11 February, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1: The Wrath of Khan

This is going to be a disaster. Much like the Watchmen movie, this seems to have been made by people obsessively-nerdy enough about the source material to get every little detail right, right down to large chunks of dialogue. And, much like the Watchmen movie, it's just not possible to get it right.

As I was waiting for the video to load, I asked myself what the best way to approach an Atlas Shrugged movie would be. This was before I made the Watchmen connection, but I thought the best way would be to keep the plot. Don't explain the thinking behind the story, just take them and as much of the plot as you can dramatize, change everything else.

Other than the twist ending - which I'll admit was a clever change - Watchmen was a lurid pulp-inspired degradation of the graphic novel's brilliance. It was now possible to recreate the comic shot for shot, but as Mark Twain would say, you have the notes but not the music. I don't think the movie bombed (certainly not as badly as Frank Miller's The Spirit, which I've never seen), but that is how it's seen in hindsight.

Atlas Shrugged is in a similar category, with even more connections to pulp fiction and lurid materials. The dialogue alone would make it almost entirely unfilmable, and with so much of the story happening in narration, the whole idea looks pointless.

That's what I mean about taking the plot and doing something else with it. It still builds up to Galt's speech and all the reasons he has for making it, but most of his words would have to be scrapped. Hell, in the original book, he made the speech on RADIO.

With the digital revolution in filmmaking, it's much easier to make a personal vision in movies, although it comes at the expense of real styles. There's a mind-numbing similarity to digital effects - the slo-mo shot is the one that annoys me the most - and the coloring and special effects that can be made by having actors standing in front of green screens. It's why Hollywood has finally been able to film things that for so long were impossible. The Star Wars prequels, Watchmen, the Frank Miller oeuvre, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter: The Franchise, and now Atlas. It takes far fewer people and smaller operations to file actors into a room with a green screen, film them doing their stuff and making the rest on a computer.

Visually, it looks like it could be interesting, although I admit I've never given much thought to what the characters would look like. Rand's writing style was sufficiently intrusive to ward off those thoughts, for me anyway. It's not that English was a second language to her, Tolstoy wrote in Russian and the translations of his writing are majestic and eloquent. Nah, it's just Rand.

I tend to prefer her two earlier books, The Fountainhead and We, The Living, which are each more readable and less overbearing with the philosophy. People talk much more like actual people, and have more complicated personalities - bad people doing good things, good people doing bad things - and they're shorter, which makes the plots work even better. And she did nail the plots, which in all three books are tightly-wound interweaving threads that dramatize whatever ideas she's conveying and build naturally to strong endings.

I don't know if this movie will be a bomb. Someone's obviously invested in a trilogy. If the box office take isn't there to release the sequel, my guess is the three parts (most if not all of which are probably filmed by now) will be put together on the DVD, just to hit those who did like it, or are at least willing to give the whole thing a shot.

As far as I know the other adaptations of her books remain mostly of interest to die-hard fans other than myself. She wrote the screenplay herself - awww, all by her lonesome - for The Fountainhead, which starred Gary Cooper at was a decent hit of the day. It's not a bad movie, but I tend to doubt it would appeal to anybody except Rand fans, Cooper fans or general fans of 1940's office dramas, which probably doesn't include too many people who weren't around for the 1940's. We, The Living, The Movie was, amusingly enough, produced by Fascist Italy because they thought it was a movie about how awful communism was. The Nazis, being more careful about copyright theft and understanding the book a little better, told them to suppress it. I have no idea if Rand knew about the movie at the time, but years after the war someone gave her the film itself, and reportedly liked it.

The Incredibles has often been called a movie about Objectivism/libertarianism, and I might agree with that, kind of. I'm a huge fan of the movie, but I think many of these criticisms miss the point that unlike every other movie I've referred to in this post (except Star Wars) The Incredibles were created to be a film first and foremost. The characters were meant to move and do things for a constantly-moving camera, and the story was what got them to do it.

The plot was certainly of a high quality. With the exception of the Mirage subplot, everything was flawlessly incorporated from beginning to end. Yes, the characters are incredibly (!) similar to the Fantastic Four, but every scene shows extensive work to make them original characters. It's not that easy to just come up with a whole new archtype.

[Literally. I once did a comic serial starring a quartet of superheroes, and spent many hours designing each character and the group as a whole so they would not be FF rip-offs. None of that work shows up on the page. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Anybody would read the story and assume I ripped off the FF. A lot of that time was spent trying to add or drop a member, and three or five characters just weren't workable. Four worked.]

The FF were never intended to work as a family sitcom the way the Parrs do. Their superpowers aren't such blatant extensions of their personalities and roles in the family. The Incredibles had to be able to function in all of those areas and make it work.

Which they did. One thing that's amazing is how much story there really is. There's only the one scene at dinner that really sets up the family dynamic until the second act is almost done, and then it's an awesome ride through the climax. Frozone only makes a few brief appearances in the beginning and then is off-screen until the big fight at the end, but he's one of the main characters. There's just brief character bits or interludes in a montage that sum up the Parrs' home life, but it's a rich and varied tapestry amidst everything else that's going on.

As an example, look at Dash's interest in sports, which gets mentioned in virtually every one of those character bits. He's gotten in trouble at school for putting a tack on the teacher's chair in class, but even the videotape doesn't show him. Bob is thrilled, "they got you on tape and you still got away with it? Wow, how fast do you think you were going?" Dash can barely be seen in this shot, but just look at him start bouncing with glee when he finds out Dad's impressed. Bob and Helen argue about it that night. Later on, in the montage, father and son go out to throw and catch the football, over several miles. This is a skill that comes in handy in the big fight when they've got the Omnidroid's control mechanism. "Dash, go long!" And of course the final scene is Dash at the track meet. That's a sit-com plot, but fits in seamlessly with the superheroics, and the social commentary.

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