‘Atlas’ Movie Review: Another Soulless Netflix Action Movie

Netflix has a reputation. There’s no getting around it at this point. They make three things: a bunch of good-to-great TV shows, one or two prestige movies every year, and a boatload of cheap-looking action movies made up of bits and pieces from other, better movies that somehow star A-list actors. Atlas belongs in that last category. It’s disappointing, to be sure, but at this point, what else do we expect?

The movie is set in a near-ish future where humans coexist with their subservient robot companions. In this world, one AI named Harlan (Simu Liu) defies his programming, embarking on a quest for freedom. Harlan was the creation of a brilliant scientist who raised him as a sibling to her young daughter, Atlas. Naturally, Atlas is shattered when Harlan takes a dark turn.

Atlas vs. Harlan: A Galactic Chase

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and a now-adult Atlas (Jennifer Lopez) is leading the hunt for Harlan. The world’s nations have banded together to fight back against the AI forces, forcing Harlan to flee the planet. In the opening scenes, Atlas interrogates an AI soldier, learns where Harlan has been hiding all this time, and joins the expedition to capture him on a distant moon in the Andromeda Galaxy. The expedition is made up of soldiers who are neurally synced to the AIs in their giant mech suits, which, in the words of their commander Banks (Sterling K Brown), makes them something more than the sum of that union. Of course, the mission goes wrong, and the vehemently anti-AI Atlas has to join forces with an AI to survive and win the day.

Jennifer Lopez in Atlas
Jennifer Lopez in Atlas. Image courtesy of Netflix.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s likely by design. Almost every idea in this film is lifted from a better movie. The mech suits are from Avatar; the AI characters are a mix of the robots from I, Robot, replicants from Blade Runner, and Samantha from Her. The hardened main character is paired up with a character she initially detests but learns to trust, who is straight out of too many movies to count. All of this might be tolerable if there were some unique hook or excellent performance to keep the viewer interested, but there isn’t in either case.   

The bulk of the film is just Lopez and her faceless AI companion struggling to survive on a hostile moon, and this is where the film truly struggles. Jennifer Lopez is a good actress; her performances in films like Hustlers prove that, but in this film, she’s frantic and dialed to eleven in nearly every scene. There are so few scenes where her choices make sense, and she goes for the biggest reaction possible rather than one appropriate to the scene, and this lasts through the bulk of the movie.

A Mess of Acting, Action, Editing, and Writing

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Gregory James Cohan voices her AI companion well, but Simu Liu is woefully miscast as Harlan. Simply put, he cannot generate the threat that the character requires, and in the third-act reveal of how he overrode his programming –a moment that should have deep emotional consequences for both him and Atlas– lands with all the grace and nuance of a wet blanket. It doesn’t help that the reveal is both easily predictable and so poorly written that it nearly doesn’t make sense. 

Abraham Popoola and Simu Liu in Atlas
Abraham Popoola and Simu Liu in Atlas. Image courtesy of Netflix.

Still, no movie with Mark Strong or Sterling K Brown in it can be all bad. Strong has the thankless job of being Atlas’ father figure and isn’t around enough to have any real impact, but Brown at least understands what kind of movie he is in. He manages to make the technobabble he is saddled with work as best it can, and he does at least have the film’s lone good joke.  

Essentially, the film is a mess. The filmmakers can’t seem to decide if the future it depicts is tomorrow or hundreds of years from now. In the action scenes especially, the editing is so frantic that it becomes difficult to follow what’s happening; scenes are overstuffed, uninteresting to look at, or both. The writing isn’t much better. In one action scene, Lopez asks her AI suit to make an evasive maneuver with her, and then they go on the offensive instead. In another, she walks straight into the bad guys’ base in the giant mech suit and then is surprised to find they’ve noticed her.  

A Disappointing but Unsurprising Netflix Offering

In short, Atlas is exactly the kind of movie Netflix has a reputation for making. A few A-list stars inexplicably show up in a film that feels rushed into and out of production, borrows ideas from better movies, and ultimately looks cheap. It’s exactly what you expect from Netflix today, but at some point, we will have to start expecting more.  

Atlas will stream on Netflix on May 24, 2024.

Learn more about the film on the title’s official website.

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