‘Atlas’ Review: Jennifer Lopez Stars in Artificial, Unintelligent Sci-Fi Thriller

Brad Peyton’s middling mech suit-‘em-up for Netflix costars Sterling K. Brown and Simu Liu

Jennifer Lopez in "Atlas" (Netflix)
Jennifer Lopez in "Atlas" (Netflix)

Hidden somewhere beneath all the generic dialogue, embarrassing plot, mediocre action and oddly ineffective performances, there’s a good idea in Brad Peyton’s “Atlas.” It’s a shame the filmmakers never found it.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Atlas Shepherd, and Atlas really hates AI. Not for the reasons we all do today of course, but because in the future an artificially intelligent robot named Harlan (Simu Liu) killed her mother, led an android uprising that murdered millions of people and then fled to outer space. Atlas spends her whole life searching for Harlan even though she doesn’t seem to have ever left Earth and he obviously isn’t there. But at the start of the film, she’s finally learned Harlan’s location from one of his captured lieutenants, Casca (Abraham Popoola, “Cruella”).

The mission to apprehend Harlan is led by Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), who leads a team of space rangers who synchronize their brains to the AI in their mechanized battle suits, creating a hybrid identity. When the mission immediately falls apart — because yes, obviously this was all a trap — Atlas finds herself stranded on an alien planet in one of those mech suits. She’s unable to survive unless she synchs up with her AI, named Smith (Gregory James Cohan, “The VelociPastor”), but she refuses to do that because dang it, she just really hates AI.

In “Atlas,” you’ll find a hodgepodge of extremely obvious influences, not the least of which is “Aliens,” since both films are about women who hate AI and come to respect an artificial intelligence — except this time, the Lance Henriksen character is also the Power Loader. It’s also a bit like Wolfgang Peterson’s “Enemy Mine,” if Dennis Quaid spent the whole film inside Louis Gossett Jr.’s body (which is admittedly one heck of an elevator pitch). You’ll find globules of “Blade Runner,” “Avatar” and even “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s not subtle about its pop culture origins.

What you won’t find is a film that takes advantage of its own unique ideas. “Atlas” is inherently a story about transhumanism, in which a person refuses to evolve into a higher state of consciousness through technology. When Atlas finally gives in and merges with Smith, she marvels at how the computer screens are now floating in the air in front of her — something the movie already established those computer screens do anyway — and that’s about it. Essentially, she’s capable of kicking slightly more ass. The possibilities could have been endless, but instead they are restricted almost exclusively to the possibilities we’ve all seen before.

Atlas
Netflix

If only its regurgitations were thrilling. “Atlas” undermines even its simplest aspirations at nearly every turn. Most of the film takes place on an alien planet, as our hero walks to an escape pod nearly 100 kilometers away, but aside from a couple of glowing plants and the occasional weird rock formation, it looks suspiciously like Atlas is trudging through Northern California. Even Harlan’s sci-fi supervillain lair seems to have been modeled after an abandoned warehouse. So
it’s not an exhilarating sightseeing tour. Old micro-budget episodes of “Doctor Who” had more visual wonders.

Atlas also has less than 24 hours to reach her destination before Smith’s fusion core depletes, and hey, just about any story is more exciting with a ticking clock. Except in this story, there’s an extended sequence where Atlas and Smith scavenge through a bunch of fallen mech suits to collect the dead rangers’ dog tags and it doesn’t occur to either of them to pick up a replacement battery or get a jumpstart. It’s like a scene in a slasher movie where the victim walks into a room full of machine guns and leaves without even acknowledging their presence. It’s hard to care about a hero’s continued existence when they can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum to stay alive.

And then of course there’s Harlan, a staggeringly dull villain. Don’t blame the winsome Simu Liu: He doesn’t have any dialogue that isn’t about the plot and his plot doesn’t work. Atlas spends the whole film telling everyone that Harlan is a diabolical genius playing fourth-dimensional chess, and then his whole scheme amounts to hackneyed b-movie clichés. Even if you accept that our heroes are so impressively incompetent that they can’t see an obvious trap from literal light years away, you also have to accept that the smartest sentient being in this galaxy would leave his enemies to die slowly in an unguarded room with lots of useful tools that could completely undermine his plans. And that’s just not acceptable. Even Batman villains don’t make that mistake anymore.

Jennifer Lopez is one hell of an entertainer across multiple mediums, and she’s been a great actor on more than one occasion. But the star of “Out of Sight” and “Hustlers” is disappointingly one-note in “Atlas.” She spends the first chunk of the movie looking like she only had one direction, and that direction was “look upset.” She doesn’t get much more depth from there. Atlas is such a haphazardly written protagonist that she spends the entire movie ordering quadruple Americanos without sugar, and then at the end she claims that one of her defining
characteristics is liking her coffee with three-to-four sugars. Which, again, she has literally never ordered. Even Atlas can’t be bothered to pay attention to Atlas.

Brad Peyton’s film comes dangerously close to being interesting, but it never steps over that very important line. It sometimes dips its toe in the waters of mild entertainment, and it yet never quite takes that plunge either. It’s a pity, because there was a great story to be told with this very same concept. Maybe someone else will tell it someday.

“Atlas” premieres Friday on Netflix.

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