Review: Jennifer Lopez Confronts Sentient AI in Atlas, a Sci-Fi Actioner That Lacks Intelligence

It's interesting that the new sci-fi/action work starring Jennifer Lopez, Atlas, opens the same day as Furiosa, since the two share exactly one thing in common: both are about women obsessed with taking revenge on someone/something that killed their mothers when they were children. The comparisons end there, since Furiosa feels like it was made on this planet and the other seems to have been designed on a laptop.

Directed by action veteran Brad Peyton (San Andreas, Rampage), Atlas tells the story of Atlas Shepherd (Lopez as an adult, Briella Guiza as a child), who lives in a future world where her mother (Lana Parrilla) manages to create an android named Harlan (Simu Liu) that somehow mysteriously becomes sentient and kills its creator in front of young Atlas, scarring her for life. Almost immediately, Harlan turns other forms of electronic helpers into weapons of war, killing millions of humans before eventually launching themselves into space to start their own society.

Because of her childhood trauma, Atlas has made it her life’s mission to destroy Harlan and all other sentient AI, but we sense there’s something else going on with her that tracks closer to guilt than just pure rage, and eventually we discover why that is. When one of Harlan’s robot helpers (Abraham Popoola) shows up on Earth, this sparks the government to send an exploratory team led by Col. Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), to find the secret planet base of Harlan and his followers. Because of her extensive knowledge of AI, Atlas is brought in to interrogate the captured android, and she eventually gets the base location and insists on accompanying Banks and his team on the mission.

What follows is an adventure film that borrows bits and pieces from Avatar, the Terminator movies, and a dozen other films in which tech turns on humans or a character wears a souped-up space suit to survive in a hostile alien environment. But in order to complete her mission, Atlas must fully trust and link up mentally with her suit’s AI, called Smith, which speaks to her and attempts to get her to allow it into her brain so that the two can effectively act as one. If there is anything remotely interesting about the screenplay from Leo Sardarian and Aron Eli Coleite, it’s this element of the story, watching Atlas slowly confront her past and learn to trust Smith to protect her the way she used to trust Harlan to do the same.

Once Atlas gets to this foreign planet, the film stops feeling real, at least from a visual standpoint. Naturally, Harlan has anticipated every move the humans will take against him, and in a sense, has drawn them into coming to this world in the hopes of killing the crew and taking their ship back to earth like a Trojan horse. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Lopez’s performance (although how she keeps her hair looking so fabulous while fighting so violently is one of the film’s many mysteries), so I’m not going to put the blame on Atlas’ many failures on her. When a film relies so heavily on special effects to carry its visual palette, the end result can be (and is) a cold, lifeless, stagnant narrative. In terms of performance, Liu is the real offender here. It’s as if he wondered how a generic evil robot would act, and just went for it, without any nuance or layers to the character.

But lack of nuance in Atlas is hardly limited to Liu’s performance, and while some of the action sequences deliver to a certain degree, most of them are fairly unmemorable and uninspired. This is one of the most frustrating of movies, one where the potential for something better is present but so little of it is tapped into. There are probably worse ways to waste two hours, but in this moment, I’m having a hard time thinking of one.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.