Atlas, Netflix’s new sci-fi space war movie about artificial intelligence gone rogue, is such a trope-filled mess, it would be easy to say it feels like an A.I. wrote the script. It would also be accurate. When it ended I genuinely checked to see if the film lists real human writers in its credits. It does, but that does not make me feel better about mankind. Atlas is tonally confusing and rampant with cliché ideas. It also thinks it’s a good idea to keep Jennifer freaking Lopez in a glorified chair for more than half its runtime.

It’s hard to quantify Atlas because it has no idea what it actually is. It never decides if it’s trying to be a fun, schlocky, big budget elevated B-movie or if it’s a more serious action film full of important social commentary. I’m not even sure its stars know, because their performances indicate they were all acting in a different movie.

Lopez prevents this bizarre film from being a disaster with a good showing as Atlas Shepherd, a brilliant, funny, introverted analyst with a troubling past that makes her hate artificial intelligence. She’s strong, vulnerable, and charming. She’s having a good time most of the time. The other times she’s giving the part the emotional heft it needs. Meanwhile, Mark Strong and Sterling K. Brown play military commanders who are clearly in a far more serious film. That might not seem so out-of-place opposite Lopez if not for the fact the usually fantastic Simu Liu plays the first and leading A.I. terrorist, the cartoonish villain Harlan, as though he’s hoping Atlas will end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Simu Liu in black clothes and a futuristic haircut in Atlas

Like a lot of this film, I’m confused by Liu’s choices. I honestly don’t know if he is bad or if he gave the exact performance director Brad Peyton wanted. Either way it doesn’t work.

In fairness to Liu, very little in this movie works. The predictable script is riddled with ideas about artificial intelligence and sci-fi points that were trite 30 years ago. It’s also a CGI-fest of varying quality where a million things go “boom” without much of it mattering but most of it feeling silly. The screenplay, which also features some hammy dialogue, also has plot holes so big you can fly an intergalactic spaceship through them. At one point an A.I. supercomputer with all of the knowledge in the world doesn’t know something everyone does because the plot needs it not to know. That supercomputer also forgets a “step” during a clearly defined, easy procedure. It’s not funny in anyway, despite trying to be. It’s just needlessly stupid.


“Needlessly stupid” is also a perfect way to describe what the movie asks of its star. Jennifer Lopez spends more than half the film, and roughly 50 straight minutes at one point, in a mech suit. From her chair she navigates a knockoff Pandora planet while endlessly talking to an A.I. program that has the most uninteresting, bland, robot voice imaginable.

That voice choice is actually an interesting idea (maybe the film’s only). By not having it sound human, Atlas forces us to reckon with what it really means to be alive. A robot who can think and feel on its own while clearly being a robot is harder to accept as alive than one who sounds like us. The problem is that idea doesn’t work on screen. The voice is instantly boring, even grating, even before most of the movie is Lopez and “Smith” having a continuous, (not-so) witty back-and-forth.


Also sometimes the movie asks her to square up and robot box ten minutes before she delivers a big emotional speech about whether computers have souls. Atlas is like if Blade Runner, Castaway, and Starship Troopers got drunk together on a case of original Four Loko. That sounds fun until you remember those movies shouldn’t even be hanging out together let alone drinking poison.

Ultimately Atlas either needed to be much dumber or much smarter to be good. It also needed to let Jennifer Lopez walk. But its biggest sin might be what it ultimately says about the possibility of artificial intelligence at a time when corporations are force feeding useless A.I. garage down our throats. Despite its lazy comic book baddie, this film loves artificial intelligence. It loves it and its possibilities oh so much. And it thinks its affection for A.I. will give the movie a heart it desperately wants to have.

Like humor, action, ideas, and insight, it does not have any heart. All it has to offer is proof humans are still entirely capable of making a bad movie without A.I.


Atlas hits Netflix on May 24.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist who typically loves Simu Liu in everything. You can follow him on  Twitter and  Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.