that the WGON-TV employee identification that Francine and he have will prove they have the right to use the helicopter). Francine points out that when they took to the skies nobody brought anything to eat or drink and they don't even have a radio so they can tell if Armageddon is wrapping up or intensifying. She's also the only one who mentions that Stephen needs to sleep before he crashes the helicopter after fatigue takes its inevitable toll on him.

Happily enough they're flying over Monroeville, about half an hour east of Pittsburgh as the crow flies. And in 1978, Monroeville had a brand new indoor shopping mall in its downtown, There's a flat roof on top with a helipad, conveniently enough, and that's as good a reason as any to set down and try to figure out what the hell everyone's going to do next. As a special added bonus, there aren't any shambling corpses on the roof of the mall (though the parking lot and the interior stores are a no-go zone). The basic plan is simple and effective:  Roger breaks a window pane so that everyone can get inside. Stephen's going to take a nap in the corner while Peter and Roger sneak around the mall and see what they can pick up in the way of camping gear, radio equipment, food and water. Also, Roger needs lighter fluid so everyone who smokes can continue their habit--this turns out to be the semi-serious deciding factor in whether or not to risk exploring the interior of the shopping center. I think they just needed to stretch their legs and move around for a while after being cooped up in the helicopter smelling everyone for a day and a half, and frankly, who can blame them?

This interlude comes close to getting everyone killed (again); Roger and Peter leave a rifle for Francine to protect herself but Stephen takes it from her and wanders off to be part of the big raid. Which is bad news for her when a reanimated dead Hare Krishna stumbles upon the upstairs office and management section that had been taken over by the protagonists as a resting place. Stephen almost gets killed when he misses six times out of six shooting at a ghoul underground in the mall's heating and service-duct section (he reloads one bullet before he trips and it's actually lucky for him that it's in the sixth chamber; by the time the gun actually fires the shambler is close enough that he can't miss). But eventually everyone's safe and sound in the management section and it's decided that sticking around for at least a day or two is a good idea. Then someone has the bright idea that with the right preparations, the mall could be sealed so that the undead can't get inside. After that it's just a cleanup operation and everything that was on sale for the good consumers of Pennsylvania will be free for the taking.

It's when the foursome decides to make the mall their own that things go lethally wrong. Roger doesn't realize how little attention he's paying to his surroundings during the first part of the plan (hotwiring some semi trucks in the mall's parking lot and blocking the entrances with them so the undead cannot get inside). He turns out to be something of an adrenaline junkie as well, and gets bitten because he's not aware of his surroundings. This is a death sentence (although in Romero's filmic universe the bite doesn't transmit a pathogen that infects someone and brings them back to life; rather, every single person who dies with an intact enough brain and body gets back up and staggers around. It's just that human bites are horrifically dangerous due to the amount of bacteria in the saliva, and a dead person's teeth and gums are claggy with shreds of rotting human meat. Dumping a helping of that in someone's bloodstream is one hundred percent fatal, given the lack of access to medical care). 

But the mall is now sealed, and instead of a horror / action sequence for the cleanup, Romero just cuts to the end of it with all the now-exterminated corpses sprawled in pools of blood on the two levels of the shopping center. It looks like the aftermath of a war crime more than the triumphant celebration of victory. Part of the reason is that everyone knows Roger is doomed, but part of it has to also be how dehumanizing it gets to shoot staggering once-human corpses so that it's safe to walk around in the mall again. Every one of the protagonists has been stretched just about to their breaking points and now that they've got some time to sit back and take stock, things look even worse than they did while everyone was just fleeing in terror without catching their breath. It's not just that the quartet is inevitably going to be a trio (and although he risked everyone's lives over and over while not paying attention to things and being a showboating dumbass, I still feel terrible for Roger when he says he's going to try not to come back after his inevitable death). It's that the radio isn't broadcasting anything and the TV showed a government scientist that wanted to drop nuclear bombs on "all the big cities" as a way to try and slow down the apocalypse and protect the survivors scattered around America (one assumes the quote about destroying a village in Vietnam in order to save it was on Romero's mind when he wrote that part).

During the mall-looting sequence, Peter and Stephen decide to grab a few hundred thousand dollars from the bank branch on the lower level; they figure that money might still be worth something out in the world, and it'd be foolish to pass up taking it. And when they leave with their ill-gotten gains, they still use the velvet-rope barrier to exit the bank. They're following the old rules of the old world, which is going to be horribly dangerous for all of them because that world is dead and gone--and unlike all the formerly human ghouls staggering around outside, it's not coming back.

Having killed the undead and made a safe spot to live in, now the four survivors have to kill time and it apparently dies quite hard. There's a montage of them picking out anything they want from the stores (and Stephen rolling his eyes at a bomber jacket's price tag cracks me up every time I get to this part of the film). They play some arcade games (the power is still on in Monroeville, at least as long as they're in the mall) and practice putting in the JC Penney aisles. Everyone dresses in looted clothing that's surprisingly tasteful for 1978 and they upgrade from Spam (Roger:  "Did you bring a an opener? Then don't knock it--it's got its own key.") to caviar for their rations. Francine points out that the ghouls surrounding the building can't understand anything about what's inside and the general hypothesis is that the mall was an important place in their lives, back when they were living. Now they're a greyish-blue-skinned horde of literally mindless consumers wandering around.

One other thing to complicate everyone's life during this rest stop:  Francine realizes that she's pregnant. One of the more horrifying sections of the movie occurs right after she tells everyone; Peter asks Stephen if he wants to "get rid of it", and that he knows how to terminate a pregnancy. Francine is in the room at the time but none of the men making the choice about her fetus thinks to ask her about it. Which is, sadly, not an element of the film that is dated (while the fashions and the term "soul brother" certainly do mark Dawn of the Dead as a product of 1978).

There's also some time for the survivors to address some other practical concerns:  Francine wants to learn how to fly the helicopter at least well enough to escape if things go south, and Stephen learns to shoot by putting mannequins up at the mall's ice-skating rink. Incidentally, there really was an ice rink at the Monroeville mall; it was eventually dismantled and the space turned into the food court. Everyone settles into their new routine, although I'm willing to bet at least one of them curses the lack of a bookstore in the mall when there's nothing to do but watch the Civil Defense test pattern on TV and try not to think about the flesh-hungry hordes of walking corpses at the gates. To protect themselves further, Stephen and Peter put up a false wall blocking off the floor access to their hidey-hole; anyone searching the mall won't find them without rolling a 6 on their Secret Doors check and that would mean knowing there was something to look for in the first place.

Turns out there's something else to worry about besides the undead--someone in a nomadic biker gang sees the helicopter on the mall's roof and puts two and two together about the survivors huddled inside. The bikers make a semi-sincere effort to get the protagonists to open the doors ("There's...there's four of us." [laughter from three dozen outlaw motorcyclists]) before just announcing that they're going to raid the place and take whatever they want. It's the third act, and time for things to go completely insane. The entire movie's been filled with gut-churning violence from the start, but when the bikers make their way into the mall things go completely off the chain. Characters are torn apart and devoured while they're still screaming. Blood flows and flesh is shredded. Bullets fly. Blades thwack into skulls. It's an orgy of carnage heightened by the lack of violence for the last twenty minutes or so as the four main characters become accustomed to their stolen home. But it can't last. And, of course, there's more than enough supplies for everyone to share if they wanted to, but the bikers aren't interested in being polite and Stephen confuses an armed takeover of an abandoned building for having built the place himself.

While the bikers' tactics served them very well on the open road, in the confined spaces of the mall and with Peter and Stephen shooting back at them from concealment they're sitting ducks. The ones that don't get shot get eaten, horribly, with entrails filling the ghouls' hands as the undead fulfill their instincts to attack and feed. And right before the carnage there's even time for a pie fight and seltzer-bottle assault on the ghouls, with silent-movie piano music underscoring the way that the biker gang doesn't even take the end of the world seriously. I'm willing to bet that any of 'em that made it out of the Monroeville Mall parking lot alive were doomed as soon as it started to snow--it's one thing to have a mobile caravan of ass-kickers surviving on the open road but quite another to obtain shelter and warmth once society has broken down completely.

