Netflix’s Atlas Is the AI Love Letter We Never Needed (and Still Don’t)

The Netflix movie Atlas praises AI while at the same time demonstrating everything wrong with AI.

Atlas. Jennifer Lopez as Atlas Shepherd. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix ©2024.
Photo: Netflix.

This article contains full spoilers for Atlas.

After surviving an attack orchestrated by the rogue synthetic Harlan (Simu Liu), cyber analyst Atlas (Jennifer Lopez) lands in her mech-suit on a mysterious new planet. And it is there that she notices a strange flower, which the artificial intelligence Smith (voiced by Gregory James Cohan) informs her has never been seen before. When Smith asks what she wants to call the flower, Atlas responds with an uncreative name: “Planty.”

Although Atlas insists that she’s making a joke, Smith accepts the name, and Planty returns at the end of the film as a symbol of the bond formed between human and robot. At the same time, this dull bit of nomenclature illustrates the way AI destroys creativity. Which seems an apt metaphor for the movie it’s in. Because as directed by Brad Peyton and written by Leo Sardarian and Aron Eli Coleite, Atlas presents the type of tone-deaf message about how humans needing AI that only a streaming service algorithm could love. Ironically, the very look and construction of Atlas simultaneously demonstrates why we don’t need AI, especially in the creative fields.

Atlas and the AI Manifesto

In theory, the central conflict in Atlas is between the titular character and Harlan. After all, Atlas’ mother (Lana Parrilla) created Harlan and raised her actual daughter, Atlas, as the synthetic’s little sister until he turned on the family and killed his creator. Subsequently, most of the conflict in Atlas involves the Lopez character’s distrust of all AI, especially Smith. The long, central portion of the film consists of Atlas, sitting alone within Smith, crying and complaining about how much she hates him. Even when she shows grudging acceptance of the kind and faultless Smith, Atlas refuses to fully uplink with him, which would allow them to blend their minds. Only when she gives in to Smith does Atlas have the ability to defeat Harlan.

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As this description suggests, Atlas is about learning that AI is good, actually.

That point becomes clearer with every scene in which Atlas complains about computers, only to be helped by Smith. In a truly grating performance, Lopez screams and points and whines while she sits inside of Smith, rejecting his attempts to help her. An interminable sequence involves her berating Smith as he heals her wound. Any mistakes he makes, here and throughout the film, stem from her refusal to bond with him, thus forcing him to work with insufficient information.

Even the big bad Harlan is a rejoinder against Atlas’ mistrust. In a flashback sequence, we learn that Atlas’ mother created Harlan as a thoughtful and reactive machine, one who attended to human needs with kindness and care. But when the young Atlas grew jealous of her synthetic big brother, her outburst caused fear and malevolence to enter his system, changing him into the first AI terrorist.

So according to Atlas, AI enhances what people do. If they give it good, it will make the world better. If they give it bad, it will make things worse. But every problem is the fault of people, not AI.

Atlas Maps Other Movies

Of course Atlas is hardly the first film in which a human overcomes their mistrust of machines. In fact, the two greatest female action heroes of all time, Ellen Ripley of Aliens and Sarah Connor of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, survived only because they set aside their initial misgivings about androids. Atlas doesn’t build on these films, but it does count on the audience’s recognition of their plots. Like so many Netflix original films, Atlas feels designed to be best enjoyed by the inattentive. It combines multiple tropes from familiar sources and reduces most of the dialogue to exposition, explaining and re-explaining the obvious.

In addition to tropes so generic that we can’t narrow them down to any specific work—Atlas learning to play chess from Harlan; Harlan wanting his minion Casca (Abraham Popoola) to get trapped as part of his master plan; and Harlan dragging his sword on the ground to intimidate Atlas—the movie also steals ideas more blatantly from other select films.

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The mech uplink process, complete with the painful memories it brings up, was already done in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. The idea of hunting down rogue synthetic humans, of course, owes much to Blade Runner. Even Liu’s performance as a robotic person who becomes a member of the family recalls Kogonada’s sweet sci-fi drama, After Yang. In the climax, Atlas fights the sword-wielding Harlan on what has become a lava planet, echoing Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

And then there’s Peyton’s bland visual style. Smith is represented as a blue and orange holographic blob, the type that seemed old hat 10 years ago in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The scenes of mechs fighting, all computer-generated, look like how a fake video game might be depicted in the background of another film doing gag. The mechs look like standard mechs, big money shots use the speed ramping overdone by Zack Snyder, and the film opens with a montage of news reports like those on any TV drama.

It’s hard to find a single new idea in Atlas except for its insistence that AI is good. Of course its lack of new ideas demonstrates exactly why AI is bad.

The Never-Arriving Advent of #AICinema

In April 2023, Twitter user ChristianF shared a movie trailer that he created with the program Gen-2. “#aicinema is finally here!” the user declared, a point that many of the supportive commenters reiterated.

Of course anyone can see that the trailer falls far short of even the worst “content” that Hollywood has to offer. Hell, that would even include Atlas. The people in the above AI demo look like inhuman blobs, sprouting too many fingers and merging into one another like it’s the Shunting scene from Society. Many will point out that the user is working in the beta version of Gen-2 and that it, as well as later iterations, will eventually be able to render more realistic people. That’s true, but that’s not the problem.

The problem is something that even ChristianF acknowledges in his first tweet: everything in the trailer is made ffom text prompts “except one iconic shot,” an image taken directly from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. In fact, ChristianF thanks Luhrmann as an inspiration. However, with the exception of the Leonardo DiCaprio image, nothing in that trailer feels specific to Luhrmann’s take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel. Instead it’s all generic Jazz Age footage, with no feeling and specificity.

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Which is ultimately what AI always does. It never creates anything new. Rather it recycles things that already exist, often things that have resonated with users, and smashes them together. At best, AI art achieves some sort of novelty, as when Reddit user u/Curious_Refuge shared “a Star Wars film by Wes Anderson” that they made. Although it does feature Anderson’s choice of title font and recognizable Star Wars characters, it only makes sense on the most surface level, with none of the life, humor, or deliberate film compositions that make Wes Anderson so interesting—and this so-called parody not.

To be clear, AI isn’t the only way to be derivative. Brad Peyton and his co-creators prove that with Atlas. But AI takes what most of us recognize as a shortcoming in art created by humans and tries to make it into a virtue. Indeed, excepting for the fact that it saves money for investors, who don’t want to pay people to work, AI’s only value is in creating uglier, dumber mashups of things that already exist.

Atlas Self Destructs

After the climax of Atlas, Atlas stays with Smith as he breaks down and dies. At this moment, she’s finally ready to fully share her thoughts and feelings with him, even though they’ve already linked to defeat Harlan. “I hate people…” she confesses through tears. “But I like you.”

With that statement, Atlas makes its moral plain. People are terrible. But AI is good. Of course the AI is just a riff on a person, right down to his name. But only a film as uncreative and redundant and, frankly, inhuman as Atlas could mistake that argument for anything approaching moral.

Atlas is now streaming on Netflix.