the moment

Netflix’s Atlas is the sort of film Elon Musk would love – and that’s a problem

The new top-ranking sci-fi film sees Jennifer Lopez’s techno-sceptic learn to embrace an AI system that saves her life. With concerns over real-world artificial intelligence growing, Louis Chilton asks how ‘Atlas’ managed to read the room so badly

Wednesday 29 May 2024 08:57 BST
You can call me AI: Jennifer Lopez in ‘Atlas’
You can call me AI: Jennifer Lopez in ‘Atlas’ (Netflix)

In the boundaryless imagination of science fiction, artificial intelligence is a story as old as the lightbulb. From Blade Runner to Battlestar Galactica, the genre has warned us time and time again about the perils of humans playing God; even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, now more than 200 years old, was, in part, an exploration of what has become the increasingly relevant AI issue. Atlas, a new film topping Netflix’s most-watched charts, is the latest sci-fi work to position AI in its crosshairs. Once there, however, it refuses to squeeze the trigger.

The premise is simple enough. At the beginning of the film, planet Earth is rocked by an “AI terrorist” known as Harlan, played with flat plasticity by Marvel star Simu Liu. Millions of humans are killed; Harlan flees the planet with his robotic acolytes. A few decades later, analyst Atlas Shepherd (Jennifer Lopez) embarks on a mission to hunt down this robotic Osama bin Laptop, who is hiding out on a distant planet. After the initial military operation goes awry, she must rely on the help of the AI system inside her mech suit – referred to by the humanising (and, one must imagine, Matrix-derived) nickname of “Smith”. At every obstacle, it is Smith that comes to Shepherd’s aid; by the film’s end, she is a total convert, a fully-fledged apostle of the church of AI. What starts out as a kind of heavy-handed piece of fear-mongering ends up as a heavy-handed work of propaganda, a tale of overcoming prejudice in which the prejudice was, in fact, completely justified all along. Has any recent film so spectacularly failed at reading the room?

Artificial Intelligence has become a mountingly debated issue; within the space of a few years, it has gone from a far-fetched science fiction concept to a troubling and evolving reality, spawning a mess of concerns around labour rights and plagiarism, particularly within the creative sphere. This has naturally started to be reflected in mainstream media. AI now regularly crops up in big-budget action films, such as Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which pitted Tom Cruise against a nebulous AI villain known as “The Algorithm”, and The Creator, a sort of superior cousin of Atlas that imagines a war between the human race and AI robots. But while there have always been shades of light and dark to these films – Blade Runner, for instance, posits that the artificially intelligent androids may in fact be more emotionally “human” than their flesh-and-blood counterparts – few have tackled the subject with the blunt acquiescence of Atlas.

Elon Musk, a long-term proponent of AI, inevitably springs to mind while watching Atlas. The decision to call the fictional human-to-AI interface technology “Neural Link” can’t help but evoke him (the phrase is a glottal-stopped homonym for Neuralink, the experimental – and widely condemned – technology being developed by Musk, which involves a computer chip being surgically implanted into a living human’s brain). It’s easy to imagine Musk endorsing this film. A scene towards the end, in which Shepherd finally relents and affixes the “neural link” to her ear, is shown to be a life-saving decision. There’s no nuance to it – just affirmation. The real-world concerns around AI – namely, that it will be adopted by capitalism as a means of exploiting human labour – are not even slightly touched upon.

Underneath it all, however, Atlas is pretty useless as a work of techno-propaganda, thanks largely to its own dispensability. Despite topping Netflix’s charts, the film has been damned by critics, many of whom slammed the CGI-heavy production, and the weak, unconvincing script. (Jokes about Atlas being written by ChatGPT were something of an open goal, given the forced and synthetic nature of Shepherd and Smith’s dialogue.) It’s hard to imagine someone watching Atlas and changing their opinion on much of anything, except perhaps whether or not to renew their Netflix subscription. That’s a good thing, of course. If Atlas were a better film, it might really give us something to worry about.

‘Atlas’ is available to stream now on Netflix

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