And the remaining protagonists? Well, they decide not to kill themselves as the undead swarm their safe spot, but they've got very little food and water, and the helicopter pilot has had several lessons but almost no practical experience. They're almost exactly where they were when the world fell apart at the beginning of the film but with fewer resources and even less of a plan. Maybe they can make it to the island. What island? Any island.

I can remember seeing this movie with a friend who had never watched it before, and she asked why the characters don't do all the things that people do in this little subgenre of film. It's because this one was the film that launched a thousand ripoffs. Just as the Godfather films have been pillaged so thoroughly by derivative filmmakers that a new viewer won't necessarily understand what was so groundbreaking and original, this one is George A. Romero's evil little baby start to finish and it's better than any of its imitators (save one) by orders of magnitude--even Romero's other movies in the series don't come close to this one's heights. If you haven't seen it yet, what's stopping you? Other than the constant barrage of gore and horror, of course. But if you didn't like that sort of thing and you read this far, I think you could safely give the movie a spin. Come for the screwdriver to the ear and stay for the corrosively nihilistic politics!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Monsters (2010)


Written and directed by Gareth Edwards

Scoot McNairy:  Andrew Kaulder
Whitney Able:  Sam Wynden

Time to come back from a week or two off (turns out that writing 22,000 words on the Atlas Shrugged movies will take it out of you for a little while, and I also went on a weekend vacation to watch a bunch of horror movies at a drive-in five hours away from Casa Telstar; expect a writeup of Dawn of the Dead when I feel like I'm up to the challenge of saying something new about a movie almost as old as I am, and an acknowledged genre classic to boot). So it's time to take a look at something a little more scaled-down. This film was the calling card for writer-director Gareth Edwards that caused Hollywood to notice him; his 2014 Godzilla was a success not just at the box office, but as a piece of cinema as well. We aren't getting a sequel till 2018 because he's working in the George Lucas toybox, reportedly making a Star Wars film that tells the story of exactly how the Death Star plans got into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.

Not bad for a guy whose first film featured an improvised script, a main cast of two, a production crew capable of fitting in a single van and visual effects done at home on an off-the-shelf PowerMac and consumer-grade CGI software. The closest comparison would likely be Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi, another film made with whatever the writer / director / cinematographer / caterer had lying around at the time. Will Edwards have a similar quarter-century movie career doing lots of whatever he wants to do? Well, find me a science-fiction fan who wouldn't want to be making Godzilla and Star Wars movies if they had a chance and I might be able to answer that question completely but my guess is "HELL YEAH".

So. The movie:

Prologue text (in the same font I use for the Checkpoint, coincidentally enough--that Edwards kid has great taste in typefaces) sets the stage:  Somewhere in the solar system, alien life was spotted. The NASA probe that went to go collect bits of alien DNA apparently found some, but the returning craft blew up over Mexico, scattering terrestrially compatible creature bits all over that country. The resulting alien beasts have turned the northern half of Mexico into a quarantine zone, or, rather, the American and Mexican authorities have done so (because the alien beasts haven't been eradicated in six years--and I'm guessing the combined countries' militaries tried really hard to do that).

We get one of those "dropped into the middle of the action" beginnings; over a black screen, shouted voices and slamming car doors give way to a night-vision camera revealing a bunch of military men in a patrol humvee, talking amongst each other about how everyone needs a theme song (I couldn't agree more). Out of nowhere there's a shrieking noise, a flurry of something that looks like tentacles and the camera shatters. Roll credits, interspersed with the surviving soldiers firing on some sort of fifty foot tall alien beast that--in the grainy night-vision scene--seems to be a cross between an octopus and a funeral lily while some people try to drag other crash victims away from the immobilized vehicle. The last image before the title MONSTERS fills the screen is a missile-camera view of the creature getting closer and closer. The impact itself is silent because 1) the camera that was recording the scene just smacked into a kaiju at 500 miles an hour and 2) Gareth Edwards wasn't making an action movie.

An indeterminate amount of time earlier, an English-speaking man in "San Jose, Central America" makes his way from the aftermath of an alien attack (I don't know if Edwards lucked into seeing tanks on the street while he was filming and cut that into the movie or if the military vehicles are composited into the film via his off-the-rack effects software). He seems to be doing all right with communication but that's much more because the people he's talking to have some English rather than his own linguistic skills. Using his pidgin-Spanish vocabulary the man eventually tracks down a Samantha Wynden in her hospital room and introduces himself as Andrew Kaulder. He's a reporter for the New World Chronicle, a newspaper that Wynden's father owns (he's wearing a polo shirt with the logo on it, which might well have been a handout from the last Chronicle company picnic or something). He's there to check up on the boss's daughter after the incident that was too thrilling and expensive to actually depict.

At least, that's what Kaulder thought. We catch the end of a phone call where his editor tells him that his new job is escorting Sam to "the coast", where she will be retrieved and sent back to the USA where there are fewer giant monsters threatening the peace. This doesn't thrill him at all; not only is he not supposed to be an errand boy for the publisher, he's been waiting three years for a chance to do something near the Infected Zone and it looks like he's going to miss out on it thanks to the task he was just volunteered for. While in the taxi with Sam, Kaulder takes a few photos of things like military rocket-launcher vehicles with WARNING -- TOXIC HAZARD painted on them (apparently chemical weapons are being deployed against the alien monsters). Sam chats with the taxi driver in Spanish; the driver says that monster attacks are just part of life in the big city and that he doesn't have anywhere else to go. I'm guessing that all the neighboring countries are unwilling to let a bunch of new immigrants in when they've all got their own problems, and I'm sure that the Fox News commentators in this world call immigration the Mexican menace every week (while occasionally showing footage of the monsters).

At the train station, Kaulder gets two tickets to the coast while Sam talks to her father about how bad the attack looked on TV versus how mild it (apparently) was to be there; Sam's arm is in a sling but it's not busted, so there's that. As the train pulls up, the publisher asks to talk to Andrew (and despite mouthing that he doesn't want to do that, Sam hands the phone over to him). After promising that he'll get Sam back to America safely, Kaulder disengages from the phone call and the pair runs to catch their train before it can pull away without them. On the train, there's a little small talk between the pair and it's revealed that Andrew is a photojournalist who took plenty of pictures of dead aliens but wants to get a front-page-worthy shot of one of the live ones. Which I don't think makes a huge amount of sense; certainly over the last six years there were shots of live aliens in the news. There's been in-universe news footage of the attack on San Jose on a TV on the background of a shot, so views of the live aliens can't be that rare. Or I'm misinterpreting the dialogue and Kaulder wants to get a shot of an alien just doing alien stuff rather than getting shot, blown up, or set on fire by the American and / or Mexican militaries. Anyway, both of them get off on the wrong foot conversationally but they're also both polite enough that it doesn't turn into anything big. Just a little awkwardness between grownups who never met and are now seatmates for a lengthy train ride. Oh, and Samantha has a cast and bandage on her left hand that apparently is itching underneath the dressing. I don't think this movie has the budget to have her go Full Prawn, but usually hearing something like that in a science-fiction or horror movie in the first act means something's gonna be happening in the third.

Even during the train sequence the monsters are a constant presence--seeing or hearing military aircraft or seeing train cars lying in a row at the bottom of a gully reminds the viewer that there are gigantic alien animals in the region, although they appear to have been dealt with by the armed forces where the train's running (during the overnight portion of the trip, there's explosions in the distance over a hill, so some of the monsters are getting lit up far enough away that Kaulder can't get any pictures of it). An announcement over the PA clues Sam in to a problem ahead on the track; Kaulder decides to get off the train before it turns around and heads back to San Jose, reasoning that the Zone is miles away so there's nothing to worry about. He's wrong, but instead of a monster attack it just turns out that they're 100 klicks away from where they want to be, at night, in the cold, with no transportation options (it turns out having a bus schedule for the area would have clued them in to the lack of bus lines). Also, nobody in town is willing to drive at night because of beast attacks, so it's going to be tomorrow morning at the earliest to get anyone to ferry the pair to their destination. Oh, and if that wasn't enough of a spanner in the works, the military's closing the area down in two days in order to try and contain the monsters, so if Sam and Kaulder don't get to their destination in 48 hours or so, they're stuck in the ass end of nowhere for six months until the army lets them leave.

