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'Atlas' Review: Why Is Netflix's North Star a C-?

By Melanie Fischer | Film | May 31, 2024 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | May 31, 2024 |


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As someone who at least tries to be somewhat creative and thoughtful in the review process, there is nothing quite as vexing as trying to do a write up of a Netflix original film. To be clear, in saying this I am not referring to the auteur specials—the Irishmans, the Knives Outs, the Romas. Nor am I referring to acquisitions, like Fair Play or The Power of the Dog.

I’m referring to the homegrown Netflix joints, the ones from writers and directors whose work you’ve probably encountered before but whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize—creatives generally with a good bit of experience behind them but lacking the leverage required to exert above-average creative control. That astoundingly middling cohort of films that, in their commonalities, indicate what it truly means to be a Netflix movie in terms of the quality standards and taste that Netflix has seen fit to foist upon the world. Atlas is the latest of such films, directed by Brad Peyton (Rampage, San Andreas) from a script by Leo Sardarian (StartUp) with rewrites by Aron Coleite (Locke & Key, The Spiderwick Chronicles).

Set in the middle distant future, Jennifer Lopez stars as the eponymous Atlas, a misanthropic genius of vague but no doubt impressive credentials (her brilliance is primarily demonstrated by showing her beat a computer at chess while multitasking). Her most important qualification, though, is really her pedigree—she’s the only child of the AI visionary Val Shepherd (Lana Parrilla), whose creations ushered in the current technological era. Unfortunately, her magnum opus, a highly intelligent android named Harlan (Simu Liu), whom she raised alongside her daughter, went rogue and became the leader of an AI rebellion that has since claimed millions of human lives, including her own.

Atlas, between her AI expertise and her deep personal ties to Harlan, is seen as a critical asset in the mission to find and capture the renegade, who has since fled Earth for a hideaway in the Andromeda galaxy where he plots his next move against humanity. She’s partnered with military commander Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), which is presented as an obstacle as Atlas dislikes and distrusts other humans just about as much as she does AI. And on the subject of AI, humanity hilariously still relies on it in their efforts to dismantle Harlan and his followers and has even lately adapted neural-linked AI-powered mech suits as a core component of their frontline strategy. Somehow, Atlas is the only one skeptical of this course of action and avoids engaging with her designated AI mecha, named Smith, until unforeseen complications force her hand. (Smith is voiced by Gregory James Cohan, aka the one and only VelociPastor, aka yet another movie that is markedly more entertaining than this one.)

There is little to be said on the subject of character and performance here. Lopez is hardly compelling, although the mediocrity of the script provides a convenient excuse. Liu’s performance gives the impression that he would come across as stiff and artificial even if he wasn’t trying, but unfortunately, he is. This film is an utter waste of Brown’s charisma, stuck with a true nothingburger of a role, although his trolling of Lopez throughout their joint press appearances has proven more entertaining than anything in the film itself, and more chaotic energy than any release since the Venice premiere of Don’t Worry Darling. Also, Mark Strong is in the movie for some reason as a high-ranking military official in a role that amounts to even less than nothing; he’s had better parts in car commercials.

Well, then, what about the story, you might ask? It’s there—incredibly basic, but there, and more or less functional, if not much else. Storytelling is all about structure and Netflix, for its sins, does have a solid grasp of this. The prototypical Netflix movie—of which Atlas is a solid example—has all the right parts in all the right places. The issue is the consistency with which they are almost entirely lacking in anything else. Structure makes a movie fundamentally work, but it’s the creativity woven around that structure and built on top of it that makes good movies actually good. And it’s all of that stuff—the part where artistry and innovation, in better case scenarios, come into the mix, where the standard Netflix original continues to fall absolutely flat on its face. Here is yet another movie that feels intentionally designed to be half-watched, filled with half-baked characters, a bare bones plot, and dialogue that rarely does little more than narrate and/or regurgitate what is happening on screen, as if explicitly anticipating an audience whose attention is split between multiple screens.

Thematically speaking, films about AI generally follow the same general line of thinking regarding the particular risks and potential pitfalls of such technology. It can all get a bit overly familiar, but Atlas is instead utterly void, somehow managing to be a film about AI without making any real commentary on the subject. Then again, considering Netflix corporate is all aboard the AI train, this is perhaps not so surprising.

And then there’s how the movie looks. The budget of Atlas has been reported to be in the range of $100 million. The frequency and scope of the expansive CGI set pieces suggests the veracity of such claims, but these scenes are also so rote and sterile that the whole thing feels cheap despite looking obviously expensive. At best, the mecha action sequences serve as a reminder that, once upon a time, Pacific Rim was a good movie, and two hours of your life might be better spent revisiting that.

Atlas is now streaming on Netflix.