When “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” came out in 2011 it was met with mostly dismissal from critics and journalists alike.

The film adaptation of one of the bestselling books of all time took decades to reach the big screen. Digging into the behind the scenes story proved producer John Aglialoro had to rush production so his option on the book would not expire.

The other side of the coin was that the film was met with excitement among libertarians, Tea Party goers and conservative artists. It was a chance for a novel beloved by right of center thinkers to compete with Hollywood’s more left-leaning fare.

The actual release ended up being a mixed bag. Though getting a fair amount of respect from conservatives and having a good opening weekend, the movie ultimately fared poorly at the box office.

Things went from bad to worse when producers Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow decided to rush production and release of the second movie as well. Though getting a wider release, “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” suffered from a syndrome that can kill any franchise no matter the size: every part was recast.

The movie did worse at the box office despite a wider release and being a considerably stronger film.

Last year saw the release of the final film in the trilogy, “Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?” Audiences ultimately shrugged at the endeavor. The full adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel ended with a whimper. Now, the film’s third chapter is available on home video, as is a box set of all three films.

Hit Rewind on Rand’s Movie Trilogy

There’s no better time then to view these films the way they were presumably meant to be seen – as a whole.

In an age where binge watching is king, it’s time to binge our way through the conservative film trilogy that brought one of the most beloved books of all time to the big screen. Do these independently produced movies have any artistic merit, or were they just a quick cash grab or attempt at conservative leaning propaganda?

Aglialoro and Kaslow made two very solid though divisive decisions with their adaptations. First, they opted for a trilogy format, not one fantastically long movie. A single film adaptation of the book’s 1,000-plus pages would have been the slog of all slogs.

The next smart decision was to bring the events in the book from the past to the near future. With the political climate the way it is today, it was the perfect setup to bring across Rand’s vision to today’s audiences.

One of the most appealing aspects to the book is its timelessness. That’s why the decision to bring it to the modern day made the most sense. It sidestepped not just confusion but gave the opportunity for the story to have a relevancy and appeal a hypothetical period piece wouldn’t allow.

Ninety Minutes Isn’t Enough

The first movie in the trilogy is like one of those Bible for Kids picture books. At best it feels like a CliffNotes version of the book. Everything in the novel, from characters to “big” moments, are watered down, tamed or trimmed. One example is the Francis D’Anconia ‘what is money’ speech. In the novel, it’s a grand intellectual moment and a turning point in the story. In the movie, it’s a brief moment to spout a few good points and then the film quickly moves on without examining the good and bad consequences of D’Anconia’s talk.

 

“Part 1” runs at only a little over 90 minutes which is astounding considering the length of the book (even just part I of the book). Why a shorter running time was deemed better is strange. It was probably to save on some cash, but still, a book as epic as “Atlas Shrugged” should never be that cut down. Could you imagine “Watchmen” or any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies clocking in at 90 minutes?

The film, however, is not an entire loss. There’s some beautiful photography from director Paul Johansson (who got the job nine days before filming began) and two strong lead performances from Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler.

Even with its many faults, “Part I” manages some notable highlights. It’s not the movie everybody wanted it to be, but it’s something worth noticing.

A Whole New Cast

Moving into the second film in the trilogy is not as smooth as it should be, and it’s due to one thing: the cast. Every part is recast, not just a character or two. We’ve got two new leads as well as the supporting players. It takes a good 20 minutes to get used to the new performers because they portray protagonists Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden so differently than the original actors.

 

The second film, however, improves on the first installment. Perhaps it was the inclusion of Duncan Scott in the scriptwriting process (he had adapted Rand before). Some of the more notable moments from the book (like the courtroom scene with Rearden) and the relationships (between Dagny and Rearden and Rearden and D’Anconia) feel like they have more heft here, probably thanks to Scott.

The movie also feels a little more like a cinematic release and less a TV movie. This could be from replacing director Paul Johansson with John Putch. Putch makes his ride a little smoother and seems to be more aware as director. It’s even easy (after a while) to get used to Samantha Mathis (Dagny) and Jason Beghe (Rearden) in their new roles. They play different aspects to the characters which makes the recasting at least interesting. Mathis embraces Dagny’s dominant nature and frustration at the world, while Beghe captures Rearden’s anger and macho energy.

The supporting players that were recast prove distracting. How did the producers not think this would affect their trilogy?