Nice going, Andrew.

The Mexican single mom who gives the pair the bad news about transportation is nice enough to make them dinner and let 'em crash on the couch (it doesn't hurt that her baby seems to like both Sam and Andrew). News reports of the military attacks starting earlier than usual "this season" on the TV fill in a little bit of the world's background. But life goes on, even on the edges of an alien-contaminated war zone. Andrew winds up shooting a few megapixels' worth of memory in the village, including lots of shots of children wearing gas masks (there's also a cartoon on TV that tells kids to put on a gas mask whenever there's a tentacled beast around, so it looks like exposure to the monsters is toxic one way or another). The pair of gringos leaves in the morning, with Andrew visibly uninterested in hanging around a second longer than necessary, and Sam being friendly towards the kids and the woman who sheltered them for the night. They're in for a long walk along a highway dotted with ZONA INFECTADA signs and an eventual ride from a good Samaritan in a pickup truck. On the positive side, Kaulder's a little friendlier with people after his walk; I'm guessing that a ride in the back of the truck is so much better than trudging on foot that he's getting plenty of serotonin in his bloodstream.

The next village down has a bus station (or at least a bus); looks like they'll be getting a little closer to the coast. Andrew asks a local family if there are creatures around, and it turns out that there were, but not any more. The rusted-out tank in a shallow pond testifies to the battle against the aliens three years ago. One guesses that it was damaged too badly to be repaired and it's too expensive to move it. Sam asks Andrew if he feels bad about his career path, since he makes money when bad things happen ("You mean like a doctor?" is Andrew's response, which is pretty clever.) The bus driver signals that it's time to get moving, but the journalist points out that Sam's dad pays $50,000 for a picture of a child killed by a creature and nothing for one of a happy kid. He's been taking plenty of shots of happy children so far when he knows he won't be materially compensated for them, so it seems likely that Kaulder isn't nearly as much of a jerk as he appears from the surface. Or it's only his self-serving justification for getting paid to record pain and suffering.

The bus drops our protagonists off by the ferry dock, where patrol ships and aircraft move around near the fence that marks the start of the infected zone (and which looks really flimsy compared to what I'd expect to be built to keep alien monsters on the other side). After visiting several ferry offices, Andrew finally finds one that has a ticket to America for sale, although it's for the next day (and the ticket seller implies that tomorrow morning's ferry is the last one out of the area). It's five thousand dollars for a ticket, which is what you get when people set their own prices for something desirable and scarce. People who don't have that much money are waiting in the ticket office for someone to guide them over the land route to get to the USA (which means going on foot through the Zona Infectada). Both Sam and Andrew are taking it pretty well that they've been wearing the same clothes for two or three days, by the way. I would have expected quite a bit more grumbling, especially from the male character. Andrew's bargaining tactics bring the ferry operator down to $5,000 from his original price of $5,000 and Sam's got her ticket for the 7 AM boat ride back to America in the morning. So the pair just has to wait one more night before it's time for Sam to leave. It's only twenty minutes into the film, so I'm betting something is going to go wrong.

At the hotel that night, the TV news (in English) shows grainy night-time footage of tanks attacking huge spindly alien beasts while the anchorman says the creatures are swarming the perimeter of the infected zone in more than a dozen spots. Andrew wants to go out to a bar to celebrate getting to the end of the journey; Sam thinks it would be a hell of a lot more sensible to stay indoors, rest up and not miss the ferry at seven. I think she's got the much better idea, especially after the TV reports that the aliens aren't going to make it to wherever the pair are for another two days. I'd probably sleep overnight at the ferry office, myself, if I could. At the very least it'd be a good idea to do whatever was necessary to get the hell out of Dodge safely and quietly. Though I'm looking at it from the perspective of someone who isn't used to six years of news and weather describing things as partly cloudy with a small chance of alien biotoxins drifting in on the wind.

Sam decides to grab a shower while there's time; Andrew calls his son to wish him a happy birthday (but tells Sam that it was the front desk saying his room was ready when she asks). After Sam puts her dirty clothes back on it's time for some street food, street booze, and street squeaky noisemakers that you apparently stick in your mouth to make silly sounds of various types. The pair seems much more relaxed and at ease with each other at this point; a full belly and silly noises will do that for you. I'm digging the chemistry between the two leads (who were the only two professional actors in the cast, and were dating at the time of the filming--they got married afterwards, which I think is neat).

Then things get serious--candlelit shrines to people who died in "Los Attaques", as a mural lists it, fill the frame with a soft, golden light and the soundtrack dwindles down to a soft score rather than the mariachi instrumentation that heralded the street-food carnival atmosphere just a moment ago. There's a really impressive rooftop shot of the town square lit by hundreds--or even thousands--of candles. I'm trying to avoid unpacking the sociological baggage involved here, because whatever the candle-lit memorial was in real life, it's being repurposed by the filmmakers to commemorate the five thousand dead in the monster attacks from half a decade ago. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want a September 11 memorial procession to get used in a Blind Dead movie, so let's just agree not to bring it up again and move on. As the night passes, Sam and Andrew talk a bit more, and Sam reveals that one of the reasons her father was so hell-bent on her coming back to America on time is that her wedding is the next day. No wonder Mr. Wynden was so commanding on the phone.

As the night passes on, it's time for our revelers to get a little sleep and prepare for the big day tomorrow (ferry at 7 AM and the rest of Sam's happily married life ahead of her; back to the war zone to take pictures for the New World Chronicle for Andrew). Andrew's more than a little drunk and tries (unsuccessfully) to talk his way into Sam's room--allegedly just because the air conditioner is busted in his room, but he's macking on her as well. He gets sincere when he says he had a really good time hanging out, but doesn't get invited into Sam's room regardless. Sam stays up most of the night, thinking, while Andrew goes out and gets drunk(er) in a fit of pique.

The next morning, it is revealed that Andrew picked up a woman for a one-night stand; Sam finds this out when he opens the door for her (and she goes from wanting to get a cup of coffee with her guide to leaving immediately when she sees the other person sleeping in there). He runs out of the hotel room in his boxers to try and talk to Sam--and it turns out that she can't board the ferry without her passport, which is in Andrew's hotel room. "Is"? Oh, crap, make that "was". The woman Andrew picked up swiped them and ran while he was out doing his romantic comedy walk and talk.

Time for another "Nice going, Andrew", I think.

Sam swaps her engagement ring for a ticket to go via the ground. Judging from the appraisal that the ferry owner gives, she's not the first one to barter with jewelry. And Andrew declares that her ring is going to buy two tickets to get back to the States through the Zona Infectada, because he wants to spend more time with Sam, it's his fault that she's in the situation she's in, and because it's a way to make sure nothing happens to her on the trip back. There's some great doubt and apprehension over Scoot McNairy's face here; he looks more than a little like Bill Paxton when he's trying not to panic or flip out.

A few bribes and some official collusion later, Sam and Andrew are on their way to the infected zone with some brand new paperwork that says they're aid workers and biologists who were supposed to be studying the creatures but lost their passports. They're probably getting used to riding in the back of a pickup truck by now. That truck takes them to a village where a fishing boat operator says it's too close to the dangerous season and he's not willing to risk his life without more American cash in his hand. Eventually he settles on going through the zone but not over the American border. Andrew doesn't speak Spanish so he has no idea what's going on at this point, and Sam was too far away to effectively eavesdrop.

