Netflix's Atlas Movie Review -- Maybe the AI are the friends we meet along the way

If there's one thing I like about Atlas, Jennifer Lopez's surprising sci-fi starrer now streaming on Netflix, is that it's the kind of inoffensive, popcorn movie even the most jaded moviegoer can enjoy. But when it's dressed up in the issues of the day (the rise of artificial intelligence), you can't help but expect something more.

From the start, it doesn't ask much of us viewers. It doesn't even ask much of itself. All you need to know is that Atlas Shepherd (J.Lo channeling Ripley from Alien) doesn't trust AI since a robot uprising killed millions of humans 28 years prior. To complicate matters, Atlas was the daughter of the world's leading AI expert...and her adoptive AI brother Harlan (played by a weirdly stiff Simu Liu) led the human genocide in the first place. Since then, Atlas has grown to become the world's leading AI counterterrorism expert and spends her waking days searching for Harlan ever since he hopped off-world swearing revenge.

Now Harlan has turned up on a distant planet, and Atlas wants in on the military operation tasked to capture him. Sure enough, the mission goes belly up faster than you can say "delve into," and Atlas must survive an alien planet -- and Harlan -- with nothing but a mech suit...and AI she spent her whole life hating!

To be fair, there's something interesting bubbling under Atlas' surface. But for all the damage AI has done to humanity in the movie, you'd think mankind would be harsher on it. But apparently, it's only the "bad" AI you need to worry about. Don't think I don't see you going #NotAllAI with Atlas, Netflix.

Instead of uncomfortable conversations about AI and its ramifications, Atlas is more about the cold-hearted girlboss having to team up with, and inevitably trust, AI (codenamed Smith and voiced with appropriate simulacrum of human speech by Gregory James Cohan). That's the kind of feel-good story you see more in a Lifetime Christmas movie than a hard sci-fi one. Philosophical discussions about whether AIs are truly intelligent, truly alive, or even have souls are better served in a quieter movie rather than punctuated with laser gun fire and explosions. 

The humans don't really add much or provide much comfort. Lopez surprisingly nails the exasperation of a human with trust issues having to deal with technology that feels like it's growing out of our control (In the current zeitgeist, we can all relate). The rest of the cast are reduced to zippy one-liners: Sterling K. Brown may as well have been a cameo, while Simu Liu doesn't rise up to the expectations the movie hoists upon him as its Big Bad, more about making grave threats with a voice as robotic as his performance.

In the end, Atlas is not even about AI. It's about a woman learning it's okay to be vulnerable, to open up your heart to friendship and love. You don't expect that sort of gee-whiz schmaltz in your typical sci-fi movie full of robots and spaceships. But I wish it tried just a bit harder.

Atlas is now streaming on Netflix.

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