Atlas (2024)

In the world of Netflix releases, it’s hard to judge what is gauged as a success. Take for instance their new sci-fi action movie Atlas. It cost the streaming giant $100 million and they now tout it as being the top movie across the globe on their platform. This could very well be true, though Netflix has long been cagey about sharing their viewing numbers, instead preferring to go with the, “Hey, just trust us, okay?” defense, which hasn’t exactly been reassuring in an era where bonuses are linked to number hits. With the ever-expanding catalog of titles, being a reported hit on Netflix can sometimes feel like being, say, Homecoming Queen from 1989, an accomplishment soon eclipsed and forgotten. What was the last big Netflix action movie that had cultural staying power, that caused people to continue to discuss weeks or months later? Netflix swears their most-watched movie is 2021’s Red Notice, a star-laden breezy adventure caper that I challenge anyone to remember much about besides its stars. This is the challenge of gaining traction in a world of near endless content choices. Atlas is an above average film benefiting from a strong character dynamic at its core even if the rest of its story elements feel forgettably disposable.

Atlas (Jennifer Lopez) is a data analyst who has also helped develop Earth’s orbital security system. An A.I. program/robot named Harlan (Simu Liu) was born from Atlas’ mother, and then Harlan went and murdered millions of humans. The killer robot fled Earth with his robotic followers and Earth has been awaiting his return for decades. Atlas joins a mission to land on a distant planet where they think Harlan has operated as his base. However, Atlas must work with an A.I. program inside her mech suit that calls itself Smith. In order for them both to survive in this new world, they must work together.

I found everything within the mech suit of Atlas to be engaging and dynamic, and everything that happens outside that giant suit to be underdeveloped and mediocre. I was genuinely surprised how Atlas essentially becomes a buddy survival movie. It’s the human who is distrustful of accepting help from others and especially from advanced technology with a mind of its own, and an A.I. program that is trying to improve its capabilities by getting to know its user and learning how to grow from her. They need each other to survive and that requires a trust and relationship to be fostered, and it’s a surefire enjoyable plot to watch two enemies become allies and maybe even friends over the course of their united struggles. The growth between them also feels relatively organic, coming at a natural progression with personal insights and offerings without clunky leading dialogue lines, like, “So why don’t you trust robots, huh?” This dynamic reminded me a bit of 2004’s I, Robot where Will Smith played a detective who hates robots who has to work with a robot and the two of them form a bond (there are other similarities I’ll get to later). Much of the movie takes place within a three-foot window from the capsule inside this mech suit, and the shared struggle between Atlas and Smith is the heart of the movie, and it’s actually quite good. Both of these characters find ways to surprise one another, both of them shed preconceptions, and both of them will discover the lengths they go to protect the other even if it puts their own existence in question. As a story about a woman and her robot, Atlas is a fun and fairly involving sci-fi buddy movie adventure.

Now, the world  building and story that gets Atlas to this alien world, and the escalating stakes of world destruction are where the movie dissipates into an amorphous cloud of sci-fi action keywords. I don’t know why it had to be killer terrorist robots that brought out Atlas and her team of mech-suited warriors to this foreign planet. The reason why the characters are stranded on this unknown planet is unimportant. It could just as likely be a science team exploring a potential new habitable world for an Earth burning through its natural resources too quickly. It could be exploring the remnants of a possible alien civilization. It could even simply be the closest planet available during a distress from their spaceship going down for whatever mechanical or orbital obstruction. The story is about the relationship between the human being and the robot/A.I. working together to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile land.

The robot insurrection feels like an acceptable plot device but it’s so under-explored until the movie needs to dramatically escalate the stakes into an apocalyptic cataclysmic scale. The fact that Harlan, which let’s agree is a terrible name for the villain of your movie, determines that the best way to save humanity is to annihilate humanity is already a tragically familiar refrain we’ve heard from numerous sci-fi villains, from The Hunger Games to Infinity War to The Day the Earth Stood Still to even I, Robot. In that last movie, the A.I. system determines the only way to protect humanity is through controlling and ultimately eliminating them, and this same motivation comes to Harlan. This character is introduced as our Big Bad through an opening montage, he disappears, and then only comes back at the end to be a force to threaten Earth. The entire robot uprising is so tremendously underwritten that the movie doesn’t even do the barest whiff of ambiguity to question whether humanity has been mistreating its robot servant class. Instead, Harlan is introduced right away as a terrorist figure and stays true to this characterization. I thought that Act Three would be upending for Atlas, where she learns the robots were framed or at least the conflict is more nuanced and her “side” might be more culpable than the military’s cover story. Nope. Evil Robot King is simply Evil Robot King. Fine, he’s a boring killbot, but then why go to such lengths to provide a personal connection for Atlas and Harlan. It’s unnecessary when she has to stop the killer robot from killing the Earth; we don’t need a personal connection for this to work. The level of personal guilt attached to Atlas is ridiculous, including multiple levels of tragedy that feel far too overwrought. Atlas didn’t need to feel guilty over her involvement in developing Evil Robot King as a child; she could have been simply the daughter to the woman who unintentionally brought this killer tech forward, or she could have simply been a woman who experienced a tragedy linked to the robot uprising without having a mom who developed the technology. She could just be a victim. She doesn’t have to be the first victim.

Atlas is really a one woman show, so your feelings of Lopez (Hustlers) as an actress will dominate how you feel about the overall experience. I don’t know if Atlas is made substantially better with her as the lead actress but she certainly performs ably and doesn’t seem left unmoored by the fact that she’s talking to a voice in an empty space for most of her months filming. Lopez has a determination that gives her action novice character an underlying strength to tap into upon the call of action.

As a sci-fi action spectacle, the blockbuster aspects are sufficient for our casual entertainment fulfillment. The special effects and action are pretty solid under director Brad Peyton (San Andreas, Rampage) who knows his way assuredly around effects-heavy spectacle (he was also co-creator of the delightfully daffy 2019 Netflix apocalyptic series Daybreak). Much of the movie takes place within one mech suit, but I never felt a sense of visual claustrophobia thanks to the buddy dynamic and Peyton’s use of space. The big action sequences at the end have their share of impressive cool moments, but they also benefit from coming at the end of a character relationship that has helped to make the action more satisfying. I do lament the modern trend of filming on such large green screens or LED stages that lighting is always the same bright overhead setting without significant variance with shadows and other light sources.

If you’re looking for a Netflix action movie to divert your attention, or even barely pay attention to, then you could do far worse than Atlas. It might even hold your attention and keep you engaged thanks to the fun buddy film dynamic that serves as its foundation. There are plenty of elements that feel tacked on, underdeveloped, or blandly familiar, but the core works and Atlas is worth a couple hours of escapism.

Nate’s Grade: B

This review originally ran on Nate’s own review site Nathanzoebl. Check it out for hundreds of excellent reviews!

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