Onward! During the boat trip there's plenty of decaying abandoned buildings (which may or may not have been there already for Edwards' crew to capture) and the occasional sign of creature activity like a rusting steamship in the middle of a forest--possibly a nod to an image of a boat in a tree from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (another movie concerned with travel logistics in Central America, but the only creature it had was a steadily deteriorating Klaus Kinski). At a fuel-and-bathroom stop, there's a bellowing animal noise off in the forest--the closest either protagonist has been to a creature so far, which is also a great way to remind the audience for a movie called Monsters that there are likely to be some monsters in it. Up to this point it was almost a science-fiction / horror version of Before Sunrise, which is a totally awesome idea. There might have been some version of the movie where the characters go into the rain forest to look for whatever was making the noises, but Andrew decides it's a lot safer and smarter to get back on the boat and leave.

Back on the boat, Andrew reveals a little bit of what's been going on with his life:  A couple years ago, a one-night stand called him up and informed him that she had a child with him; the woman said that he can see his kid, but he's not to be considered a father or be part of their lives. Immediately after this, Andrew asks Sam if she's got any pets as an intentional way to get to a less depressing subject; I found it kinda charming that the pair of them are comfortable enough with each other to be playful during a boat ride through the Zona Infectada. Just as Andrew expresses shock and dismay that Sam's fiancee is allergic to anything she'd want to have as a pet, the boat's outboard motor craps out and it's time for the pilot and helmsman to dick around with a wrench set and see if they can get it running again before dusk. SPOILER:  They do not. As the night falls, one of the boat crew notices something in the water and fetches a flashlight; Sam takes up another one. They can't quite figure out what they're looking at, but eventually it turns out to be an alien animal playing with a sunken jet fighter; Andrew's camera flash induces the alien to emit a luminescent display from under the water. Everyone is greatly relieved when the engine starts working again and the boat can get the hell out of this area safely.

Now rather behind schedule, the boat putters along into the rising dawn past more crumbling and rusted-out boats and buildings. The boat captain pulls up at his rendezvous point and drops Sam and Andrew off with a small group of armed dudes in green fatigues (Andrew is incredulous but they've gone too far to turn around at this point). After a lengthy wilderness hike it's time for a campout with the paramilitary guys and some dialogue about whether or not "the wall" is going to keep the aliens out; I can't help but wonder how much of the improvised chatter was about monsters from another world and how much of it was about desperate people from south of the Texas border trying to make it into the States, and whether or not spending a ton of money would keep them out completely. The one guy who saw a creature up close (claiming it was more than 250 feet tall by his reckoning) doesn't map on to real-world concerns quite so closely. There's also some talk from the armed escorts about the military dropping chemical weapons on the creatures, so it's at least possible that the gas masks everyone's supposed to wear in the event of a monster sighting are meant to protect them from the American / Mexican military response rather than from the creatures themselves.

One more piece of the mystery gets revealed here--there are fungal growths on the trees in the jungle that display flickering light patterns when the trail guides shine a flashlight on them (it's a simple but remarkably striking effect; the fungi look simultaneously like they belong in the forest and also utterly, utterly alien). The escorts explain that the fungi are the egg sacs for creatures; the eggs are laid on the trees, and when the infant creatures hatch they make their way to the river to live out the rest of their life-cycles. This means that napalming the jungle to bare ash would potentially be one way to stop the invasive species, but one guesses that it's too expensive and environmentally disastrous, in that order, for it to be seriously considered by the political leaders of the US and Mexico.

Later that night, when the trail guides are asleep, Sam and Andrew have a bit of a moment as he unwraps her bandaged hand and they talk around what it means for either of them to be on this experience together (and why Andrew was an asshole for picking up someone for a one-night stand and getting their passports stolen). The low-key and growing connection between the two is a nice counterpoint to the increasingly odd alien life around them in the jungle. Sure, the world is possibly being terraformed into an alien landscape bit by bit, but these two crazy kids are starting to realize that they really, really like each other.

Still later that night, the camp's walkie-talkie picks up what sounds like a disastrous battle against the creatures and everyone bugs out (with Andrew looking around for his camera, which contains plenty of pictures of his entire odyssey and is also the main tool for him to do his job). Shortly after everyone takes off from the encampment the pickup truck convoy grinds to a dead stop and all the guides put on their gas masks (Andrew:  "Do we get a gas mask? Can we have one gas mask?"; I bet he'd give it to Sam.) Then the first real shot of a creature is shown to the audience, and it's a doozy as ropy tentacles reach down and haul the lead pickup truck completely out of frame--and I was impressed at how the scene was shown from inside the second truck where the two protagonists are watching, because it puts the viewer in that scene rather than outside of it. Also you instantly worry for Sam and Andrew because there's no indication of how many creatures there are out there, and whether or not they're going to start playing with the second truck. There's a brief one-sided fight between three or four guys who brought assault rifles to an alien beast fight and then a second creature shows up while Sam and Andrew cower in the back of a beat up VW microbus. The second creature hauls the third (and last) truck out of the convoy and plods off, leaving the two survivors alone in the forest. In the morning, the only sign of the trail guides is a mutilated body that Kaulder finds and controls his nausea long enough to get a gas mask (and retrieve his camera). That camera doesn't get pressed into service when Andrew finds the corpse of a young girl among the wreckage; he passes up what he knows would be a $50,000 payday to cover the poor kid's body instead. He doesn't realize that Sam's watching him until after the fact, and it's nice to know he's got a functioning soul even--or especially--when he thinks nobody is observing him. He grabs a second gas mask from another body, shakes the skin juice out of it, and the pair of travelers set off silently for the border.

After another day's hard travel (without food or water, as far as I can tell) Sam spots a ruined pyramid in the distance and the pair check it out; from the top of the temple they can see the gigantic wall that marks the start of American territory and reflect on what it means to be so close to their goal but still unable to get there for the time being. Thank goodness Andrew says "It's so different to look at America from the outside", giving the film its George Romero Subtle Commentary merit badge. Night falls as Sam requests a change of subject and the pair discuss the way people laugh when they're with different people; the mood lightens as night falls.

The next morning the pair makes their way to the US border (including a really nifty cut-in-half roadway that the filmmakers lucked into finding), approaching the towering concrete walls. There's nobody manning the checkpoint back into the States, though. I was greatly amused at how clean the "infected zone" warning signs were on the American side of the wall; it's one more example of the remarkable and budget-conscious world building that Edwards pulled off with his movie. Neither character has a smart phone to check the news, so they're stuck inferring that something's gone wrong when they see a massive plume of smoke in the distance and note an EVACUATION ROUTE 9 MILES sign by the roadside. The town they've crossed into is completely empty as well, with devastated houses (and rotting creature carcasses) attesting to some kind of fight against the alien beasts within the recent past. The only other person they find is a homeless woman who isn't actually an exposition delivery system, which I would have expected from a less considered movie.

An abandoned gas station with the lights still on provides Andrew a chance to make a call to 911 and get a little bit of information from the dispatch operator. A military patrol is supposed to collect him and Sam soon and the pair of survivors talk for a little while about completely unrelated things while they wait for the rescue. They split up for privacy while Andrew calls his son for a happy-birthday call and Sam gets in touch with her father to let him know that she's all right, if a bit tired and thirsty after making her way through the infected zone and blundering into another phase of the alien war of biological extermination. While the pair sit down to take a load off, lighting in the distance reveals that there's one of the creatures moving on top of the gas station's roof--I'm assuming it was attracted by the lights. Sam notices the pair of tentacles exploring the station's interior before a self-pitying Andrew hears the thing moving around the antiseptically white, fluorescent-lit mini mart. Inside the store, the creature presses its tentacles to the TV screen (that is, like so many others in the film, showing footage of the military fighting a creature). When Sam unplugs the set, the alien instantly loses interest in the television and retracts its limbs out the front door.

And then a second creature shows up--and to all appearances it looks like the night time is the right time for alien romance. Sam and Andrew watch, fascinated and silent, as the aliens consummate a relationship (as far as I can tell) and wander back off into the night. Now I know where the mating display between the pair of MUTOs came from in the most recent Godzilla movie; it seems that Edwards is a big fan of alien biology, not just someone who likes big creepy monsters. In the distance, the promised military convoy approaches and Sam admits that she doesn't want to go back to her cookie-cutter life set out ahead of her. She and Andrew kiss as the military shows up; they wind up pulled away into separate vehicles in the convoy--and I'm guessing that the night-vision footage from the beginning of the film is depicting those characters' deaths via alien attack. Shoulda kept the headlights off on the humvees, guys.

