My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Imagine a world where the decades-long process of bringing Ayn Rand’s epic 1957 ode to heroic self-interest, Atlas Shrugged, did not conclude with the tome being adapted in the saddest, most rinky-dink manner imaginable. Then the final installment would be a source of great celebration, if not a bona fide pop-culture event.
In that alternate world, each entry would be the source of intense public interest. Kids everywhere would dress up like heroes Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, or John Galt for Halloween. Objectivism would skyrocket in popularity. And the long-awaited finish of a book that took over a half-century to reach the big screen would be the subject of midnight viewings all over the world.
Hell, why stop there? In this alternate, Atlas Shrugged-crazed universe, the popularity of the films would inspire a novelty dance and single with a chorus that went, “C’mon everybody do the Atlas Shrugged! / Your partner won’t object if you give ‘em a tug / You’ll be feeling Ayn Randy and ready for love / C’mon, everybody do the Atlas Shrugged!”
In our world, though, there was such a ferocious dearth of anticipation in the actual free market that these believers in the wisdom of said free market decided the free market needed a little help endorsing their vision. So they went begging on Kickstarter.
And where a proposed early 1970s adaptation of Atlas Shrugged to be produced by The Godfather’s Albert Ruddy was rumored to star Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, Alain Delon, and Clint Eastwood, Atlas Shrugged Part III couldn’t even afford to hold onto the no-name cast of the second movie, which itself couldn’t hold onto the no-name cast of the first.
The Return Of The Jedi/Return Of The King of Atlas Shrugged made less than a half-million dollars its opening weekend and had a rare zero percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is almost impressive. The world reacted to the release of Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt with a shrug, when it reacted at all.
It’s easy to see why. In Atlas Shrugged Part III, protagonist Dagny Taggart is played by Laura Regan, who splits the difference, age-wise, between twentysomething Taylor Schilling, who played her in the first film, and fortysomething Samantha Mathis, who played her in the second. It feels like the filmmakers wanted Julie Delpy for the role, but when she was unavailable, they figured they would settle for her stand-in, who was more in line with their budget anyway.
In the first two films, John Galt is the shadowy embodiment of a revolutionary ideal as much as a person. In Part III, he becomes a central character, despite being played by a no-name actor with the generic handsomeness of a Sears catalog model.
Early in Part III, we flash back to the character-defining moment when Galt acquired the idea that would change the world forever. Galt worked at a factory that decided that it would embrace the horrors of collectivism following the death of its owner. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, everyone from the heads of state to blue-collar workers speaks exclusively in airy philosophical abstractions, so the people left in power at the company announce their new plans by saying, “Each of us now belongs to the other, by the moral law we all voted for and we all accept.” But Galt is not having any of it. “I don’t! I don’t accept it!” he announces dramatically, followed by a vow to “stop the motor of the world” before dropping his baseball hat dramatically.
In Atlas Shrugged, the motor of the world is literal as well as figurative. On one level, the motor of the world consists of the innovators, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs whose hard work, integrity, and drive renders civilization possible, despite all the parasites trying to exploit these exemplars of human greatness. These are the people Galt convinces to go on strike and willfully withdraw their greatness from society until society learns to appreciate them. So the movie asks us to consider the unimaginable horror that would ensue if people like Donald Trump, Glenn Beck (who appears in the film to enthusiastically endorse the ideas of John Galt, alongside Ron Paul and also Sean Hannity), and Ann Coulter decided to deprive us unworthy losers and mooches of their greatness and society-enabling ambition and were never heard from again. Having the most arrogant, self-centered, rich, and powerful people disappear sounds like nirvana to me, but Atlas Shrugged depicts it as a dystopia for society and a utopia for the strikers now free to be as great as they want to be, without a government continually ruining their lives.
In Atlas Shrugged Part III’s black-and-white world, anyone involved in collectivist pursuits is invariably evil, while every government- and regulation-hating businessman is, by definition, great and wonderful. The movie assumes that when we’re introduced to the head of the world’s biggest bank and the world’s top oilman, we’ll automatically revere these strikers as people whose existence makes the world a better place. The movie can’t even conceive of a world where people might look askance at powerful oil men or bankers when their innate rightness is clearly proven by their success.
