I'm rooting for this trilogy (yes, trilogy -- this one ends with a digitally fiery cliffhanger, ginning up mania for its eventual third helping). And I'm not kidding. This isn't ironic. I like bold ideas in films. I like whatever the opposite of bland is, regardless of its socio-political or religious affiliation. I bought my ticket for An American Carol enthusiastically and was sad when it was terrible and unfunny. I drove an hour just to see the first Left Behind movie because it didn't open theatrically in godless Los Angeles. Last week, when the 2016: Obama's America promotional DVD magically appeared in my mailbox, my heart did the Snoopy Dance. Obviously, if you read these reviews regularly then you know I'm as lefty as they get, but when it comes to movies I'm pro-interesting stuff and anti-boring stuff. And who's more fascinating and mysteriously strange than Ayn Rand? When other writers of her time were running in straight lines, she serpentined, turning manifestoes into crazily over-written 10-pound novels full of characters telling off the entire world every chance they got. You can't not love that.
But rooting for this trilogy isn't the same as being satisfied with the kind of cheapo cinematic treatment it's getting. The first installment looked like it was filmed inside an abandoned shopping mall where they turned the old Things Remembered store into one generic board room set after another, with a working budget of approximately thirty-five cents and some Subway coupons for craft service. You're supposed to stand in awe of this story of free-thinking titans and their monumental achievements that might just save the world from chaos and soft-brained, soft-spined altruism; you're not supposed to want to pat it on the head and say, "That's okay, I know you tried." But that's how it turned out.
Good news, then: this one's better. Sleeker production design. Less horrible digital effects (although, admittedly, they're still laugh-getting). More money on the screen. And if this isn't a movie about money then neither is Wall Street or Magic Mike. Weirder good news: an entirely new cast, kind of like when soap stars need hip surgery and somebody you've never seen in your life replaces them for a week or more. So I hope you've read the book or at least kept up with all their names from the first movie, because if not then you're sunk. Facial recognition will not save you. Samantha Mathis is the boldly iconoclastic Dagny Taggart this time out, taking over for Taylor Schilling, and she appears a little off-balance throughout, a permanently hopeless grimace meant to indicate strength of character but that registers mostly as gastric discomfort. It's okay, though, because everyone is failing Dagny and you feel for her having to do the job of a million incompetents and saboteurs. You'd have a stomachache, too.
The world is sliding into economic chaos and only Dagny and her flailing railroad company can rescue America from ruin, but the government is in the way, forcing redistribution of wealth and nationalizing all industry. The question that hovered over ASP1, "Who is Jon Galt?" becomes a kind of irritating "Where's the Beef?" mantra to Dagny. She wishes nobody had ever invented the question, whatever it means. Meanwhile, the great minds of her generation keep disappearing, vanishing into a kind of Cabin in the Woods-style ultra-dimension of brains and achievement, one we won't really get to see much of until next time.
To right this wrong, people make speeches. Boy, do they make speeches, mostly about how great they are and what parasites everybody around them is. Which is fine, but still sort of dull. You want to be shown a whole lot more and told a whole lot less. But there's still time to pull it out, still time to turn in an Objectivist Inception, a big-budget blow-out of infallible proof that Rand was right all along, a spectacle of uber-men and over-lordesses, training the planet in the way it should go. This could happen if we all wish hard enough and the producers dig up a little more scratch. So come on movie, we're all counting on you. Do it. For the common good.