What an achievement! Edwards took a half-million dollar budget and gave a portrait of a world losing the fight against a John Wyndham-style alien invasion, where the two different species are totally incapable of communicating with each other and will necessarily be fighting to the extinction of one of their number. And it doesn't look like humanity is going to win this one. Using a cast of nonprofessionals other than the two leads and a heavily improvised script we get a view at a world slowly losing its grip on the biosphere and the way that humanity is coping (or not) with the demands of the strange new world. I certainly would have liked more monsters in a movie with the title that this one has, but there are certain realities with a $500,000 budget that just have to be accepted. There's a great deal of assurance behind the camera and some genuinely magnificent world-building touches salted through the entire run time. Given the somewhat tepid and obligatory "well, I guess we belong together after all" wrapup I'd expect most viewers to share my reaction to the film--endlessly fascinating to look at around the edges with a center that doesn't quite hold up as well. But there's some fantastic scenery to look at, and some of the best ugly urban buildings since Hard Times giving way to the jungle, and then to the antiseptic American ghost town. Even if the main plot isn't up to the task of holding the audience's interest the frame is full of things to look at and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Atlas Sucked: Atlas Shrugged Part One (2011)





Screenplay by Brian Patrick O'Toole and John Aglialoro, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Directed by Paul Johannson

Taylor Schilling:  Dagny Taggart (Mark I)
Matthew Marsden:  James Taggart (Mark I)
Grant Bowler:  Henry Reardon (Mark I)
Jsu Garcia:  Francisco D'Anconia (Mark I)
Paul Johannson:  John Galt (Mark I)

With Jon Polito, Michael Lerner, and Armin Shimerman at least making a car payment or two out of this

If this goes the way I'm expecting it to, all three Atlas Shrugged movies are going to be reviewed in the Atlas Sucked roundtable between Cinemasochist Apocalypse and this blog. We asked several other B movie sites if they wanted in on this sweet action, and got two "I'll have to think about it"s, one "Oh HELL no" and dead silence as responses. When I mentioned this plan to other people the kindest comment was "You've made a horrible mistake". So this isn't going to be so much a roundtable as it is Brother Ragnarok and I at a diner booth hating on the movies. So be it.

It also turns out that it's the fourth anniversary of the first film's release, which I may or may not have known when Bro Rag and I were floating the idea for this gimmick. Releasing the "what have the Romans ever done for us" movie on the day people have to pay their membership dues for living in America is actually pretty damn clever. Too bad so much else about this film fails to entertain or enlighten, even in a "so bad it's good" way. This film's just so bad that it's bad.

We start in the distant future of September 2016; this means, among other things, that the first volume of the Atlas Shrugged adaptation could also be called 2016:  Obama's America if that title hadn't already been taken. Rest assured, if you're making a movie for the teabaggers and you're setting it at the end of the current Presidential administration you're calling out to all their fears (about what's going to happen to America) and their hopes (about what they, personally, can do about it as brave revolutionaries on the front lines of the struggle for the destiny of their society). Of course, it's just a crappy movie and the target audience for it is probably not going to run out and man the barricades during the revolution--for one thing, they'd need some barricades. And a revolution.

It's par for the course, though--I'm partway through a book called Wrapped in the Flag, written by a woman whose parents were the first John Birch Society cell leaders in Chicago. In 1960 the hard-core right wing was viciously against the concept of labor unions, brutally in opposition to any kind of welfare for the poor, and screaming about Communist infiltration in the education system, entertainment world and political structure up to and including the Presidency. In 2015 the hard-core right wing is viciously against the concept of labor unions, brutally against the concept of any kind of welfare for the poor (their own Social Security and Medicare payments excepted) and screaming about Communist infiltration in American society and politics, up to and including the Presidency. Even some of the phrasing is the same--the Birchers in 1960 were talking about taking their country back; so were the teabaggers in 2010. Half a century gone by and they couldn't come up with anything new.

I should probably point out that this movie is the first of a trilogy adapting a 1957 novel from Ayn Rand, the atheist Russian Jew whose work provides the social and political framework for the current flavor of Republican Party policy (while we're enjoying the irony of the cracker Taliban looking to someone they would despise for all three of those reasons, plus her status as a woman, let's also remember that Rand herself made a career for decades attacking "moochers" who parasitically burrowed into the capitalist system and took handouts, crippling the greatness of America, and then went on Social Security and Medicare herself when she ran out of money). What I'm saying is that this work and Rand's life appear to be fractally hypocritical. The books themselves amount to self-insertion fanfic about economics; if Rand happened to have been born a few decades later she probably would have contented herself writing about Ensign Randynna who was totally awesome, saved the USS Enterprise lots of times and got to fuck Spock whenever she wanted because she was so beautiful that even a Vulcan with no emotions went crazy for her.

The film itself had a decades-long journey from page to screen (I can remember hearing rumors that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were going to make this movie at one point, which went on to not happen); the film under consideration today got made because the option on it was going to expire if cameras weren't rolling by a certain date. Rather than let someone else make what was undoubtedly expected to be a massive hit and cultural shockwave, the filmmakers got things done as quickly as possible in order to massage an 1100-page book full of leaden dialogue and a plot that hinges on industrial metallurgy into a usable screenplay. It turns out that it took three entire movies to tell this story (at this point I haven't seen the second or third films but apparently the budget got noticeably lower with each installment).

It's not completely unprecedented to roll the dice like this--the three Lord of the Rings movies were filmed before the first one was released, because getting that massive of a cast and crew together once for a long time was considered easier than doing it three times in a row. If the first film had been a flop New Line Cinema would have gone under; as it turned out, audiences responded to the first film well enough that the production budgets of the entire trilogy were recouped just in theaters. The marketing and distribution costs for all three were also a respectable sum, but there would not be three Hobbit movies now if there was no market for Tolkien films. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Atlas Shrugged would have been a gigantic smash; after all, the Tea Party movement was on the news every night for several years, and science fiction is a genre that has been known to make some money for people. Of course, if it turns out that the insurgents from Glennbeckistan aren't actually all that prevalent and that the rest of the country doesn't care about the movie, it's going to lose a hell of a lot of money and flame out.

So. On to the movie. It's the distant future of 2016 (a year and a half from this writing, but a full half-decade from when the film was released). There's a news montage at the beginning that sets up the dystopian world the film will be taking place in, and how it got that way; instead of Jaegers and Kaiju it's stock market crashes, infrastructure collapses, social unrest and gas shortages. Somehow the lack of oil from the Middle East means that rail travel is the only way to transport people or things in Future Economic Dystopia Shrug World, despite the fact that in the year this movie came out, Amtrak needed more than a billion dollars in government handouts to stay operational. Scenes of a train rolling through blue-for-night landscapes are intercut with bits of unsourced news footage (the filmmakers didn't even fake up a Global News Network or NBS logo for them) and audio clips of what I guess are supposed to be talk radio performers or audience members. The final straw in the destruction of America is a bill passed by what would have been the Republican-controlled congress of 2016 in which it's illegal to fire anyone who works for a profitable company, and to institute price controls for all consumer goods. Sounds legit.

Then, right before the narrative begins, there's a train wreck. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.

The scene shifts to a rainy night in some city somewhere; as required by the Urban Scene-Setting Act of 1974, a homeless man is using a trash-barrel fire to keep warm. Meanwhile, Jay Knight, a television host, welcomes James Taggart, the CEO of railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, Ellis Wyatt (played by the dude who was Dick Stensland in the masterful L.A. Confidential), an oil entrepreneur (whatever that entails) and Wesley Mouch, a lobbyist, to his show. He asks Taggart what the company plans to do about the dozens of derailments on their rail lines, and the corporate titan says everyone must act to benefit society as a whole, just as a billionaire CEO on a news show would be expected to say in the real world in 2015. At a diner, a man in a suit buys a piece of pie and leaves; another man accosts him in the rain. The mystery man is wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, meaning he is either Ben Grimm or Godzilla.

