Alright, so one of these I saw over a month ago, which means that I’m a little fuzzy on details now, and the other I watched just last night. Given the subject nature of the two movies, I thought maybe I should do separate posts for them, but then it occurred to me that they’d make a great thematic pairing because they mirror each other in interesting ways.
So, for anyone who may not know, there’s a group of indie filmmakers who specialize in making movies about tabletop gaming, and they managed to acquire the rights to adapt Jack Chick’s infamous anti-roleplaying tract, Dark Dungeons, into a feature film. Apparently this deal was struck on the condition that the producers treat the subject matter with complete sincerity and play the drama of the story totally straight. This might be disappointing in theory, but anyone who’s read the original tract knows there’s plenty of bonkers stuff going on that doesn’t require any embellishment to be totally hilarious.
Contrast that with the ongoing saga of the Atlas Shrugged film adaptation. I’ve never read the book (it’s ginormous, pretentious, and poorly plotted from what I’ve heard), but I think it’s pretty safe to say that everyone knows it’s the libertarian’s wet dream with a dystopian vision of the near future that involves the government (ostensibly the American one, but the conflict always seems to be framed on a global scale) forcing all businesspeople to do business with everyone without discriminating, and the great visionaries of the world getting fed up with these intrusions on their greatness and calling it quits, which leaves the rest of the helpless moochers stuck in a death spiral from which they can never recover (as Doug the dog puts it in Up, “It is funny because the squirrel [everyone who disagrees with me] gets dead”). This adaptation is produced by true believers (ironically, they’ve been doggedly producing this trilogy of movies for years now, despite the fact that they never perform well in the open market, and they’ve been unable to maintain any continuity in casting through three films that are supposed to tell one unified story) who want their actors to play everything totally straight (I don’t know if there are any Randians among the casts of each movie, but I prefer to think that they’re just working actors trying to earn a paycheck).
One of these is funny because everyone who made the movie is in on the joke; the other is funny for exactly the opposite reason.
What strikes me about the nature of these two movies is that they’re ideological in nature, and their ideologies bleed over into really strange portrayals of members of the outgroups being derided. Dark Dungeons tells a story about a group of tabletop RPG players who, bizarrely enough, have huge raves prior to getting down to the serious business of playing D&D in their living room (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to any game nights where there was a prerequisite rave before we started the session). It’s supposed to be representative of how evil and debauched they are, but it just comes across as ridiculous and unrealistic. In the same vein, Atlas Shrugged shows all the big government types as these snide jerks who are secretly plotting to upend the world order by enforcing a law that requires businesses to sell their goods to all comers (I think this is a dig at nondiscrimination laws, but that’s pretty strange given that the biggest discrimination problem lately is in relation to LGBT people, and Randians should ostensibly have no issue with a person’s sexuality, especially however it might relate to doing business) and ultimately instate pseudo-socialism where all labor mobility is frozen so that people can’t change jobs or receive pay increases (no, I don’t know how this relates to actual socialism, or how this plan is supposed to fix an economic crisis). Essentially, everything about the villains in these films is parody, but the tone of the movies dictates whether or not it’s bad. Dark Dungeons, because it’s telling its story with tongue firmly in cheek, engages in a fun sort of parody that the audience can laugh with because we know that the crew knows their being absurd. With Atlas Shrugged we can’t do that, because there’s no indication that anyone is aware of how unrealistic these “socialist” villains are (that doesn’t stop it from being funny, but for very different reasons).
In the end, I think that both movies are worth watching (Dark Dungeons might be of slightly less interest simply because it’s targeted at a very particular audience, though it’s still good parody in general). In the case of Atlas Shrugged, it’s only worth watching because of how spectacularly it misrepresents a group it’s supposed to be criticizing; it’s still a rather mean-spirited film, and as a piece of storytelling it just seems to lack any kind of joy in its narrative. Dark Dungeons is just pure fun.