But the motor of the world that Galt speaks of is also an actual goddamned motor, a magical engine harnessing the powers of static electricity that functions as a Deus Ex Machina that will solve all the crumbling world’s problems if Galt, who created it, decides to let an unworthy universe have access to his handiwork. But Galt isn’t about to do that. Instead, he and his fellow strikers establish a perfect utopia hidden from the outside world called Galt’s Gulch where special, superior people can lead special, superior lives now that they are no longer at the mercy of the government. The Gulch is supposed to be a utopia where children innocently strum acoustic guitars while their home-schooling mothers bake luscious croissants and everyone has the creepily upbeat countenance of Stepford Libertarians, pod people ecstatic to finally be liberated from any responsibility, but it feels more like a cult. Atlas Shrugged Part III acts as if everyone would be able to fly their magical space car to Mars, where they’ll have a giant mansion and live to be a million years old because all diseases have been cured, if only it wasn’t for government regulations cruelly crushing the magical car, Mars mansion, and disease-curing industries out of short-sighted spite.
In the previous two installments of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny has consistently illustrated her fierce beliefs in the ideals of Objectivism, as laid out by Rand and John Galt. Yet Part III consists largely of people trying to convince Dagny of the rightness of the ideals of Objectivism. It’s not enough for her to feel the siren song of unencumbered self-interest deep within her soul. Galt, who quickly emerges as her lover as well as her inspiration, collaborator, and hero, wants Dagny to utter a pledge that succinctly, inelegantly summarizes the core of Objectivism: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Everyone else in Galt’s Gulch has taken that pledge, and the filmmakers don’t seem to realize the absurdity of a philosophy that espouses radical freethinking, individualism, and ruthless self-interest, encouraging everyone to utter a pledge vowing that they will live by the exact same principles as all of the other radical free-thinkers in their midst.
Meanwhile, the world outside Galt’s Gulch has devolved into hell on earth due to an excess of unconscionable government regulation and monsters who say things like, “Every man on the globe has a right to share in the advantages created by technological progress,” “All for one, one for all,” and “For the public good!” The corrupt establishment is presented as tuxedoed, cigar-smoking fat cats who sit around a table and boorishly plot out how they will continue to stay in unearned power by willfully destroying society. It feels like the world’s longest, most heavy-handed commercial for the campaign of a failing political candidate. The geniuses of Galt Gulch are invariably bathed in a warm, angelic light and supported by rousing, heroic music on the score, like the candidates you’re not so subtly encouraged to support in campaign ads. The Objectivist’s nefarious adversaries in the collectivist community, meanwhile, are captured either in black-and-white freeze frames or in desaturated, colorless compositions, while ominous horror-movie music conveys the depth of their evil and scheming.
The movie builds toward a climactic moment when John Galt takes over the airwaves to deliver an epic monologue that doesn’t just outline the core principles of Objectivism; it articulates Rand’s entire philosophy, to an exhaustive and exhausting extent. In the book, this speech, which is at the center of Rand’s cult, stretches out for dozens and dozens of pages. Rand isn’t shy about using dialogue to nakedly make her philosophical points, but in this epic speech, she doesn’t even feel the need to shoe-horn her ideas into a narrative. Instead, she just gives Galt a soapbox and allows him to use it to speak for the author. This speech has understandably proved problematic to people trying to adapt Atlas Shrugged. Although the purest, most direct reflection of Rand’s ideas and values, the makers of Atlas Shrugged Part III reduce it to a series of bullet points hastily delivered with an eye toward getting on with the action. The fact that the endless speech at the center of the book was slashed to ribbons and reduced to its bare outlines undoubtedly would have enraged Rand herself. But I suspect she would have been apoplectic that her book was not adapted by people she deemed worthy of it, and her, but rather by people Rand would have derided as incompetents, people who are terrible at their jobs, who have contributed something to the world that is embarrassing and amateurish, stupid and shrill.
In their quest to honor their hero, the makers of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy made a film series that would embarrass her. The Atlas Shrugged movies are a testament to the strength and resilience of misplaced passion. The free market Rand deified coldly rejected the films, yet her followers soldiered on all the same, because even for the staunchly capitalist heroes of Atlas Shrugged, there are more important things than money. For the filmmakers, ideology clearly trumps all, yet it would be difficult to imagine a less-convincing argument for Rand’s philosophy than these films, with the possible exception of having your college-age nephew expound on Rand’s genius for hours at a time at Thanksgiving dinner. That would be unbearable, albeit only slightly moreso than this trilogy of the damned.
Failure, Fiasco, Or Secret Success: Fiasco