A brief, cryptic conversation about living off one's own efforts and not letting people leech off your profits ensues and then the screen freezes and goes to black and white, superimposed text (with two different sets of sound effects--one of digital blips as each character appears on screen and one set of computer-key clicks) revealing that the pie purchaser was a banking CEO who mysteriously vanished. Considering what people like Midas Mulligan did to the American economy in 2008, I'd say one disappearing is an excellent start if the economy is ever going to be expected to recover. For that matter, I'm not sure what a banking CEO would do for money if he was working solely for himself. One assumes he won't be running to man the teller windows at every single branch of his bank personally. That's what non-CEO employees exist to do.

Then we get the opening titles for a few seconds, and somewhere else a phone rings. Dagny Taggart, the real power running Taggart Transcontinental (her doofus brother is an incompetent figurehead, as it turns out), answers the phone and turns on the TV, getting a plot-specific news broadcast about another Taggart derailment in Colorado. I will give the movie this--she had to change the channel to get the news story she cares about. Monster movies generally have the bulletin start the second someone turns on the TV or radio and it's always exactly what needs to be heard or seen to keep the plot grinding along. Anyway, two walking-past-homeless-people-without-giving-them-anything sequences and a subway ride later, Dagny shows up at TT HQ. Things are bad. The Rio Norte line is in such bad shape that Wyatt Oil is shipping tanker cars on the Phoenix / Durango line. OH, SHIT!

Dagny and James have a conversation in which the hard-charging Dagny is completely right about everything that has to be done and James just wants to make sure everyone company in the world gets a fair division of the money Taggart will be spending. Dagny has also placed an order for new rails from Rearden Steel in an attempt to keep the trains from falling off the tracks of the Rio Norte line and blowing up. Rearden apparently has some new kind of totally rad railroad rail steel that's going to get used for the repairs. James scoffs at this in dialogue worthy of Infra-Man:  "The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities are highly skeptical." I bet they are, if anyone can actually figure out what the hell that means. Dagny, like the honey badger, doesn't give a shit. She's off to Philadelphia (hopefully on a Taggart train that won't be exploding) to talk to Henry Rearden to finalize the order.

Dagny and Rearden talk about what it'll take to do a quick nine-month overhaul of the entire Rio Norte line; Dagny offers half of the premium rate to get everything done quickly because that line will be the first showcase of Rearden metal's capabilities. There's some politically charged dialogue about the right to make a profit from one's labors (though I notice Rearden, as CEO, wasn't actually out on the pour floor tipping the slag buckets himself). Rearden walks Dagny to her car after their conference, which is odd because gas is supposed to be too scarce and expensive for private motor use. Dagny points out that Rearden metal could make air transportation economically viable, which would mean trains wouldn't be as valuable any more. This is either dialogue from 1957 not updated for 2011 or just another symptom of the screenwriters not particularly seeming to know what transportation systems are actually in place in ShrugWorld.

Rearden returns to his mansion, where his wife, two men--his brother and a dude named Paul that seems to work for Rearden, maybe--and a woman I assume is his mother-in-law have been waiting for him for hours (and, presumably, putting a dent in his liquor cabinet). They're all whiny and judgmental because he works so hard to provide them with material comfort. Speaking of material providence, he gives a bracelet made from the first commercial-grade Rearden metal production batch to his wife, who fails to appreciate his scientific genius. Everyone bitches about this gift (I think it's pretty cool, myself, which puts me in the queasily uncomfortable position of agreeing with an Ayn Rand protagonist about something). Henry's brother Philip hits him up for a contribution to Friends of Global Awareness and when the selfless CEO industrialist immediately offers $100,000 to the group Philip gripes that Henry doesn't really want to help the underprivileged. He also asks for a wire transfer rather than a check so that the wrong Rearden's name isn't on the contributors' list. The dialogue in this sequence is possibly even more on the nose than anything out of Streets of Fire, but it's nowhere near as knowing about its own phoniness.

Rearden walks off to eat steak delivered by a butler while the guy who I don't know who he is tells him that the liberal media is casting him as a ruthless capitalist who only wants to make money. It turns out that it's all right to be profit-driven, as long as one doesn't admit it openly, I guess. And the acting between Grant Bowler and Patrick Fischler as Paul in this conversation is nice and understated. As a special added bonus, the dialogue actually sounds like something people might say to each other in a real conversation, too. At least up until Paul asks a few useless questions, wrapping up with "Who is John Galt?".

Paul, that treacherous little shit, is next shown having dinner at some big shmancy restaurant with Wesley Mouch, underhanded tycoon Orren Boyle and James Taggart. (It is probably a complete coincidence that the actors playing the three forces of economic and political corruption, including the one working from the inside to bring down the heroic capitalists, look incredibly Jewish.) Mouch says, and I quote, "It's not in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry," which means that the villains in this movie make a hell of a lot more sense than the heroes. It isn't actually in the public interest for one dude to wipe an entire economic sector off the map, whether through deliberate action, simple incompetence or bad judgments. Anyway, there's another liberal law meant to destroy the ability of honest capitalists to make money coming along, and Mouch and Boyle need James Taggart and Paul to help them get it passed. Also, naming your evil socialistic politician "Mouch" is pretty excessive. I wouldn't be surprised if Jewy McJewerson was the first-draft name.

It also appears that Wesley Mouch is supposed to look a hell of a lot like Barney Frank in this particular movie. I'm sure that was completely unintentional, since the target audience for a feature length right-wing screed wouldn't associate a non-religious, openly gay left-wing representative synonymous with campaign finance reform with villainy.


Barney Frank.


Michael Lerner as Wesley Mouch.



While they're discussing their sinister plot to end capitalism, the quartet of conspirators spots billionaire heir Francisco D'Anconia. Boyle and Taggart talk about a Mexican ore-mining operation that D'Anconia has invested in (which will be used to supply iron for a Taggart line down in that country that James believes will pay off handsomely); this is a brief introduction to the character and I'm sure the scene here will pay dividends later on. Or the director's just wasting everyone's time.

Back at Taggart Transcontinental HQ, Dagny and James have an argument over the Mexican situation. It turns out that Dagny has moved all possible Taggart assets out of the country so that when the industries are nationalized by the looters and moochers they won't lose anything. After James stomps out of the office, executive Owen Kellogg shows up to resign, refuse an offer from Dagny to name his own salary, and ask "Who is John Galt?" as a response to her rather justifiable request for a reason that he'd be quitting out of the blue. Then the screen goes black and white and we get the "disappearing person" text with the redundant character-generator sound effects again.

A jump cut to the Rearden bedroom and Hank's wife asking "All done, then?" after lovemaking later, the titan of industry leaves to go do work stuff. He gets a phone call from Dagny, who wants to complain about Owen Kellogg quitting out of nowhere. She also references the repeated question about who John Galt is, and gives the first in-story indication that anyone's noticing the disappearance of various titans of industry. Rearden reassures her that everything's going to work out okay, because people of their social class are the levers that move the world. Donald Trump might have told him to tone the ego down a touch.

Another quick CEO disappearance occurs, and then there's a phone conversation between James Taggart and Orren Boyle; they're working on a piece of legislation called the Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Rule, where individual corporations in a given industry will work together for mutual benefit. That actually sounds like an okay idea but Taggart says it's about the collective needs of each industry, so it's got to be a moocher / looter plot to destroy innovation. And speaking of looters, moochers, and statists, Mexico gets around to nationalizing that ore mine that Francisco D'Anconia had planned out and there's no ore in it. I actually found this part of the book funny and interesting, because the aristocrat had figured out a way to make the government forces arrayed against him steal something valueless and then complain about it. You have to take your entertainment value where you can get it in this work.

