Atlas review: AI might have written this one, but Netflix knows what people need


The promise of killer AI-powered robots made me try the new Netflix Memorial Day sci-fi feature called Atlas. And what a waste of time it was. Still, the streamer knows what it’s doing.

Actually, it wasn’t a total waste of time – the gadgets, robots, drones, and the overall futuristic pictures of the world ahead are quite interesting, and Jennifer Lopez certainly isn’t a bad actor.

But the whole premise – a genocidal AI bot called Harlan threatening Earth with extinction and fighting it out with its human sister Atlas on another planet– is just hilariously basic for 2024.

In fact, Atlas, a movie made for $100 million, would have shone in, say, 1996, competing with Independence Day at the box office. Overwhelming use of VFX, terribly corny dialogues, soapy soundtrack – what else do you want from a 90s classic-wannabe?

Well, as a member of a team that’s been reporting on the AI boom every day for the last year and a half since the launch of ChatGPT, I can say that the film’s creators have definitely allowed their imagination to run quite a bit too wild – even if yes, Atlas is a fantasy.

Unconvincing plot

That’s because so many smaller and larger details just don’t make sense. On the surface, they do, but once you go deeper and compare what you see to actual reality, it’s pretty wild.

In the opening scene, the news anchor says that we were warned about them long ago – obviously, it’s the killer robots. You get the vibe instantly – that we got what we deserved. And now, rock and roll!

It turns out that AI bots have learned to bypass security protocols and are now attacking humans. Again, at first glance, this isn’t illogical – generative AI is unique in that it’s able to learn and then draw conclusions on its own.

But it’s not so simple. It might just be a single security protocol these AI terrorists are bypassing because, surely, even today AI models are built with multiple security checks in mind.

Ok, though. Let’s believe that AI bots are now waging war on humanity – I guess it’s over, right? No! Glorious Earthlings unite into an International Coalition of Nations and overwhelm the robots.

atlas-lopez-stunt
This is how Atlas is promoted in downtown Los Angeles. Image by Shutterstock.

But shouldn’t they be smarter than that and destroy these soldiers, also easily hacking and shutting down their modern weaponry?

Oh well. Harlan, the boss of the terrorist AI models, then “flees our world” – but not after leaving a final “I will come back” message dressed in a full-length black coat. Is he the Terminator, or is he Morpheus from the Matrix trilogy?

The data doesn’t lie

Cut to 28 years later. Atlas has now grown up and lives in a very smart apartment, playing chess with a virtual assistant. The TV is on, though, and we hear the predictable nod to “equal rights for techno-sapiens.”

If this sounds like obvious nonsense, remember that even now, some very progressive ideas are being floated around, at least in the United States.

Should non-citizens be allowed to vote? Should we defund the police? How many genders are there? Are all white Americans racist white supremacists? No wonder Donald Trump, as mad as he is, might well be elected US president.

Anyway, back to the Netflix shitshow. On its way to the bottom, the protagonist befriends Smith, one of the good AI bots whose task is to make us stop worrying and love technology, as concerning as it might be.

Indeed, midway through the movie, the lesson of the story is that yes, AI can go rogue, but if it’s domesticated, it can be almost fun. Oh, and your life will definitely become better. Yes, we’ll augment it.

Netflix knows what it’s doing, and it doesn’t care about what the critics say.

The problem is that it’s just not convincing – might the script have been written by ChatGPT, hallucinations and all? I checked, and it came from Aron Eli Coleite and Leo Sardarian. Well done, guys, you can call it quits now.

Are we all programmed? Do we all have a soul? These little discussions are cringe-worthy, and the accompanying music gives them a thick vibe of hopelessness.

“God knows how he got it,” says Atlas upon seeing Harlan’s base on a planet far, far away. Well, there are quite a few unknowns in this simulation of a movie. The Guardian called Atlas a mockbuster, and I endorse the message.

However, Netflix knows what it’s doing, and it doesn’t care about what the critics say. The streamer’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, just gave an interview to The New York Times and basically said that even if a movie looks dull, he always checks the numbers – and the metrics don’t lie.

Netflix's process of choosing whether to produce a new show or movie is very thorough these days because everything’s data-driven. The number crunchers take long looks at viewing habits, completion rate, and other granular metrics, and if they concluded Atlas would be a success, they’re probably right.

Sure, by choosing to produce this, Netflix chose to minimize risk. However, as Sarandos puts it, the streaming giant now has to program for about 650 million people around the world – and Atlas is already the number one movie in the US and the United Kingdom.


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