‘Atlas’ Director Brad Peyton Didn’t Want to Say ‘AI Is All Bad’ in Jennifer Lopez Netflix Movie

“I wanted to do something that is completely unique,” the filmmaker tells TheWrap of his sci-fi extravaganza


When filmmaker Brad Peyton got the initial script for “Atlas,” his sci-fi epic starring Jennifer Lopez as a scientist marooned on an alien planet hunting for an evil AI terrorist (you know, that old chestnut), it was far removed from what will start streaming on Netflix this weekend.

“I would say the similarities are, there was a woman trapped inside of a mech suit on an alien planet,” Peyton told TheWrap. He was approached about the project five years ago and has been working on “the version of this I want to deliver” for the past two years. “There was a very emotional story there with her having lost part of her family to AI. That was there. How that story was told, was very different.”

One of the things Peyton added was flashbacks, even though the director admited, “I really don’t love flashbacks that don’t feel earned.” He came up with an ingenious workaround – when Lopez’s character Atlas has to function inside her robotic suit, there is a neural transmission between pilot and suit. That means that the AI in the suit, named Smith after the character from “The Matrix” (and voiced amiably by Gregory James Cohan), has access to Atlas’ innermost thoughts.

“What I loved about the device I had of an AI linked to her [was] digging into her mind and her memories, completely out of the altruistic I want to connect with you, I want to support you, but then uncovering trauma,” Peyton said. “The character doesn’t even want to have that conversation with herself. She doesn’t want to visit those memories on her own. That wasn’t in the initial screenplay. And that was one of the things we spent a lot of time developing.”

The filmmaker noted that other elements, such as the villainous Casca (Abraham Popoola) or Simu Liu’s robotic terrorist Harlan, also weren’t in the first script. Peyton said the original plot was “more of a survival story on a planet.” That element was enjoyable, but a “consistent component” of the early script, and the thing that drew him to “Atlas,” was that it was “a movie about trust.”

“For me, I’m trying to give you a human experience, a fun ride of an experience, but also something that you can relate to, and that there’s real heart to,” Peyton said. He also said he’s “not trying to make movies that are just for dudes, basically.” It might be worth pointing out that two of his earlier movies are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson disaster movies – “San Andreas” and the video game-based “Rampage.” With “Atlas,” Peyton said, “I want to connect with people, I want a human experience. To me, all of our meaningful relationships in life are built off respect and trust. Respect seems like something you can earn easier than trust.”

When he got the screenplay for “Atlas,” he said he related to a person that thought, Oh, I don’t think I can trust these people. It seemed something, to him, that was “very universal.” The idea of going through something and being unable to move forward was something that he “latched onto.” “That was the component of the screenplay that fed the emotion for me. And then seeing someone take a really traumatic negative experience, and then persevere through this. And I’m not talking about the physical, I’m talking about the emotional part of this, persevere and then take a negative thing, and then turn it into a positive by the end, that was something that I also really responded to,” Peyton said.

He was making “Atlas” during “a really weird societal inflection point, where everything is so polar.” He didn’t want to contribute to the cultural negativity. “This movie represents this idea of you’ve gone through this really negative experience. It’s challenging and hard, but you push past that, you can work through it, and then turn that into something positive,” Peyton said. “And I thought, That’s something that’s really important that I think we could use today because I don’t want to be part of a negative conversation.”

And, yes, that conversation includes the way that Peyton thought about artificial intelligence. “I didn’t want to say AI is all bad. It’s not the truth. The truth is AI is a tool like any other tool, and it can be good or bad,” he explained. “It’s about the people being responsible who use it.”

When making “Atlas,” Peyton looked to another Canadian filmmaker – James Cameron. Peyton grew up in Northern Canada, on the island of Newfoundland. Just 9,000 people live there. And when Peyton was 13, he saw “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” He went to Subway. He got a cup with the Terminator on it. He soon realized the man who made it was also from Canada. And not only that – he made the first “Terminator” and “Aliens.”

