Let’s consider today’s exercise a companion piece to my colleague’s excellent Dare to Play the Game column. That’s by way of saying to that I’m going to risk slightly poaching on his turf by considering a tangentially game-related topic.
I’m probably not going too far out on a limb to assume that just about anyone with access to an Xbox 360 or a sufficiently powerful PC played Bioshock at some point in the last year. Among its many qualities, Bioshock is one of the best-written games to have come down the pike, and one of its not-inconsiderable delights is the dialogue it engages with the ideas of Ayn Rand. Specifically, it is her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged that provides most of the game’s philosophical fodder. Anyone with the time to slog through the book’s utterly lunatic thousand-plus pages will surely find their appreciation of the game increased (and this is one of those rare cases where the writing, characterization and ideas of a game are consistently better than the work of literature it is bouncing off). And the book is so insane that is has an absolutely compulsive, Biggest Train Wreck Ever appeal. But let’s pretend you don’t have that much of your life to give up to an experience that can best be described as the philosophical equivalent of high camp. There is a more time-efficient alternative.
No film version has yet been made of Atlas Shrugged, despite numerous attempts (and there is an adaptation supposed to appear this year, scripted by Randall Wallace, who, as the man who gave us such unsubtle pieces as Braveheart, We Were Soldiers and Pearl Harbor, seems eminently suited to the job). But there is a version of Rand’s earlier novel, The Fountainhead. Bioshock’s specific allusions may be more to the other book, but both novels cover the same ideological ground (over and over and over and over again), and with Rand having written the screenplay of The Fountainhead (and having ensured that it would arrive on-screen as written), this is a pretty authentic experience.
This is the tale of the completely uncompromising architect Howard Roark, who would rather starve or dynamite buildings than see his vision be corrupted. Gary Cooper plays Roark, and opposite him is a superb Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon. Both characters are typical Randian extremes, and to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged: he is the Unstoppable Alpha Male (at whose feet Rand worships) and she is the Powerful Woman Who Really, Really, Really Wants to Be Dominated by the Unstoppable Alpha Male (and thus is the incarnation of Rand’s spookily obsessive rape fantasies). Their relationship is pretty incendiary stuff for 1948, and they are so far beyond being simply bigger than life that the term loses all meaning in their presence. The same is true of just about every aspect of the film: absolutely every emotions is staged on a gigantic, absolutist scale, and every character who is not in inhuman paragon of virtue is an equally inhuman picture of snivelling weakness and deception. The film was directed by King Vidor, and he does a fine job (the 112 minutes are consumed by the script’s energy), but one can’t help but feel that Leni Riefenstahl would have been an even better choice for taking Rand’s colossal lunacy and making it flesh.
So the film is enormously entertaining in an of itself, guaranteed to leave your jaw hanging. But watch it in conjunction with playing Bioshock, and you’ll sink even deeper into Rapture.