Netflix's new sci-fi flick 'Atlas' charms with old-school heroics and rousing mech fights (review)

a woman inside a giant military robot on a weird planet
Jennifer Lopez's Atlas Shepherd explores a hostile planet in "Atlas." (Image credit: Netflix)

The best way to describe Canadian director Brad Peyton's ("San Andreas," "Rampage") rousing new sci-fi movie is to say that "Atlas" represents the best video game movie ever made for a video game that doesn't specifically exist. 

Well, that's not entirely true for this Netflix gem, which was released last Friday (May 24), because Peyton's futuristic feature integrates deja-vu DNA from video games like "Titanfall," "Mechwarrior," and "Armored Core" — titles all locked and loaded with thundering mechs engaged in heavy metal combat, or "Pacific Rim," the 2013 movie directed by Guillermo del Toro. 

Happily toting a nostalgic '90s-era filmmaking vibe, "Atlas" harkens back to bolder times in Tinseltown, when action-adventure flicks reigned supreme with solid plotlines and focused themes, crafted by fearless filmmakers with a taste for this flavor of crowd-pleasing product that's perfect for a summer movie season kickoff.

In the negative climate of today’s hypercritical focus on only the worst elements of any film, we’re here to tell you that "Atlas" is a rewarding blast from the past. It boasts impressive performances by its likable cast, inspired action sequences, and breathtaking visual effects, confidently led by a spirited director who understands the bulletproof mechanics of traditional three-act structure.

Related: 'Atlas' stars Jennifer Lopez and Sterling K. Brown on AI paranoia and their film's emotional core' (exclusive)

One of the ICN Rangers' mighty mechs in "Atlas." (Image credit: Netflix)

After a swift setup, we begin in the year 2071, after Earth was decimated by an AI uprising orchestrated by the android terrorist Harlan (Simu Liu), whose past is linked to a top-notch data analyst named Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez). Harlan flees Earth to the planet GR-39 in the Andromeda galaxy, where he’s finally located 28 years later. A search-and-destroy mission is mounted by ICN commandos, with Lopez tagging along due to her former associations with this rogue artificial human created by her scientist mother (Lana Parilla) at Shepherd Robotics.  

Heading out with a rough-and-tumble special forces outfit led by Col. Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown), Lopez must survive by forming a bond with her battle mech's interface personality called Smith (Gregory James Cohan), attempting to overcome her aversion to AIs in order to apprehend and destroy Harlan before he can return for a second strike to wipe out humanity.  

Detailed production design here cares enough to let you poke around a bit, but never by sacrificing story, pace and character. There’s a strong narrative through-line at work in "Atlas," paired with genuine emotional stakes if you allow it the chance to work its charm and magic.

"Jennifer read the initial draft, and she found it emotional and very engaging," Peyton told "These types of films [are] what I like to do. I like worldbuilding. I love action-adventure. Basically everything I do is like an adventure film, it's just wrapped up in a different subgenre. That has to do with growing up in the '90s, when you have Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, Ridley Scott all at their A-game."  

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Simu Liu stars as the AI terrorist, Harlan, in "Atlas." (Image credit: Netflix)

Besides the terrific foursome of fully invested stars in Jennifer Lopez, Sterling K. Brown, Mark Strong and an especially sinister Simu Liu, another notable addition to the cast is British actor Abraham Popoola, who delivers an imposing performance as Harlan's brutish AI enforcer, Casca Vix. 

"Atlas" is a gorgeous-looking film, and one of the reasons is the scintillating cinematography by its Academy Award-nominated DP, John Schwartzman. To say that this veteran has an impressive resume would be a grave understatement, as his cinematic sorcery has graced blockbusters like "The Rock," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "Seabiscuit," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Dracula Untold," "Jurassic World," "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," and "Jurassic World: Dominion."

"I really loved working with John, and I think he and I will end up doing a lot of projects together," Peyton said. "He’s the correct personality for me in terms of a creative and really knowing cinema and how to make things dramatic and grounded. He was such a creative partner because he quickly got on board with the idea that I wanted the movie to feel real and lived-in and a little bit gritty in places. I definitely challenged him, and he definitely wanted to kill me on some days. Both he and Barry Chusid, the production designer, had to work hand in hard. It had to all feel grounded, and that meant a lot of practical lighting was designed into the sets."

Jennifer Lopez is strapped into a lethal mech machine in "Atlas." (Image credit: Netflix)

In between the steel-on-steel scrapes, "Atlas" does stumble into some muddier, cliched moments trying to decide if artificial intelligence is still something immensely beneficial, sufficiently benign or an evolving technological beast to be feared. Calling the film formulaic, however, is to cast aside the undeniable truth that viewers can still enjoy "Atlas" as harmless escapism with a predictable rundown of timely AI themes that don't feel too heavy or ponderous.

"I'm very aware that I've just scratched the surface of Atlas' character and who this person is," Peyton added, when asked about a potential sequel. "I actually think Harlan is a little misunderstood, and I’d love to explore more of his side of the story. I started jotting ideas down into an outline as I was finishing up the movie. I just love the whole world of these ARC suits and the ICN and the Rangers. Wouldn’t it be so cool to see a 'Top Gun' school for people trying to become Rangers? That would be reason enough alone for me to go back to this world."

Unless you’re the sort of caustic movie fan who relishes ripping apart every honest filmmaking effort, there’s nothing wrong with strapping into the carnivalesque thrill ride of "Atlas," which recalls classics like "Aliens," "Terminator 2," and "The Matrix."  

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.

  • KMullumby
    With instant travel over 2.5 million light years. I fail to see how destroying humanity on only one planet (even if it is sentimental old earth) is meant to destroy 99 percent of humans!
  • Brad
    Beyond stupid. So poorly conceived, written, directed, and acted! I already sent Netflix an email demanding my 2 hours back.