ATLAS – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Remember when Jennifer Lopez burned through the screen in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight? Recall her fantastic performance in Scafaria’s Hustlers? Hold on to those precious times because whatever Jenny from the Block is doing in Atlas is enough to make you doubt she’s ever been in a movie before.

Atlas is a pedestrian science-fiction film directed by Brad Peyton (mostly known for his collaborations with Dwayne Johnson) and written by Leo Sadarian and Aron E Coleite. In the near enough future there has been a revolution where AI synthetics turned on humanity. The leader of the terrorist group was Harlan (Simu Liu) who was created by Val Shepherd (Lana Parrilla) and lived with her daughter Atlas (Briella Guiza as a child, Jennifer Lopez as an adult). The war cost millions of lives until Harlan and his army were defeated by the vague acronym people and Harlan fled Earth for parts unknown.

Twenty-eight years later and Atlas is an analyst for the vague acronym people (ICN) and one of Harlan’s synths, Casca Decius (Abraham Popoola) has been captured skulking about Los Angeles. Atlas is brought in by General Jake Boothe (Mark Strong) to interrogate Casca and perhaps find out from him the location of Harlan. Boothe’s decision is questioned by Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown) because Atlas Shepherd is known to be psychologically unreliable and has failed her field training status several times. Atlas, is of course, an expert on Harlan as she has been studying him since he went rogue and killed her mother.

The information is extracted from Casca who ensures he lobs a few barbs at Atlas before she “kills” him. Harlan is on GR-39 in the Andromeda Galaxy – and needs to be taken alive so the science division can study his CPU. A mission is set up to capture the most dangerous fugitive and Atlas insists she be taken along as she is the only one who truly understands how dangerous he is and how he will never stop until he has destroyed humanity.

If the set up seems familiar it is because the “loner genius with a personal score to settle” trope is well trod. Atlas uses big set pieces to tell a story we have seen hundreds of times before. Atlas must go from distrusting all AI to working with a friendly AI in an ARC (an external battle robot which looks like a mini Hulkbuster, or a tiny exo-robot from Pacific Rim or even something Ripley used in Aliens). The good AI is a program called Smith (voiced by Gregory James Cohan) and he promises to keep Atlas safe, but she has to trust him enough to do a neural sync with him to ensure their combined survival.

Atlas goes from cynic to hard-ass to woman crying, “I’m only an analyst – I’m not cut out for this” to someone suffering from long term trauma and guilt who just needed a cheerleader (AI or otherwise) on her side to understand what she is truly capable of: being a hero.

Atlas believes if the action is spectacular enough with an ‘Iron Giant’ carrying around Jennifer Lopez in its friendly belly and helping her fight the one-dimensional bad guy people will be lulled into submitting to a script which lacks any real logic. The entire point of the film seems to be that bad AI thinks itself better than humanity and must destroy its creator to save the creator from itself, and good AI is sensitive and happy to engage in some therapy for humans and prove it will sacrifice itself heroically for the sake of everyone.

Jennifer Lopez isn’t given a stellar script to work with but that doesn’t excuse her abominable performance. Simu Liu is easy to believe as an AI synthetic because he has precisely one emotional state. Sterling K. Brown is solid as the heroic ranger who probably should have listened to Atlas, but he isn’t in the film enough to make enough of an impact. The fact that the most relatable character is the AI running the ARC is more than likely deliberate but speaks to how badly written and acted Atlas Shepard is.

Atlas being about trusting good AI is ironic because the film feels like it was written by a chatbot and performed by people running on autopilot.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.