Review: ‘Atlas’

Jennifer Lopez Battles An AI Simu Liu In Netflix's Silly, Mechanical Sci-Fi Blockbuster

Everything about Atlas, the new sci-fi action flick hitting Netflix today, screams summer blockbuster. First of all, it’s opening on Memorial Day weekend, traditionally a platform for huge box office. Along with J-Lo, a bankable star in her own right, this handful of popcorn entertainment is directed by Brad Peyton, whose previous films Rampage and San Andreas are the epitome of fun, noisy, and crowd-pleasing silliness. If this were pre-pandemic times, Atlas would almost certainly be at a theater near you, but instead it’s available to watch from the comfort of your couch. I have to say, this makes me a bit sad.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Atlas is a great movie. It’s enjoyably dumb in a mechanical way, features a decent amount of action, and has a bunch of big stars spouting dialogue I’m pretty sure wasn’t written by a human. But I miss the days when films like this would be at the multiplex, with J-Lo’s face plastered all over the marquee, and we could snicker at it with a crowd full of cynical moviegoers.

It’s just not the same joking at home about Lopez’s misanthropic tech geek, the phenomanally-named Atlas Shepherd. Lopez doesn’t quite have the look (she’s too perfect all of the time) or tenor of someone so maladjusted, no matter how many times she gets abrasive or how many bad cups of coffee she has. Having been raised by a mother who preferred her robot child Harlan (Simu Liu, chewing up everything) over her own daughter, Atlas has a deep resentment toward all AI. That makes her a misfit in a world where AI is a part of every aspect of life. However, Harlan rebelled against his programming and ignited a war between AI and humanity that cost three million lives. Twenty-eight years later, and Atlas is part of a mission to bring Harlan down, having found him on a desolate planet lightyears away.

Sterling K. Brown has a glorified cameo as Elias Banks, leader of the mission to capture Harlan and the guy who gets to verbalize all of the obvious reasons why Atlas shouldn’t be joining it. He seems capable enough, but of course, he proves totally incapable when his entire squad is destroyed almost immediately by Harlan’s robotic pals. That leaves Atlas all alone in her mech suit to fend for herself in the middle of nowhere. Well, not entirely alone because she has Smith (Gregory James Cohan), her suit’s friendly, helpful AI voice. He really just wants to help out, and for Atlas to fully sync up with him so they can be totally sympatico. But Atlas has trust issues with robotics. She’ll have to get over them if she has a hope of surviving.

Atlas cost Netflix a whopping $100M, their largest ever for a female-led original film. Lopez certainly commands that kind of budget, and Peyton puts as much of it as he can to good use. The various mechs and some of the battles with Harlan’s powered-up crew look worthy of being on the big screen. It’s the other details that are shockingly poor. The future envisioned by Peyton is bland, ugly, and generic. We get a lot of shots of Atlas inside of her mech speaking at various readouts and sometimes it looks crap, like she’s a hologram being projected from someplace else. The script works overtime trying to force believable bonding between Atlas and Smith. It takes on aspects of her personality, which means it cusses like a sailor when stressed. But Smith is a kinder, gentler AI because it offers her lollipops and wonders cheerfully whether she prefers cake or pie. As for Atlas, she’s got a secret to hold on to, and it offers a surprising twist that drives a satisfying mech-powered finale with flaming swords, lava, and lots of human/AI gestures of friendship. Lopez leans into the soapiness of Atlas’ evolution, turning on the waterworks and the hysterics in contrast to her cold, robotic companion. Fortunately, Lopez is at her best when called on to ham it up. Brown, on the other hand, could’ve been doing anything else other than this, while Liu seems to be relishing the chance to play a villainous robot.

As far as Netflix mockbusters go, Atlas ranks slightly above Red Notice, but considerably beneath The Old Guard or Extraction. You could do worse having this on in the background while doing housework. My concern is the feeling that more would’ve been done to make Atlas a better film if it were theatrical. I can’t shake the sense they did only the bare minimum to get subscribers tuning in for two minutes or however long it takes to register on Netflix’s stats. As more and more screenwriting jobs go to AI, this is a concern that will only get worse, not better.

Atlas is streaming on Netflix now.

Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-atlasEverything about Atlas, the new sci-fi action flick hitting Netflix today, screams summer blockbuster. First of all, it's opening on Memorial Day weekend, traditionally a platform for huge box office. Along with J-Lo, a bankable star in her own right, this handful of popcorn...