Jennifer Lopez’s New Netflix Movie Gets Science Fiction Totally Wrong


  • Atlas’ VFX & Jennifer Lopez’s committed performance are highlights.
  • Atlast has a weak script & tone-deaf message about AI.
  • There is a lack of curiosity that affects characters & story quality.

When I try to describe Atlas, the one word that keeps coming to mind is perfunctory. It’s not a word I typically use to talk about a movie, but it popped into my head relatively early in the runtime, and I’ve been unable to shake it. So, I’ll have to try and unpack its persistence instead.

Atlas is a 2024 Netflix original movie starring Jennifer Lopez as Atlas Shepherd. Atlas, a data analyst who doesn’t trust AI, who sets out to recover a rogue robot. But when things don’t go according to plan, she is forced to trust AI in order to save humanity.


  • Pretty strong VFX work holds it all together
  • Jennifer Lopez is game

  • Superficial, soulless approach to sci-fi
  • Script struggles to stay ahead of the audience
  • Tone deaf message on AI

Merriam-Webster ascribes two definitions to perfunctory, though “lacking in interest or enthusiasm” isn’t quite what I mean. That would seem to describe the intentions behind the film as much as the film itself, and my reaction was to the end result, not the whole enterprise. The other definition, “characterized by routine or superficiality: mechanical,” gets me closer. Atlas is like an artificial sci-fi movie that walks and talks like the real thing, but just isn’t.

Atlas’ Flaws Don’t Seem Fatal At First Glance

You have to dig a little deeper

Atlas piloting Smith in battle in Atlas still

Set in a technologically advanced future, Atlas is named for its protagonist, Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez), who was just a girl when Harlan (Simu Liu), one of her genius mother’s (Lana Parilla) artificially intelligent robots, went rogue. Harlan not only broke free of his programming, but hacked into AI programs worldwide and overrode the protocols that kept humans unharmed. Millions died, Atlas’ mother first among them. When humanity started to win the war, however, the world’s first AI terrorist fled into outer space.

Almost 30 years later, Atlas has grown into a brilliant but volatile analyst determined to find Harlan. When a lead finally reveals his hideout, she bullies her way onto the mission to recover him, led by Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), whose views on AI are markedly different. He and his platoon have embraced her mother’s neural link tech and each sync with an AI-powered mecha suit. The resulting union, the thinking goes, makes them superior to their adversary. Choosing whether to trust her suit’s program, Smith (Gregory James Cohan), could determine whether Atlas lives or dies.

The irony of reviewing a film about AI by saying it failed my Turing test isn’t lost on me, but that is essentially what happened. Atlas is, by and large, a serviceable sci-fi action movie. It has some visible script issues, in particular an inability to stay ahead of the audience, and Liu’s mastervillain is terribly bland. But the cohesive VFX brings this futuristic world and its spectacle-heavy combat to life, and Lopez came ready to anchor this two-hander-with-a-robot.

In another world, all it’s really guilty of is being just okay. But I felt completely inactivated by this movie. I connected to no one, cared about nothing. The emotional tenor of scenes rose and fell without moving me in the slightest.

Optimistic and agnostic views on AI are usually predicated on engaging with its world-destroying potential as a hypothetical; that they can conceivably win out when that’s a demonstrable reality is quite a position to take.

At first, I struggled to understand why. The screenplay deploys a few different techniques to shape our relationships to certain characters, and while it’s easy to see through to the dramatic purpose of specific scenes, they were still executed well enough to work. Most roles seemed a bit thankless, but I (for the most part) wasn’t bumping the performances. I couldn’t even fall back on the style-over-substance cliché, because that would’ve at least left me with something to hold onto.

Atlas Is Missing The One Thing Every Sci-fi Movie Needs

And nothing can really compensate for it

Harlan facing camera with a partially constructed robot behind him in Atlas

Once I zeroed in on the pacing, I understood. Atlas is definitely story-driven, and moves through scenes like it’s eager to get to the next chapter. The most interesting thing about any given moment is what is happening, sometimes because of what that reveals about Atlas. That obviously puts a lot of pressure on the plot to be interesting, but it also betrays the movie’s complete lack of curiosity — the “superficiality” part of being perfunctory.

There is a wealth of potential beneath the veneer of this story that the filmmakers simply don’t care to explore.

Take Lopez’s introduction: Atlas is reluctantly woken by a smart home-style robot, which almost immediately asks her if she’d like to resume their chess game, since she fell asleep while playing. Despite being groggy, and concentrating on multiple video feeds at once, she occasionally speaks chess moves aloud until, just as she’s walking out the door, she delivers the winning blow. It showcases her intelligence, her competitiveness, her ability to multitask. A save-the-cat moment, if we’re supposed to find our protagonist impressive instead of endearing.

What it doesn’t show is why Atlas, who grew up surrounded by robots until one murdered her mother, is comfortable with this level of technology at all. Has she overcome her trauma? No. In fact, her character arc is predicated on her inability to trust AI. So what does this say about her? Does she enjoy having dominion over tech in her own home? Did her childhood leave her better at connecting with machines than people, even if she loathes them?

Atlas interrogating Cascas decapitated head in Atlas

The movie doesn’t think to ask, and doesn’t want us to, either. The line distinguishing the AI Atlas fears and the programs she doesn’t think twice about is never defined. The whole world is this dynamic on hyperdrive: Atlas opens with newsreel footage of Harlan’s reign of terror, which includes a hacked factory arm wheeling around to crush unsuspecting workers. Not only did mechanization progress after that, but humanity went back to AI, and even experimented with connecting their brains to it.

So, in this future, we build Skynet-lite and millions die. Then, when we crawl back from the brink, we double down. I’m not highlighting this simply to call it out as implausible — it actually isn’t hard for me to envision a world of people so dependent on technology that they can’t give it up, even after mass death. But the idea that we’re just supposed to take it all for granted is maddening. There is a wealth of potential beneath the veneer of this story that the filmmakers simply don’t care to explore.

Atlas’ Message On AI Borders On A Silicon Valley Psy-Op

But, thankfully, the movie’s bark is worse than its bite

Atlas talking to a holographic manifestation of Smith in Atlas

Curiosity is practically the essence of science fiction; without it, Atlas has no soul. And, as the above scene illustrates, the characters suffer the same fate. They are all reduced to a list of facts about themselves that they accept with no sign of struggle or capacity for change. Atlas at least gets to develop her level of trust in AI, but from the perspective of drama, it may as well be an on/off switch that affects little else about who she is. No wonder I found her journey so uninvolving.


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At its least offensive, Atlas scratches an itch, perfunctorily. However, I could read it in terms of our current moment and come up with something much worse. The film responds to growing anxieties around artificial intelligence by admitting, yes, it could evolve to try and wipe us out. But it’s also a tool, and we should still put it everywhere, even in our brains. If Atlas can learn to trust it after everything she went through, then you, humble viewers, should have no problem doing the same.

That is, when you boil it down, what this movie has to say on the topic of AI. It breezes right past saying the quiet part out loud to having no awareness of a need to modulate volume at all. Optimistic and agnostic views on AI are usually predicated on engaging with its world-destroying potential as a hypothetical; that they can conceivably win out when that’s a demonstrable reality is quite a position to take. But don’t be too concerned. Worrying about Atlas‘ message would require a lot more faith in it as a delivery system than is warranted.

Atlas is available to stream on Netflix May 24. The film is 118 minutes long and rated PG-13 for strong sci-fi violence, action, bloody images and strong language.

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