Art and culture

Jennifer Lopez’ Shrug-Worthy Sci-Fi Vehicle

Arriving on the heels of “The Greatest Love Story Never Told” — a true milestone of superstar transparency where Jennifer Lopez expressed a clear-eyed view of her current career status — “Atlas” feels like an underwhelming return to the kind of projects that have maintained Lopez’ place in the Hollywood firmament, but not the ones that catapulted her there in the first place.

One of her few science fiction-themed films, its novelty alone should make it stand out, especially with Brad Peyton, a reliable purveyor of large-scale spectacle (“San Andreas,” “Rampage”) in the director’s chair. But a dearth of original ideas undercuts the appeal of “Atlas,” leaving Lopez to fend for herself in much the same way her character is forced to in the film’s formulaic story.

Lopez plays the title character, a coffee-addicted, “rigid and hostile” data analyst whose mother Val (Lana Parilla) developed the first artificial-intelligence being, Harlan (Simu Liu), when Atlas was just a child. It was not long after that Harlan inexplicably went rogue and overtook control of all AI devices in order to launch a war against humankind. Harlan eventually left Earth, but when global military force ICN captures his associate Casca Vix (Abraham Popoola), General Jake Boothe (Mark Strong) reaches out to Atlas to hack Casca’s brain in the hopes of finding Harlan’s whereabouts.

Atlas identifies Harlan’s location on a remote planet “in the Andromeda Galaxy,” and insists on joining the team dispatched to apprehend him despite the trepidation of the operation’s commanding officer, Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown). Even so, she refuses to use one of the exo-suits assigned to each soldier because operating it requires a neural bond between man and machine. But upon arrival at GR-39 the ICN forces quickly discover that they’ve been led into a trap, and Harlan immediately destroys most of their ships and equipment.

In order to survive the fall to the planet’s surface, Atlas reluctantly gets into one of the remaining operational exo-suits, but immediately falls into a combative relationship with “Smith” (Gregory James Cohan), the default personality of its mainframe. As the two of them navigate the hostile terrain of the planet and encounter Harlan’s AI forces, Atlas begins to realize how much she’s missed by closing herself off from the world, thanks to Smith’s adaptive programming. Challenged by the first outside entity that she’s allowed in her head since the death of her mother, Atlas finds herself forced to confront some hard truths about her past, especially when Smith begins to realize how acknowledging them may help them combat Harlan in the present.

Directed by Peyton, “Atlas” shuffles nimbly through operatic visuals to tell what on the page must have seemed like an irresistibly intimate story of personal redemption. Unfortunately, a script by Leo Sardarian and Aron Eli Coleite (the latter a writer on Peyton’s Netflix series “Daybreak”) reduces too much of that eminently relatable growth to perfunctory, even cliched character pivots that audiences will identify long before they occur. It doesn’t help that the characters themselves verbalize many of the dynamics on which the plot dynamics hinge (just scenes after detailing a laundry list of reasons why Atlas is exactly wrong for their operation, Banks immediately insists to his superior officer that she should join them on the trek to GR-39), but film history is far too filled with hate-at-first-sight partnerships for viewers not to anticipate the begrudging respect, and even affection, that Atlas develops for her AI counterpart.

Moreover, the exo-suit, its “personality” and the film’s overall meditation on artificial intelligence feels fully cobbled together from the parts of too many earlier films to count. The machinery of Atlas’ life-saving exo-suit looks no different from the AMP (Amplified Mobility Platform) suits in James Cameron’s “Avatar,” itself a descendant of the power loader in Cameron’s “Aliens.” Smith sounds more than a bit like Baymax, the overprotective healthcare robot in Don Hall and Chris Williams’ “Big Hero 6,” except with the ability to swear and deploy sarcasm in mimicry of Atlas’ disgruntled disposition. Meanwhile, Harlan physically embodies the same fears about technology that have been explored on film for decades, sadly without new insights. John Connor was 11 in “Terminator 2” when he identified that mankind’s inclination was to destroy itself; Harlan hardly needed artificial intelligence to arrive at the same conclusion, but his intentions to extinguish Earth’s populations are meant to be a pre-emptive act.

Playing the film’s villain, Liu glowers with a level of menace that betrays the technology’s conclusive (if over-reaching) impartiality; Harlan’s opposition to humanity’s continued existence would be better served by an air of chilling detachment. The gifted actor’s breakthrough came only four years ago with “Shang-Chi,” but it’s clear that the industry hasn’t yet figured out what to do with him (notwithstanding a scene-stealing turn in “Barbie,” he made more of an impression playing Pat Dubak’s boyfriend on “The Other Two” than he does here). As too often happens with both Strong and Brown, they make phoning it in seem almost believable, but they’re hamstrung with dialogue that, again, could have been written for any of a dozen similar features.

But as this is released in the wake of her two recent self-examining documentaries, 2022’s “Halftime” and 2024’s “The Greatest Love Story Never Told,” it’s hardest to know what to do with Lopez. As devastating as it was to her to not receive an Oscar nomination for “Hustlers,” the role galvanized her public and screen personas in a way that none had in several years, offering a simultaneous showcase and deconstruction of her diva-like reputation. By comparison, this feels more like one of Dwayne Johnson’s more recent paint-by-numbers star vehicles (complete with a Johnson collaborator in the director’s seat): viewers can see that she’s trying, but too often it feels like she doesn’t really have to.

Even on a generic sci-fi adventure like this, that sensation comes as a disappointment, precisely because of the candor Lopez showed in those documentaries, where she recognized that the world isn’t yearning for new material from her like it once was. One might think that would lead her to take more risks — strike-outs are more respectable when they follow big swings. But “Atlas” is predictable, overlong and bland, the kind of experience it’s hard to get excited about when the star player seems to be perfunctorily running the bases.

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