“As someone who loves cinema, the idea that this guy could have gone from rural Canada to Hollywood and made these movies that I am going to see multiple times in the cinema, that affected me,” Peyton shared. For “Atlas,” he specifically was looking at “Aliens.” But another movie that had an impact was Stuart Gordon’s “Robot Jox,” a 1990 cult favorite that Gordon made for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. Peyton remembered being dazzled by the box art at the local gas station video store (the tagline: “The ultimate killing machine. Part man. Part metal.”) “’Robot Jox’ just sat in my brain like this little seed was planted,” Peyton said. “It was weird, because I would think about that movie randomly.” And then, one day, he would make his own rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot adventure.

“I draw from my childhood a lot, because that’s where the inspiration grows,” Peyton said. “The pure inspiration, not the technical, just the thing that makes you excited to go to the movies or excited to make a movie.”

In terms of designing the world of “Atlas,” he recalled being struck by the trailer for “Return of the Jedi” – “it blew me away that there was desert and forests and space and inside the Death Star” – and wanting to bring that to his movie. “I went into the studio and they said, ‘Well, what is the alien planet going to look like?’ And I was like, ‘It’s going to look like everything you can imagine,’” Peyton said. He followed through; there are a ton of different environments Atlas and her AI pal Smith traverse. This is a long way from most science fiction movies, where there’s an ice planet or one where it rains all the time. “I’m like, ‘We don’t have to do that here. We actually should do the opposite of that. We should show her traverse all these ecosystems,’” Peyton noted. It also had the bonus of mirroring her emotional journey – look how far she’s come, physically, but also look at how far she’s come within herself.

Speaking of, Lopez spends most of the movie inside the robotic suit. For a movie that reportedly cost $100 million, is festooned with visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic and is playing to a worldwide audience of nearly 300 million potential viewers, it is surprisingly intimate. And this was another reason Peyton wanted to make “Atlas.”

“I wanted to do something that is completely unique,” Peyton said. He and his producing partner have come up with a term for these type of projects – fog cutters. “We want to work on things that cut through the clutter,” Peyton said. “This movie offered me that. I was like, ‘I couldn’t imagine seeing this movie before.’” But he was soon faced with a question that he had to ask himself: “How the hell do we film this?”

Since so much of the movie is a dialogue between Lopez and a mostly unseen AI (he does appear as a little squiggly ball, kind of like Clippy from Microsoft Office), they had Lopez on a “giant gimbal that’s programmed to walk, run, fall, tumble, all of these things,” Peyton said. “One of the things I pride myself on is that, as a filmmaker, I try to tailor my approach to the cast. I look at my job as to help pull the best out of them.” With Lopez, he found that she was “super intuitive,” saying, “What that means is you need to allow them space and freedom to explore.”

When Lopez got in the mech suit, his approach to shooting her “completely changed.” He abandoned tradition, instead choosing angles and camera placement based on “important moments” for each scene. “I didn’t care about eyelines, I didn’t care about direction, I went, OK, these four cameras are going to capture this scene. Then we rehearsed the scene. Then I would just let it go live. And she could look wherever she wanted to look,” Peyton recounted.

The director would rarely take down cameras or reposition existing ones, he would just shoot the scenes with those four cameras. “It allowed her to lose herself inside the scenes,” Peyton said. Also key: Cohan, the voice of Smith, was on set. Those conversations they are having were actually playing out in real time. Instead of complicated blocking, Peyton would give direction to Cohan live: “Why don’t you take a pause here?” or “When she asked that question, don’t answer for five seconds. It’s going to get weird. Let’s see what she does.” The results are on the screen.

“What I was doing was building a device that I felt was supporting her the best. And I also want to say her history as a performer, a singer, a dancer, like this sort of living legend, icon, personality. It lent itself to this because she’s used to going on stage, and it’s about her performing,” Peyton praised. “Certain actors would not wish this upon their worst enemies. She very quickly became super comfortable with it, it actually became a happy place for her because she just had to talk to me and Greg. There’s no eyelines, there’s no traditional like, now we’re going to turn around. I would shoot her performance, we would get the scene and I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll shoot the inserts later. Don’t worry about that, next scene.’ And that’s how we shot everything.”

Ultimately, both Lopez and Peyton got what they wanted out of the experience. “I’m so proud of the performance she gave, because it’s raw, it’s invested. It’s nuanced. It’s very dynamic, it goes all over the place,” he said. Let’s see AI do that.

“Atlas” premieres May 24 on Netflix.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.