Jennifer Lopez in Atlas (2024)

‘Atlas’ movie review: Jennifer Lopez carries Netflix’s AI sci-fi, but the script is dead weight

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Artificial Intelligence is out to nuke the world, but not if a (checks notes) data analyst has anything to say about it in Atlas, now streaming on Netflix worldwide. This should be both topical and fun, and star Jennifer Lopez and director Brad Peyton (San Andreas, Rampage) initially seem up to the task. But they fail to shoulder the burden of an incredibly dull and shockingly unimaginative script.

Atlas opens in an unspecified future where interstellar travel is now possible, and the Los Angeles skyline has a few new skyscrapers, including Prague’s TV Tower. Three decades back, an artificial being named Harlan (a robotically over-the-top Simu Liu) became sentient and attempted to wipe out humanity, killing three million people before taking it on the lam across the galaxy, Roy Batty-style.

Lopez is the titular Atlas Shepherd, who has a special connection to Harlan: she’s his sister! Yes, mom (Lana Parrilla) “invented” Harlan before he went genocidal, and so Atlas now bears her burden, hunting the robot across the universe. In an early scene, she finally locates him after tricking AI associate Casca Decius (Abraham Popoola) into giving up the intel using this one simple trick all robots and 9-year-old children hate.

Harlan is hiding out in the Andromeda Galaxy, just a short 2.5 million light year ride away from Earth. So here’s the plan, formulated by stodgy General Jake Boothe (Mark Strong) and gung-ho Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown): fly a planet-destroying nuclear payload to Harlan’s hideout… but only as Plan B. Instead, capture Harlan alive for, uh, reasons. Nevermind that by the time you need to employ Plan B, Harlan will have his hands on a nuclear payload capable of destroying Earth.

We have questions. It’s established in the early scenes with Casca that you cannot “kill” AI. You can kill their physical form, but not the intelligence that forever lives on a cloud. And even the physical form can be easily replicated. So what’s the point of the mission? Isn’t the threat AI sentience itself, and not the physical Simu Liu robot?

Anyway, Atlas herself, the Jack Ryan in this sci-fi Clancyverse, joins the mission as the world’s foremost Harlan expert. Despite a deep mistrust of AI, she soon discovers that her only chance of survival will be to bond with an AI operating system named Smith (voiced by Gregory James Cohan) that operates her giant mech suit.

Helpfully, this AI bond between Atlas and Smith is displayed for the audience in a LED bar that slowly rises during the course of the movie, reaching the crucial 100 percent when Atlas opens up via climactic expository dialogue. Even though, we assume, the AI can read her mind at all times. What’s the point of the neural link if she needs to tell Smith everything verbally?

Atlas is at its modest best during scenes with Lopez alone in the mech, slowly forming a bond with the artificial intelligence. Smith asks her whether she likes pie or cake, and harvests an alien flower for her. Awww. Nevermind that the last AI system she bonded with ended up killing millions of people. They must have patched the genocide bug with this latest update.

There is some fun to be had in a big, schlocky would-be sci-fi epic like this, but Atlas takes itself way too seriously with big teary-eyed speeches and emotional swells on the soundtrack. Lopez is more than capable of carrying something like this, but she doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie she’s in; one could imagine frequent Peyton collaborator Dwayne Johnson bringing the right kind of self-awareness to the role.

Atlas looks mostly great, with a certain car commercial slickness, though even the high production values seem to abandon the film as it climaxes in a hopelessly pedestrian, nondescript warehouse on this strange new alien world. Netflix spent an alleged $100 million on this movie, but by the finale, it might as well be Cosmic Sin.

Worst of all, Atlas fails to capitalize on the topical subject matter that supposedly drives its narrative. AI can be both bad and good, it seems to be saying, as it argues for acceptance of the technology. Of course, when the bad is the deaths of millions and the good is the preservation of a flower and a friendly how-do-you-do, we wonder if JLo isn’t too hasty in learning to stop worrying and love the algorithm.

Atlas

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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