Same Source, Different Flow

With the second movie being a stronger film, it’s strange that “Part 1” and “Part II” feel like exclusive experiences. The two stories don’t appear to belong together. The recasting, the change in tone and focus leads to a “Part II” that smacks of a reboot, not a sequel. They need to be taken as separate experiences and different takes on Rand’s original vision.

Moving into the third movie makes whatever issues one has with the first two movies seem like peanuts. Say what you will about the ebb and flow of “Part I” to “Part II” or even their watered-down portrayals of the source material, they are masterpieces next to “Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt?”

 

Aglialoro and Kaslow talked a big game before the film saying they had learned lessons on the first two movies and were going to get Rand right this time. Aglaialoro vowed it would be the “best” in the trilogy.

The only points one can give them is for consistency. The third film is recast yet again which this time leads to some of the movie’s biggest issues when taking the trilogy as one full experience. The characters and relationships feel as though they have little to no relation to the first two movies.

The new leads don’t deliver anything interesting or unique this time. In Laura Regan, the trilogy finds its worst Dagny Taggart. Mathis and Schilling managed to bring different kinds of strength to the character. Regan plays her like a doe-eyed youngster caught up in situations and love triangles even she doesn’t understand.

Speaking of triangles, it’s probably the wrong word for me to use because there is no triangle. In Rob Morrow, the franchise found its most recognizable star to appear as Hank Rearden. He shows up in a few still photographs and then I think was in the background of a scene where he says something useless.

The man who has led us through two movies is all but nonexistent.

Instead we get Rand’s most famous character to take center stage: John Galt; played here by Kristoffer Polaha. The young man has talent and does what he can with the character, but Galt is the most watered down of any character in this franchise.

In the book Rand’s Galt is a character of pure common sense and drive no one could resist. Yet here he’s just a dude who says some smart things and isn’t hard on the eyes.

The movie slogs on with no uniqueness, like something a film student majoring in law might put together. The musical score never fits the movie. It sounds like it belongs at a separate opera. Did the filmmakers crank up the volume because they realized it was so much better than what was on screen? Too bad the sounds and picture hardly ever match.

The new director responsible for all this is James Manera, and he’s more than a step down from the previous two directors. He films with no real sense of artistry or aesthetic. His “Atlas Shrugged” is like a cheap political ad with people trying to act. The only difference is it lasts … 90 minutes. Like I said, chalk up some points for consistency.

They Did It Their Way

As much as I admire Aglialoro and Kaslow for independently shunning Hollywood and realizing Rand on the big screen, the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy is a disappointment for Rand fans, conservatives, right of center artists and everyone in between.

It’s a prime example of everything not to do when making a franchise. In a world where audiences can binge watch from “Part I” to “III” with a few clicks, the failures become so much more evident.

The recasting issue is obviously the franchise’s number one flaw. By the time you reach the third movie, you realize you haven’t invested like you did in the book because you’ve watched six actors play two characters and all have different interpretations … except Morrow.

Watching the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy as a trilogy makes it clear what the number one reason is that these movies don’t work like they should. There’s no artist steering this ship.

Aglialoro and Kaslow are smart guys, but they are not artists. They’re producers trying to bring across a message rather than cheering on character, motivations, relationships or consistency in tone. They just want to bring across a political message as fast as they can.

With three different directors taking the chair behind the camera, there’s no one to push for any sort of artistic merit in each picture. It’s how a character like Rearden can literally disappear in the third film with no explanation. Say what you will about Rand, but she was a writer first and foremost. Otherwise her books would never stand the test of time or connect with someone like me who has little patience for “art” that puts an agenda first and everything else at a distant second or even third.

Imagine what a Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan or Angelina Jolie could do with “Atlas Shrugged?” You need someone like those directors to help move the script along and keep an eye on the prize.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

The “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy may be a disappointment, but it’s commendable that it even exists. Far more recognizable producers and filmmakers tried to adapt Rand’s novel and failed.

Aglialoro and Kaslow may not have done the best job, but they did it and that’s more than anyone else can say. They also managed to make it their way. Independently produced and distributed. The trilogy led to the producers starting their own company which is impressively seeking out new films to distribute and finance.

The two men started a new company (which could make better films) and adapted a book previously thought un-adaptable. They did both while shunning the Hollywood system.

It may not be a trilogy meant for binge viewing, but it has its pleasures. “Part I” and “II” both have their merits in their actors and visuals and work on their own. And “Part III”…well, “Part III” might make for a cool drinking game one day. Plus, it boasts a Ron Paul cameo. How many movies can say that?