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Jennifer Lopez’s New Netflix Movie ‘Atlas’ Plays on All Our Fears About AI

May 28, 20245 Mins Read

If you’ve been watching the latest developments in artificial intelligence with growing skepticism and anxiety, you’re not alone. That’s exactly why I was drawn into Netflix’s new AI-themed original film, Atlas, starring Jennifer Lopez.

Admittedly, JLo was a hard sell for me. I ignored the movie every time I opened the app throughout the long Memorial Day weekend, not because I have anything against the actress-singer-everything else, but because I’ve just never been blown away by anything I’ve seen her in. Still, seeing a sci-fi movie sitting in the number 1 spot on Netflix’s movie charts was eventually too much for me to bear, so I tempered my expectations and dove in.

A pleasant surprise

Lopez plays Atlas Shepherd, a reclusive data analyst with a checkered past when it comes to AI. An incident in her childhood involving her mother, a pioneering scientist in the AI realm, left Atlas deeply mistrustful of technology. Years ago, an early AI named Harlan (Simu Liu) went rogue and fled to a foreign planet, and it’s been plotting to return to Earth to destroy humankind ever since. Atlas is recruited to go to GR-39 in the Andromeda galaxy to fight Harlan and his robot army, but when she lands, she finds herself all alone with only, you guessed it, an AI for company.

Stranded in a massive “mech” suit similar to the ones we’ve seen in Avatar and Pacific Rim, Atlas must battle the androids with help from her on board AI, Smith (voice of Gregory James Cohan). At times, Smith sounds like he was plucked directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey because he sounds so much like Hal. He’s literally the voice of reason, the good AI that can help fight against bad AI. This is where the concept of trust comes in; Atlas is forced to relearn what it means to trust someone … or something.

As the actress told Netflix, “I loved that this is a big sci-fi action movie, but at its core, it’s a story of friendship—and a love story, in a way,” she said. “I always see everything as a love story, but this is a different kind of love between two beings who connect in disastrous circumstances, and teach each other how to be more human.”

Atlas was written by Leo Sardarian (StartUp) and Aron Eli Coleite (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and directed by Brad Peyton. Peyton has experience making big action movies with a major star in the leading role; his previous work includes two Dwayne Johnson epics, San Andreas and Rampage. He’s also a tech-head and video gamer from way back, telling Polygon that he drew inspiration from the James Cameron films Avatar and Aliens when conceiving the mech suits and other tech in Atlas.

“[The mechs] are intuitive devices,” said Peyton. “The concept that I came up with was, the soldier is the brain. He doesn’t have to be super strong. He’s not like a grunt—the machine is the grunt. He is the emotional cognitive device that syncs with this thing. So it has to be able to be as fluid as a person who’s been trained in it.”

The director went on to say that Lopez was an excellent choice for the leading role because of the physicality required to make the suit look real. “Her background as a dancer is what allowed her to really gauge that quickly,” he explained. “As much as she looks like she’s walking, [the mech] is walking her, and she has to react like she’s walking. So that training as a dancer allowed her to step right into it.”

Jennifer Lopez inside an A.I. driven exoskeleton in 'Atlas'

Not groundbreaking, but entertaining

Admittedly, viewers don’t learn much while watching Atlas, but that’s not why we clicked “play,” is it? It’s fun to ponder the movie’s central themes, especially as AI continues to expand insidiously with each passing day. Atlas makes us think thoughts like: How dangerous is it to allow computers unfettered access to a human brain? (Very!) What would army and police forces look like if exoskeleton mech suits were real? (Terrifying!) And finally, would the world be better off if humans relinquished control and let machines run it? (Questionable!)

In the end, Atlas is all about trust. The title character’s personal journey is about learning to trust technology again even though she knows how badly things can go awry. This trust implies a difference between good A.I. and bad A.I., and it opens an interesting dialog about the people who are designing this sort of technology in the real world. Maybe we should all be paying closer attention.

Atlas is currently streaming on Netflix.

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