In the wake of this devastating setback, Dagny's personal assistant Eddie Willers tells James Taggart that there's an emergency board meeting. At this meeting, James takes credit for Dagny's decision to move equipment out of Mexico. In a private meeting, Boyle and James Taggart decide that D'Anconia is too smart to lose all his money to a nationalization scheme and plan to find out how they can profit from whatever it is, once they find out what the forthcoming plan is going to be. D'Anconia finds James Taggart to be a bore, and won't set up a meeting or even take a phone call from him.

Meanwhile, Dagny Taggart takes a call from her assistant while riding in a limo (that is supposed to be too expensive to use with gas at $37.50 a gallon--although I'm not sure a diesel engine would be getting good enough MPG to make trains a winning proposition); another person that was supposed to be facilitating the Norte line vanished, leaving behind a note asking who this John Galt dude is, anyway. I can't imagine that one executive was going to lay thousands of miles of track on his own, but the movie treats this as quite the setback. During a brief discussion between the Taggarts, James is treated (by Dagny and the film) as a fool for thinking the Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Rule will help his company and he suggests his sister asks D'Anconia what's up with the Mexican ore mine nationalization fiasco. There's an exposition bomb here that Dagny and Franscisco used to have a thing going, but don't any more.

In her office, the head of Wyatt Oil is there to chew Dagny out for the destruction of the other railroad company that runs the Phoenix / Durango line; Taggart promises him that the rail line will do everything he needs it to so he can sell his oil--then she makes a dinner date with Francisco D'Anconia even though she's already got one with Henry Rearden. I had visions of batshit crazy sitcom plots (or the scene in Superman IV where Clark Kent and the Man of Steel both have a date at the same time in the same restaurant), but it was not to be.

At the Rearden date, the two colleagues talk about diesel engine manufacture and maintenance; Rearden knows of a company in Wisconsin that made super great train engines but went out of business. If they still have any parts or machine tools lying around it might be a way to get more trains on the line in Colorado and get oil tankers moving. They segue to Dagny's invitation to the Reardens' anniversary party and another missing executive; according to Hank if all the innovators and businessmen get Raptured at this rate, soon it'll just be yes-men, incompetents and political hacks running the economy and that could be disastrous for the economy (MBAs and tycoons running corporations with an eye solely on the bottom line, to the exclusion of any other factors,  could never work out badly).

Then Dagny goes to meet Francisco at a restaurant (and incidentally, as clunky as all the names are in this movie--I haven't even mentioned the pirate Ragnar Hammarskjold yet--I can't really hate on the novel or the film for having goofy names. I loved Pacific Rim, and there's no way anyone on the planet named their kid "Stacker Pentecost"). Dagny throws a drink in her former squeeze's face and accuses him of setting up the Mexican mine deal to fail so that he could swindle money from the various investors, including her brother. D'Anconia implies that he set the deal up to fail to punish people for trusting him blindly, leading to an exchange that could only have come from the mind and pen of Ayn Rand:  "They rode on my brain and the premise that I wanted to make money." "What happened to you, Francisco? Where is the man that I used to love?"; scripts don't get any sudsier than this (although usually the woman asking that question isn't lamenting the loss of capitalist desire). There's still two movies to go in the series, so Dagny doesn't get any answers here but she does get her hand fondled all creepy-like and a promise that she'll eventually put the pieces together. And, of course, the only answer she gets from D'Anconia is "Who is John Galt?".

That's enough sizzling romantic tension; now it's time to visit the Reardens in the back of a limo (that is supposed to be too expensive to drive) as they go to their anniversary party. A plot-sensitive TV in the limousine tips Rearden off that the Equalization of Opportunity Bill is coming up for a vote and he places a call to Mouch but doesn't get through (and doesn't leave a message). Now it's time for soft jazz and people drinking cocktails at a banquet! Also, to give the film credit where it is due, the party scene is filled with extras in appropriate clothing and the camerawork glides around like an eavesdropper to follow some characters and move past others. It's nicely handled, as is most of the technical craft of filmmaking (I've seen movies that are so badly made they're not in focus; this one doesn't have any gratuitous lighting errors or anything similar that would make it look shabby). There's also lots of quick closeups of the party attendees, which makes me think either the director and editor are being far more generous to their extras than one would expect for an Ayn Rand film (they don't deserve a closeup if they aren't the stars, after all) or possibly that the producers got coaxed into getting cameos in this scene.

Dagny and James arrive and there's some subtle bitchery from Lillian Reardon about Dagny's dress being passe and her Rearden metal bracelet as a clunky, ugly thing. Dagny and Hank gather together, united in their dislike of social functions. I'm always glad when I find someone who has opinions about the Lannisters in a crowd, myself, so I understand. Someone named "Balph Eubank" is mentioned as an attendee, giving us a new gold medalist for Goofy-Ass Name in the film. D'Anconia sidles over to Hank Rearden, who is offically having none of it (he has no desire to lose tens of millions of dollars on a dry mine). D'Anconia asks Rearden why he's willing to carry so many people who would be helpless without his money and talents. There's a brief cryptic conversation between the two that wouldn't have been completely out of place in the Village, and then D'Anconia politely takes his leave. Right around that time Dagny trades her jeweled necklace for the Rearden metal bracelet, then leaves the party.

Time for a jump cut to Colorado, where Rearden steel rails are being laid down for the Rio Norte line; rather than Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden putting all the track down themselves, they're forced to rely on the common laborer. And, worse yet, I bet the people actually putting the tracks down are expecting to get paid for doing so. Shit, they might even be in a union, which means the work will have to be done while trying not to maim or kill them.

After that interlude, the Taggarts in the back of their own too-expensive-to-use limousine going to a function where Dagny is expected to address the National Council of Metal Industries and defend the new material being used for the Taggart line in Colorado. James tells his sister that her speech is going to actually be a debate against someone named Bertram Scudder. Waiting until she's in the car going to the event to spring this one on Dagny? Dick move, Jimmy. Dagny instructs the driver to pull over so she can leave, since she's not interested in getting ambushed at a press conference when she thought she was going to have a private dinner. Getting out of the limo, we get a shot that encapsulates the Rand ethos pretty perfectly. Dagny walks past a homeless man at a trash barrel fire without noticing him.

The rail construction continues, and Hank Rearden refuses to stop making his new metal even when a slumming Armin Shimerman drops by to offer a government buyout (they apparently want to benefit from his privately financed R&D, or possibly just refuse to issue manufacturing licenses for the new material--I'm not entirely sure which). The government flunky won't answer the question "Is Rearden metal good or not?", so Rearden won't do anything he likes. Because behaving like a petulant child when you don't get your own way is sound governing practice. I did enjoy seeing the actor behind the main Ferengi argue for fairness and economic redistribution though.

One newspaper-and-magazine montage later, public opinion has been shaped against Rearden metal, even though it hasn't been proven to fail yet. Or proven to work, for that matter, but Dagny makes the justifiable point that the people using it to make rails and switches know more about its capabilities and flaws than someone writing for a magazine. When the State Science Institute warns people away from using it, though, things are getting real. At the SSI, Dagny talks to their head science person. He tells her that a philosophy prof made a bet with him when they tried to influence three brilliant students. One turned out to be Francisco D'Anconia, one was the pirate Ragnar Dannaskjold and one vanished completely. Also, it turns out that Dannaskjold's acts of piracy steal from the poor and give to the rich. I wonder if his name is Norwegian for "Dennis Moore". The science institute guy also looks like he's about ten or fifteen years too young to have taught D'Anconia during his college days.

Somewhere on the Colorado rail line, Dagny accepts the praise from Ellis Wyatt for staying on time and getting the tracks laid on schedule (naturally, it's assumed that she's doing all the heavy lifting, rather than the construction crews who are literally lifting the heavy things as part of the project). Hank Rearden is there; they talk about replacing an old worn-out bridge with one made of Rearden metal. He thinks it can be done in three months, and then asks Dagny to dinner. She declines, because he's married and it's only the first movie.

