Jennifer Lopez Pays Loving Tribute to Invasive Technology in Atlas

Movies Reviews Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer Lopez Pays Loving Tribute to Invasive Technology in Atlas

Suggesting that a movie was written by AI has already become a tired critical cliché, which therefore means describing Atlas, a new science-fiction movie starring Jennifer Lopez, requires additional care. Yes, the lazy critic could probably say that Atlas feels as if someone fed I, Robot (the 2004 feature, not the short story collection by Asimov) and Edge of Tomorrow into some kind of advanced-but-not-that-advanced screenwriting software and turned the dial to “good enough for streaming,” but the truth is, human screenwriters enthusiastically rip off other movies and rewrite them using stock phrases and clichés all the time. Where Atlas really gets ahead of the competition is its enthusiastic endorsement of AI, barely concealed within its low-level craft. It’s a movie where Jennifer Lopez discovers the life-changing and even heartwarming possibilities of giving in to technology you don’t like, and fusing your brain with a computer program. Maybe AI didn’t write it; maybe humans just want AI to weep with gratitude after absorbing it.

Lopez plays Atlas Shepherd (middle name: Signpost? MapQuest?), a military analyst in the distant future whose colleague General Boothe (Mark Strong) describes her as “driven and determined,” though Colonel Banks (Sterling K. Brown) prefers “rigid and hostile.” (The two genders, etc.) Shepherd’s mother was an architect of the artificial intelligence that she’s currently fighting against; her mom’s robot Harlan (Simu Liu), raised as a kind of After Yang-style older brother to Atlas, went rogue and became a futuristic terrorist, using his computing power to order massive drone strikes against humans before absconding to some far-off planet. Early in the movie, Atlas uses her ruthless and brilliant interrogation techniques (reflected by her casual playing of – get this – chess!) to get one of Harlan’s AI soldiers, reduced to a robot head in a box, to give up Harlan’s location. She then insists on joining the mission to track him down.

For the mission, the movie plants Atlas’ combination of old-school anti-robot sentiment (from Will Smith’s character in I, Robot) and lack of combat experience (from Tom Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow) into a giant mech-suit (which also resembles Edge). The AI-powered suit, called Smith and voiced by Gregory James Cohan, then doubles as a partner to a skeptical, irritable Atlas as the mission goes sideways, forcing the two-as-one to traverse the planet and find Harlan on their own. In the broad outlines, this isn’t so different from any number of sci-fi movies where a human locates genuine life from a robotic or otherwise synthetic companion. The idea of Atlas venting her feelings of betrayal after being raised alongside a hyperintelligent robot – and even suspecting that her mother preferred him! – whirs with promise, and that scene of Lopez torturing the detached robot head (who later returns in multiple additional robo-soldier bodies) hints at a gnarlier, or at least knottier, version of this material underneath the shiny surface.

But in a misguided-at-best touch, Atlas doesn’t just learn to appreciate a different life form. She’s pressed – harangued, even! – into allowing her mech-suit full link-up access to her brain and forming, as Smith refers to it with a loftiness the movie doesn’t question, “something greater.” Atlas couches all of its human-robot collaboration in a kind of mindless AI boosterism, all the more frustrating because this meeting of the minds primarily results in terrible banter and plasticky action beats. Lopez does not reveal a heretofore hidden Harrison Ford-like talent for acting opposite visual effects that truly sells us on the reality of what’s happening. She does green-screen overacting, and in a roundabout way shills for the generative-AI destruction of the universe.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. After all, the movie’s bad guys are AI, too, inspiring many dramatically blank looks from Liu. But there’s something algorithmically sketchy about a movie that sells human-AI brain fusion as a kind of level-up convenience. Cohan’s voice does almost too smooth a job realistically imitating the generic tone of AI, rather than the cuter, cuddlier tones of a more famous or ingratiating voice; the movie really does feel like watching Lopez harness the awesome powers of Google, adding the kung-fu downloads of The Matrix to the list of movie ideas it knocks off. If Atlas ever approaches charm, it’s in that enthusiastic ripoff zone, the slick mockbuster milieu where director Brad Peyton has logged time with Dwayne Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, San Andreas and Rampage). These provide the flashes where it briefly seems as if Lopez might have just made a silly piece of sci-fi junk that passes the time easily and crumples even easier – rather than a weirdly insidious apologia for the invasive tech of feckless CEO dreams. And for all that dreaming, Atlas still can’t figure out anything genuinely exciting that a robo-brained Jennifer Lopez might actually do, or any philosophy for Harlan that goes beyond the most familiar destroy-to-save boilerplate (which the movie inexplicably treats as a surprise revelation). AI may not be advanced enough to make a movie even as crappy as Atlas, but in the meantime, it seems like autocomplete is having a go at it.

Director: Brad Peyton
Writer: Leo Sardarian, Aron Eli Coleite
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Simu Liu, Sterling K. Brown, Gregory James Cohan, Mark Strong
Release Date: May 24, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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