The sex scene almost makes it worth sitting through Atlas Shrugged III, the last and least of the cheapjack adaptations of Ayn Rand's brick-thick celebration of taking your ball and going home. About an hour in, after she's toured and left the hidden Colorado enclave of the captains of industry who have “gone Galt” and dropped out of our ungrateful society, heroine Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) faces one of the great train-scheduling crises that are forever cocking up life in Rand's retro-future choo-choo America.
The pre-coital drama plays like a story problem from homeschool math class: Facing a food shortage, the useless East Coast needs trains full of grain from the heartland, but the corrupt federal government has nationalized the railroads. (Thanks, N0bummer!) Meanwhile, a signal failure cripples train service throughout the famed Taggart Terminal, and only Taggart Transcontinental Chief Operating Officer Dagny has the smarts/gumption to straighten the situation out. How to get the trains through? Displaying the sort of genius that the gifted too often allow their lessers to benefit from, Dagny dispatches workers bearing lanterns to signal to oncoming trains, an idea that apparently could have occurred to no other living person.
One of the workers, the sexy un-impoverished-looking one, catches her eye. It's John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), the Harlequin Romance hunk who runs that VIP colony in the Rockies and has also invented a magic energy source that he won't share with the world because he hates minimum-wage laws. He's flirted with Dagny before, back in the log-homes and farmers' markets of his free-market paradise, but only now do they admit their attraction. They sneak off together, bodies a-throb with the excitement of transportation-system management, and the movie is briefly wonderful. After some 30 seconds of close-ups of backs and bras and lips, Atlas Shrugs III cuts from the coupling to the funniest thing that it possibly could: one of those lantern-bearing signalmen actually guiding a train into a tunnel.
That had to be intentionally hilarious, right?
Since it's a PG-13, the sex is vague and quick, leaving vital questions unanswered. For all we know, he might have gone Galt all over her dress. Here's how Conservapedia, the right-wing wiki hive-mind, describes the scene in the book: “She rushes to an abandoned tunnel. Galt follows, and the two of them finally come together.” Well, then.
Rand's parable is meant to showcase just how much our world needs the best of us, but this adaptation only does so accidentally — by revealing what movies would be like if none of the best of us worked on them. Key scenes feel hustled through, the plotting (which sometimes is updated for today and sometimes is not) vague and confounding. Fake newscast footage of America's vague calamities — pirate attacks! copper shortage! train delays! — sounds like it's narrated by an intern. And the world is never convincing: Why are there redwoods in John Galt's Rocky Mountain hideaway? Why does this America not seem to have highways or trucking? And where is everybody? The streets are empty, and in the absurd ending, Dagny and a squad of lovable billionaires bust into a secret compound to save Galt from torture ordered by the president of the United States — and only face one security guard.
Other questions: Why is Galt posed like a crucified Christ in a movie based on a book by the right's most beloved atheist? Why haven't the filmmakers updated the train politics for an audience who, mostly, consider public transportation an affront to American sovereignty? And why can't any two Atlas Shrugged films have the same leading actors? Was the last cast so moved by the material that they've gone Galt themselves?
The movie's so slipshod and half-assed that I almost feel for Rand, whose ideas have proved enduring enough that they at least deserve a fair representation, if only for the sake of refutation. Here those ideas are presented without force or clarity. The films reflect neither the '50s America that Rand lived in and wrote about, the Soviet Union that she fled, nor any comprehensible political now. Early on, a doctor explains that he's joined Galt's Colorado do-nothings because the feds had started telling him what treatments he should and shouldn't give. That moment was greeted with hisses by a couple Obama-haters at the screening I attended. But not even Dinesh D'Souza fans could link the current administration to the events of the final reels, when Galt winds up on the business end of a taxpayer-funded torture device. (It looks like a wire bedframe attached to a Fisher-Price Busy Box.) The quick glimpses of Galt lashed to it, screaming as sparks rain down on him, might have come from the recent documentary Kink, about San Francisco s&m porn–factory Kink.com — if Kink dropped its production values.
The film's just the barest gist of Rand, a glib Left Behind fantasy about starting new, exclusive suburbs with cool gold money. (The economic supermen, after bowing out of life, are going to do their own farming?) Galt's epic speech to America, which takes about three hours to read in the book, gets five or so minutes of screentime and is the most effective scene in all three films. All that's a shame, as the ideal dramatized in Atlas Shrugged — that, for the gifted, contributing to the greater welfare is a choice rather than an obligation — actually has transformed American life. How else to justify offshore accounting, overseas manufacturing, the abandonment of infrastructure spending? Those who can have already gone Galt...but found a way to stick around and savor the spoils. We'd be better off if they actually just left.