Back in NYC, Dagny's limo drives past a food handout truck from the Ministry of Welfare (hiss, boo) and gets a brief update from Eddie, her personal assistant. The stock price of Taggart is plummeting and it looks like using Rearden metal in the face of government orders and rigged public opinion is going to kill her corporation completely if nothing is done. She tells her brother that she's going to leave the family business and start her own company to take over the Rio Norte line with her own financing; once the line is running and Rearden metal is proved to be the best of all metals, Taggart Transcontinental will take the line back over and everything will be awesome. Maybe it's because my degree is in film studies instead of business or economics, but that sounds like Three Card Monte with stocks and ownership. She makes a quick deal with her brother--he gets to be CEO of Taggart in exchange for Eddie going over to her company, as well as a promise that he'll use his influence in Washington to make sure her new company won't get bogged down in red tape and regulation while she's off being awesome. James says he can't let her damage the family name with her scheme so she decides to name the new company the John Galt Line.

Dagny's plan hits a snag pretty much immediately when she asks Francisco for financing and he says there isn't any money to give. She offers to sleep with him in order to make the deal, and he still turns her down (I hear that the Columbia House record company went out of business under similar circumstances). She gets turned down by a lot of small-minded idiots who don't recognize a great rail transport opportunity when they see it, but eventually sells plenty of shares in the company to a consortium of other tycoons; Hank Rearden buys the last portion of available bonds himself when Dagny stops by to commission that bridge from a few scenes back. He's also got a folder with some schematics and photos of a new engine type that he got from the shut-down manufacturing firm in Wisconsin he knew about (the "20th Century Motors" logo doesn't sound all that impressive or futuristic in 2011, by the way). Hank and Dagny decide to take a trip to Wisconsin to catch a Tommy Bartlett show and also investigate this further, but before anything else happens Hank gets a phone call telling him the Equalization of Opportunity Act got passed so nobody can own more than one company any more. Rather than consolidate all his holdings into Rearden International he says he'll sell off everything but the steel mill. Paul, the guy whose relationship to Hank I'm still not entirely sure of, gets the ore mining company. Various other people who haven't shown up in the movie before wind up with ownership of other Rearden companies; I'm pretty sure this gets explained a touch better in the book.

Rearden is left alone with his one true love, a robotic steel mill. And plenty of Rearden metal tracks have been laid now; it's a shame the CG effect to change the color of the rails doesn't quite work, because it's important that the new rails don't look anything at all like any existing ones. They look periwinkle, and I wouldn't trust periwinkle to hold up a freight train. A union delegate comes into Dagny's office and says nobody from the Engineers Association will run an engine on the new and untested rails, which honestly a genius captain of industry should have thought of. Dagny busts the union by saying she'll use scabs to run the engines after the successful test of the rails, and the representative backs down. She then says she'd never force a man to do anything, which kinda contradicts the scene she was just in.

Soon enough it's time for the maiden voyage on the John Galt line, which is covered live by cable news because absolutely nothing else is happening in the world that day. The train speeds along on the new rails in a slightly-below-average CG effect. The new bridge holds (there's a series of shots of the train going over the bridge that are edited together choppily; I'm guessing there was only so much time and money for the CG effects and they just had to use all of them, whether or not the virtual camera placement made any sense or not), and Dagny and Hank hug in triumph. There's also lots of gorgeous Colorado scenery utterly ruined by a lack of a train going through the wilderness.

It's a triumph (though there's only about ten or fifteen people meeting the train at its endpoint and there didn't appear to be any passengers other than Hank and Dagny, which raises the question of how exactly the John Galt Line is going to make any money whatsoever). The oil tycoon made dinner for the steel tycoon and the rail tycoon, but the shadowy forces of Jewish-looking character actors conspire to wreck the pair of them for the sheer evil of it.

Meanwhile, over steak, vast quantities of wine and champagne and awkward dancing, the Tycoon Dinner Party proceeds. Ellis Wyatt says he's got a way to extract oil and gas from a hitherto unreachable deposit in his territory (which means that Atlas Shrugged anticipated fracking, I think). He leaves to go make some phone calls and Hank and Dagny are told that there are several guest rooms upstairs. Turns out they're only going to need one, because marital fidelity is for losers--though to be fair Dagny is single. It's just that Rearden isn't. A shadowy figure lurks outside and knocks on the door. Like most billionaires, Wyatt doesn't have a security staff or a butler so he answers the door himself. The next morning he is nowhere to be found, but he did leave a brief note for his guests.

Hank and Dagny decide on the spur of the moment to go check out that abandoned machine shop in the deserts of Wisconsin. According to Hank the company collapsed because it paid its worthless, parasitic employees too much money. In the decades-abandoned but spotlessly clean and dust-free company headquarters Rearden makes his Spot Secret Doors check and uncovers a small room where the mystery engine was developed. Dagny finds the engine and identifies it as a particle accelerator the size of a cocktail shaker. It's pretty impressive, but TONY STARK BUILT ONE OF THEM IN A CAVE! FROM A BOX OF SCRAPS!

A bit of sleuthing leads the pair to the last owner of the factory, and from there they follow a chain of previous owners to track down the inventory of the engine (while utterly neglecting their existing businesses, it looks like). The inventor died years back, but his wife says his assistant was the real genius, and that the assistant kept in touch with Professor Akston of Patrick Henry University. And, in a line of dialogue the expositionary actress successfully delivers without laughing, "Mr. Akston was rumored to have opened a roadside diner near Cheyenne". How profitable a roadside diner would be in a world where nobody is supposed to be able to afford to drive would be, I'm not sure. Maybe Akston likes the quiet. Or maybe the movie forgot gas is supposed to be almost forty bucks a gallon.

At the diner, Akston refuses to answer any direct questions and tells Dagny (trying super hard to be portentous) that she's stumbled over one tiny corner of the big mystery and then walks home (leaving the diner open; maybe he's not a very hands-on manager). The shadowy trench coat and fedora wearing guy is already there, proving Daryl Zero's maxim that people don't know you're following them if you get where they're going first.

A convenient news bulletin tells Dagny that the Wyatt Oil fields in Colorado are on fire (which might be sabotage or it might be the kind of thing that regulation of industry exists to prevent). Special points for the reporter on the scene saying the hill behind him is engulfed in flames while the insert footage does not feature a reporter or a hill on fire. Dagny drives off to Colorado (I guess to try and help with the fire?) while Mouch gives a speech about all the pointless wealth-wrecking restrictions he's going to place on businesses as the new MFIC of the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources. He says he's going to "equalize the national economy" through taxing and business restrictions, which makes as much sense as "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" to me.

Dagny breaks past a couple of not particularly effective cops to run inside the Wyatt mansion looking for Ellis, but doesn't find him. A voiceover plays of the shadowy dude telling Wyatt that he's the head of a Libertarian paradise, a city of heroes where all the geniuses are free to be awesome producers and be freed from pointless government interference or regulation (meanwhile, the cops and firefighters trying to save Ellis' mansion are paid for by the taxes he undoubtedly loathes). A sign at the edge of the burning oil fields implies that Wyatt torched the place himself before leaving for Tycoon Valhalla Atlantis. Fade to black and roll credits.

The credits, by the way, reveal that this was a movie made with a union crew, crediting the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO specifically. And the copyright protection covering the film and allowing the artists to realize the profits from it (if there were any; this one lost about three and a half million dollars according to figures on the IMDB) are part of that pointless government regulation the movie just spent its entire running time attacking. I think the real secret ingredient to Rearden metal has to be irony.

The real problem with Atlas Shrugged as a portrayal of anything is that neither Ayn Rand nor the filmmakers seemed to ever realize that the protagonists are being described in exactly the wrong terms. The CEOs and billionaires that want to sulk in their douchebag clubhouse and destroy society are not Atlas holding up the world. They're Pharaohs in gold and jewels screaming from the top of a pyramid that they're living gods and they'll wreck the world in a fit of pique because the sweating, starving masses don't love them enough. And there's no position less analogous to Atlas' than a mortal god-king on top of a stone monument built by slaves. The top of a pyramid couldn't be farther away from the position that the 1% say they're in (both in this movie, and, occasionally, in real life).