Atlas Is a Netflix Sci-Fi Star Vehicle With a Beating Heart

Just one year after teaming up for The Mother, Netflix and Jennifer Lopez’s second collaboration finally strikes a chord.

Jennifer Lopez in Atlas
Inverse Reviews

Not every film that lands on Netflix can be a winner. For every surprisingly-decent Netflix original, there’s the odd misguided dud, often designed to kick off a formulaic franchise. Netflix hasn’t had much success with the latter, of course. But the streamer churns out so many similar films, year after year, that quality is nearly inconsequential. Netflix will keep throwing stories at the wall with little regard to what actually sticks. And audiences will keep tuning in: it’s just the law of the jungle.

Fortunately, Netflix’s strategy allows a handful of hidden gems to rise to the surface. And against all odds, its latest effort, Atlas, is actually one of them. The sci-fi thriller marks the streamer’s second collaboration with star and producer Jennifer Lopez, and after the by-the-numbers revenge thriller The Mother (which somehow became the most-watched Netflix movie of 2023), it seems like the duo has finally found a true groove.

Atlas sees Lopez returning to a genre she hasn’t set foot in for over 20 years. Surprisingly, the multihyphenate hasn’t really played in the science-fiction arena, unless you count heady fantasy thriller The Cell. Lopez is just not all that interested in those kinds of projects, but after making Atlas, maybe she should reconsider.

Lopez stars as Atlas Shepherd, a data analyst with a tragic past and a mistrust for artificial intelligence. In her near-future world, AI has become irrevocably ingrained into society. Developing the technology was once the family business: Atlas’ mom, the late Val Shepherd (Lana Parilla), was the most vocal champion for more advanced, Replicant-like androids. It was Val who created peaceful “house bots” like Harlan (Simu Liu), but not even she could stave off the violent AI revolution that ensued.

As we learn in Atlas’ exposition-heavy opening montage, Harlan was “the world’s first AI terrorist.” He uploaded sentient code into his fellow techno-sapiens, wiped out a large swath of the human population, and promptly left Earth with the promise to return. Harlan is as paper-thin a villain as you can get — half Agent Smith, half T-1000, and far less compelling than either — but again, this is largely Lopez’s movie. The threat that Harlan poses to mankind is far less important than how it haunts our heroine, and how that informs a surprisingly-raw performance from the megastar.

Atlas’ AI villains aren’t exactly fully-formed characters, but they serve the story well enough.


Atlas spends nearly 30 years searching for Harlan’s mystery planet. Meanwhile, in the decades since the android and his disciples abandoned Earth, an international coalition has been quietly building up its defenses. So when one of Harlan’s top lieutenants returns to the planet, humanity is ready. Atlas then uncovers Harlan’s location in a slightly-silly hacking/interrogation scene and insists on tagging along with the special forces team sent to apprehend him.

This is a bad idea. If the character’s brittle demeanor and affinity for caffeine (she knocks back quad americanos like water) weren’t enough of a giveaway, Atlas is almost entirely ruled by post-traumatic stress. In one scene, she publicly admonishes her combat unit and its leader, Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), for their reliance on tech and for syncing their minds with the AI that power their mech suits.

As fate would have it, Atlas soon finds herself trapped in a mech suit of her own when their mission goes terribly wrong. After crash-landing on Harlan’s inhospitable planet, she’s forced to rely on “Smith” (a floating, J.A.R.V.I.S.-like orb voiced capably by Gregory James Cohan) in order to stop Harlan’s by-the-numbers evil scheme and get back to Earth in one piece.

Atlas is essentially a star vehicle for Lopez, but she makes the most of the opportunity.


Atlas’ second act could be classified as a one-woman show, but it’s admittedly entertaining to watch Lopez play opposite a genial AI. Their harsh rapport provides some surprising opportunities for comic relief, and Cohan’s performance as Smith bounces nimbly off Lopez’s defensive demeanor. Atlas is gradually forced to open up to Smith’s counsel, and when the unlikely duo finally end up sharing their individual skills via neural link, it’s a moment that’s entirely earned.

Atlas is actually at its best when it’s just our title heroine and her AI companion. Their dynamic feels akin to films like Bumblebee, I, Robot, and even Iron Man at turns. Lopez is dialed in physically and emotionally, as always, but unlike last year’s The Mother, Atlas’ script is just as strong as her performance. It’s a surprisingly-clever B-movie packed with heart. Sure, it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Atlas is now streaming on Netflix.

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