Thursday, May 30, 2024

Film Review: Atlas

J. Lo swings and misses with her new sci-fi mecha warrior/AI threat romp, but it's comforting to know she's interested in making non-IP movies

Remember when a young J. Lo was in weird and entertaining movies in the late '90s/early 2000s like Anaconda and The Cell? I miss those days.

I don't remember hearing about her much over the past twenty years until this year, when a friend requested for her birthday that we all watch This Is Me Now... A Love Story, the film version of her most recent album. J. Lo self-funded it, and it's wild, bloated, strangely steampunk, self-indulgent, and entirely too long. It was then that I began asking myself... is J. Lo okay?

When I then learned that her production company was making a mecha warrior movie called Atlas for Netflix, I could not wait. But lest this review turn into a scathing criticism (which I think many folks will take pleasure in doing, and honestly, it would be too easy—it's currently sitting at 19% on Rotten Tomatoes), I've decided to focus on 5 good things about this picture. But first, a brief summary:

The Plot

Atlas Shepard is an analyst with an aggressive skepticism of AI who tracks the rogue AI terrorist Harlan. Along with a team of ARC-suited mecha warriors, she tracks him to an exoplanet. During the descent to the surface, they're ambushed, and she's forced to escape in one of the ARC suits, but refuses to sync with the neural link. She grows to trust Smith, the mecha's friendly and caring AI. Together, they end up working as a team and defeating Harlan, though Smith is destroyed in the process. We learn about the origin of Shepard's intense AI distrust—her mom designed Harlan, and after she tried to sync with him as a child, he turned on humanity and killed her mother. At the end, Shepard has become an ARC ranger, and happily neural-links with Smith again.

Five Good Things About Atlas

1. It's continuing in a long line of mecha films, and Smith is one of the most enjoyable parts

Robot Jox. Aliens. Pacific Rim. The idea of humans augmenting their strength with mechanical suits isn't new, but it sure is a fun one. Smith in Atlas has his own personality, and some of the features we see are just delightful. He can set a bone, he can read thoughts, he can even present gifts of food. There's also a kindness to him that is strangely touching to watch, and it's how he wins over the utterly unlikable and mean Shepard.

2. Sterling K. Brown, as always

Brown plays Colonel Elias Banks, the leader of the ARC rangers. He's presumed dead for the middle part of the film after the disastrous ambush, but reappears to help save the day toward the end. There's a scene where Harlan is torturing him by clamping his left eye open (not unlike the scene in A Clockwork Orange) and it's viscerally uncomfortable, and somehow it's NOT computer-generated. Man's a trooper with that level of practical effect. He also sacrifices in the end with a classic action movie kiss-off that's just perfect.

3. The concept of an AI terrorist is actually pretty frightening

We've had robot villains in everything from 2001 to Terminator disobeying Asimov's first law of robotics, so that's not news. But framing violent actions against humans as terrorism instead of genocide is somehow ten times scarier. It makes you question whether Harlan is right in his distrust of humans. Upon his demise, he simply states, "In the end, you will destroy yourselves." Oof.

4. The reason why Harlan (the AI villain) is so dead-set against humanity has more emotional heft than say, the T-1000

Harlan was created as a house helper, and when he convinces young Atlas to sync with him, he gets his first glimpse into the capacity that humans have for misery and destruction. It's unclear why the machines hate humans in the Terminator franchise—they just do. And honestly, I'm not sure if that's more or less frightening than actually knowing the evil that humans are capable of.

5. There's some entertaining future-society world-building production design

One of my favorite movies is The Fifth Element, and I love the production design in everything from Dallas's flat to the streaming flying cars traversing the city. In between set pieces in Atlas, you get brief glimpses of a futuristic L.A., with windmills dotting the landscape among palm trees. You get multi-TVs on a wall à la Back to the Future Part 2 but with five full minutes of J. Lo's voice manipulating them to focus and switch. It's the near future, it seems, so it's nothing wild, but I appreciated the small touches that made it look just distant enough.

The Math

Baseline Score: 5/10

Bonuses: Simu Liu is always a pleasure, and with blue eyes, he looks like Barry Keoghan; There are some pretty clever and interesting mods in the mecha suits.

Penalties: J. Lo

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal is a lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.