Jennifer Lopez leads Netflix’s science fiction A.I. epic featuring Simu Liu and Sterling K. Brown

Last Updated on May 28, 2024

PLOT: Atlas Shepherd, a brilliant but misanthropic data analyst with a deep distrust of artificial intelligence, joins a mission to capture a renegade robot with whom she shares a mysterious past. When plans go awry, her only hope of saving the future of humanity from AI is to trust it

REVIEW: Jennifer Lopez has been in five films over the last two years, and another, Unstoppable, is still on the way. After her acclaimed 2019 performance in Hustlers, Lopez has starred in two romantic comedies, two action films, and a bizarre music video-slash-biopic monstrosity linked to her latest album. Now, her second Netflix feature in as many years, Atlas, aims to be J.Lo’s Marvel-esque blockbuster but falls short in every conceivable way. Directed by San Andreas helmer Brad Peyton, Atlas is a special effects-laden foray into the most cliched science fiction genre offering I have seen in a long time. With what is supposed to be a timely tale about artificial intelligence, Atlas throws every trope from the last fifty years of scifi movies as it aims to be Netflix’s attempt at a summer tentpole picture. Underwhelming in every way, Atlas is a directionless and limp mess that wastes the talents of everyone involved.

Opening with a montage of news clips summarizing how the world reached the point it has, Atlas explains that humanity is at war with an A.I. android named Harlan (Simu Liu), who was created by Dr. Val Shepherd (Lana Parrilla), Atlas’ mother. After leaving our solar system and hiding for over a decade, Harlan sends an android named Casca Decius (Abraham Popoola) to Earth. General Jake Boothe (Mark Strong) enlists analyst Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez) to join a team led by Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown) to travel to the planet where Harlan is hiding and bring him to justice before he destroys the Earth. Atlas, who harbors a deep hatred for technology and AI, is reluctant to join the mission as Banks’ soldiers rely on mech-suits known as ARCs, which also require syncing the human and machine via a device worn around the ear. Sure enough, the mission is compromised, and Atlas is left alone on the hostile planet aboard an ARC with an A.I. known as Smith (Gregory James Cohan).

After thirty minutes of quick intro, the next hour of Atlas is spent forcing Jennifer Lopez to begrudgingly ally with Smith. Pulling every genre conceit ranging from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Enemy Mine, and even The Iron Giant, Atlas must learn to trust the machine in her suit even though she knows Harlan and his kind are the reason her mother is dead. Having Jennifer Lopez try to feel an emotional connection to a machine is challenging, and it is even more difficult for the audience as we spend almost the entire film with Lopez inside a mech suit, talking in a disembodied voice. The filmmakers try to make it cute by having Smith adopt characteristics of Atlas’ personality as they slowly sync, which means we hear a robot casually use profanity and begin to blend emotion with intelligence that feels more like Mr. Spock getting drunk than anything a machine would do. A few battle sequences are peppered in as Atlas shuffles through the getting-to-know-you stages to properly bond with Smith and take down Harlan and his army of androids.

Atlas review

If Atlas had been at least superficially invested in developing any of the characters aside from the main character, I could have invested in this story. Sterling K. Brown, Mark Strong, and Simu Liu collectively appear for all ten minutes of screen time each. With Simu Liu set to be the equivalent of a Terminator-esque nemesis, his screen time is limited to a few scenes with little dialogue, followed by a massive battle that pits Harlan against Atlas within her mechsuit. This fight sequence is meant to be the film’s centerpiece, but it looks so bad that it would never hold up on the big screen. Simu Liu looks like he is making virtually the same movements as he did in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, to the point I am not sure they didn’t just pull footage from the Marvel Studios film and use them here with some updated rendering. The wasted talent of all actors involved is made much worse by the ham-handed dialogue that never once feels like it would come out of the mouth of a human being.

Director Brad Peyton has worked with big-budget special effects projects before, mostly with Dwayne Johnson involved. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island made the silly CGI feel fun, while both San Andreas and Rampage took the destruction porn to new heights while still managing to create realistic tension. The entirety of Atlas looks to have been filmed on a green screen, with virtually nothing tangible. The mech suits are laughable compared to similar suits seen in James Cameron’s Avatar films, with the movements and mechanics paling compared to even the most mediocre video game cutscenes. The script by Leo Sardarian, along with rewrites by Aron Eli Coleite, rushes to establish the rules of this near-future society and yet still feels the need to put a title card on the screen stating the action is taking place in Los Angeles despite the massive Hollywood sign in the middle of the frame. The entirety of Atlas features dialogue as superficial as this, including an emotional question meant to resonate with the audience regarding whether Atlas prefers cake or pie.

Atlas delivered a solid teaser trailer that intrigued me enough to check out the movie, but I have not been this disappointed by a feature film in a long time. I should learn to keep my Netflix expectations very low, but having enjoyed Brad Peyton’s work in the past and assuming the cast could pull this one off, I was foolish in thinking this would be anything more than another filler effort. The production values look good but the subpar CGI offsets any positives this movie has. Jennifer Lopez has two brief scenes that almost rescue her performance, but they cannot overcome the ChatGPT caliber dialogue spouted in this two-hour exercise in boredom. I never thought I would see a day when a movie featuring robots battling mech suits would be boring, but Atlas has sadly proven me wrong.


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