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Atlas review: an absurd Netflix sci-fi movie that works as a guilty pleasure

A woman pilots a robot in Atlas.
Atlas review: an absurd Netflix sci-fi movie that works as a guilty pleasure
“Atlas won't change the world, but thanks to lead star Jennifer Lopez, it's a painless sci-fi movie to watch at home.”
  • Jennifer Lopez's star performance
  • The central relationship between Atlas and her pet AI
  • Occasionally decent CGI
  • Unoriginal plot
  • Too many action set pieces
  • Goes on too long

Great movies are easy to review. So are bad ones, since they elicit similarly immediate, emotional responses. A movie like Oppenheimer, for instance, can dazzle you with its technical achievements while also engage you intellectually with its heady, elliptical narrative. A bad movie like Unfrosted, on the other hand, is obviously terrible, with its stale jokes and thin satire, that there’s no challenge in conveying just how awful it is. For both films, it’s all there on the screen.

Movies like Atlas, however, are tougher to analyze. This a slick, somewhat competently made movie with ludicrous, stupid ideas, and a cast that often performs like they are in completely different movies. In many ways, it represents the problem with steaming-only movies. There’s a visual flatness to it, and a plot made out of the spare parts of other, better sci-fi movies. Atlas often doesn’t feel real; rather, it resembles something 30 Rock‘s Jenna Maroney would star in after The Rural Juror bombed as a straight-to-DVD release. But here’s the rub: I enjoyed watching it. I shouldn’t have, but I did, and it’s due almost solely to Jennifer Lopez, who takes this material way too seriously and injects it with enough stern-faced absurdity to make it a mild joy to watch.

A bad case of deja vu

A woman looks at an AI interface in Atlas.

If you put some of the most influential sci-fi movies of the last 40 years in a blender, you’ll come up with something like the plot of Atlas. Inspired by, and outright stealing from, classic movies of the genre like (deep breath) Aliens, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Robot Jox, Pacific Rim, I, Robot, The Iron Giant, and about a half-dozen MCU movies, Atlas takes place in the near future, when AI has taken over the world for better and worse. Sentient machines can now make you coffee and detect your innermost thoughts, but they can also try to destroy the world.

That’s what Harlan (Simu Liu), a rogue AI, tried to do 29 years ago, and he’s amassed an army of disgruntled, jacked-up ChatGPTs on another planet to wipe out humans once and for all. The only person who can stop him, it seems, is Atlas Shepherd, a frazzled, brilliant data analyst who is secretly a badass. How do we know she’s smart? Because in the opening minutes of the movie, she plays chess with a robot and she wins. How do we know she’s a badass? Because she uses one of her chess pieces to destroy an android’s disembodied head in the very next scene. How do you know she’s a mess? Well, her hair is tousled and unkempt, and she keeps hinting at a traumatic event from her past that makes her distrustful of AI.

A robot analyzes flowers in Atlas.

Very quickly, she’s persuaded to accompany a team of Marines to the faraway planet Harlan is located on to neutralize his threat before he lands on Earth. Just when you think this will be yet another Aliens ripoff, though, the movie abruptly shifts gears, kills off most of the Marines, and then becomes a tale of a woman and her pet robot, as Atlas must rely on an AI-powered suit of armor (think a live-action Mobile Suit Gundam, but worse) named Smith to fight Harlan before it’s too late.

Humanity’s savior: Jenny from the block?

A woman looks up in Atlas.

Atlas‘ plot is a messy quilt of other sci-fi stories, and it never really manages to forge an identity of its own. There are times, such as Atlas’ philosophical discussions with Smith about who gets to have a soul and who doesn’t, when the movie shows glimmers of deep thought, but too often that’s pushed aside by the next generic action sequence, which at least is pulled off with some skill and coherence. The CG ranges from impressive (the movie’s futuristic Los Angeles looks shiny and impressive) to meh (shots of J.Lo piloting Smith just aren’t that believable), and the overall visual look of the movie favors burnt-orange tones and shiny glassy surfaces that sometimes become a bit much.

The acting is better, if inconsistent. As Atlas’ peers, Mark Strong and Sterling K. Brown cash their checks with a detached professionalism that’s both commendable and forgettable. As Harlan, Liu is made up to look to like the Irish actor Barry Keoghan for some reason, and chews enough scenery to make you think the actor could be our generation’s George Hamilton. (That’s a compliment.)

An AI robot stands in Atlas.

But it’s Lopez who makes the film worth watching. As the tortured yet always stunningly beautiful heroine, Lopez fully commits herself to the character, even though on paper, she’s made up of “tough action chick” clichés that even Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich grew tired of a decade ago. It would’ve been fatal if the actress had played this role at any less than a 10, or worse, for laughs; instead, she acts the house down, and forces you to take all of this nonsense seriously. It’s a reminder that the Lopez, more famous now as a singer who can’t fill stadiums or as a paramour to Dunkin Donuts’ most famous spokesman, is a magnetic screen presence when the opportunity presents itself, like in the forgotten crime caper Blood and Wine or Out of Sight.

I, J.Lo

ATLAS | Official Trailer | Netflix

And even when there isn’t an opportunity, like in Atlas, she creates one for herself, and makes a movie that could’ve been a groaner into something that’s frivolous and fun. Not everyone will agree, and that’s understandable: Atlas is the type of movie that needs to be watched with the right mood, and just enough lowered expectations to be considered passably entertaining.

Fortunately, Atlas caught me at the right time, and I was able to enjoy its corny sci-fi pleasures for all their worth. There’s a time and place for serious sci-fi epics like Dune: Part Two, but sometimes, you need a hackneyed B-movie to watch mindlessly as you sit on the couch. If that doesn’t sound like ringing endorsement, well, feel free to watch Blade Runner 2049 again. That movie is far better, but it doesn’t have J.Lo taking down an army of robots while pining for a café Americano. Now that’s cinema.

Atlas is now streaming on Netflix.

Editors' Recommendations

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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