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Movie Review: This is her, now, in space: J.Lo heads to a new galaxy for AI love story in 'Atlas'

Let’s all be clear, if we weren’t already, that when it comes to Jennifer Lopez, it's about the love story. Always the love story. J.Lo the pop star, singing about rekindled love on her latest album, “This is Me … Now.” J.
This image released by Netflix shows Sterling K. Brown in a scene from "Atlas." (Netflix via AP)

Let’s all be clear, if we weren’t already, that when it comes to Jennifer Lopez, it's about the love story. Always the love story.

J.Lo the pop star, singing about rekindled love on her latest album, “This is Me … Now.” J.Lo the rom-com regular, making movies about seeking love (including the extremely autobiographical film of the same name.) J.Lo the real-life celebrity goddess, in countless headlines about … what else?

Love, for better or worse.

And so if we tell you that now, we have J.Lo in “Atlas,” playing a data analyst who travels to a planet populated solely by evil AI bots preparing to extinguish humanity, well, your only question really should be, “Where’s the love story?”

Glad you asked! Because there is one. It may not be with a human. It may actually be with a computer program. But there is one. Because “Atlas,” an often ridiculous sci-fi epic with dialogue cheesier than a Brie wheel but also an old-fashioned, human heart o’ gold, is a J.Lo movie. Through and through.

We’ll give the filmmakers some credit: “Atlas,” directed by Brad Peyton (“San Andreas”) is timely. And not just because Lopez has been in the news lately, but because the subject is AI — which has been in the news even more than Bennifer, believe it or not.

We begin our story on Earth, way off into the future, at a time where someone can say “Remember there used to be things called smartphones?” and everyone laughs. A montage of news reports informs us that things have not been going well for the human race. AI, created to advance humanity, has turned against it, killing over 1 million civilians.

The evil AI leader is Harlan (Simu Liu), who after turning on humanity has escaped to an unknown location far from Earth. But when an associate of his, Casca, is captured on Earth, the head of ICN, a coalition of nations fighting the AI menace, calls on Atlas Shepherd (Lopez) to help question him. Who better than the woman who's devoted her life to the hunt for Harlan?

We learn Atlas is not a happy person. Also, she's addicted to coffee – quad Americanos, to be precise. And she hates — absolutely hates — AI, for reasons unknown.

Anyway, Atlas deftly manages to obtain Harlan's location from Casca, and soon finds herself begging to join a mission to his far-off planet to capture the villainous bot, with whom she shares a mysterious past connection. At first, mission commander Banks (Sterling K. Brown) objects strenuously, but quickly and rather illogically changes his mind. (Both Liu and Brown deserve much better roles than the generic, lifeless ones they're given.)

Soon they’re off, to GR-39 in the Andromeda galaxy, where the ICN space rangers fall into a disastrous trap laid by Harlan. It’s here that Atlas meets the most important other person in the movie — well, not a person. It’s her AI software, who proves her crucial ally once Atlas is forced to crash land, in her mechanized battle suit, onto the planet.

The key issue is trust-building. Atlas, as we said, doesn't trust AI. As the two get to know each other, the software gives himself (he has a “default” male voice) a name: Smith.

Atlas: “Is that really necessary?” Smith: “Names create an emotional reaction.” Atlas: “You’re a computer program.”

The plan consists of finding Harlan, defeating his dastardly plot to destroy humanity and getting off the planet – all while hopefully staying alive. At every step, Smith informs Atlas with all the data at his disposal how precisely desperate the odds are. This results in some amusing banter as Smith, voiced by Gregory James Cohan, "learns" sarcasm and humor.

As for Atlas, she needs to learn how to let down her guard – or rather, her brain walls. Her mistrust of AI leads her to stubbornly refuse (at first) Smith’s entreaties to use the “neural link” — a pathway into each other’s brains — that will vastly enhance Atlas' chances of survival, combining her analytic capacity with Smith’s data access.

Harlan doesn’t appear until halfway into the movie, and we soon learn something about the tragic past he shares with Atlas. In any case, it’s Smith, not Harlan, that ultimately evokes real feeling from Atlas — and gives Lopez a chance to emote, which she does reasonably well given the mediocre dialogue. You could call it a futuristic triangle: Human, bad AI, good AI.

Who will win out? Our protocol, as Smith would say, doesn’t allow us to give spoilers. But you can guess one idea that emerges shining bright: It’s a four letter word that starts with “L.”

“Atlas,” a Netflix release, has been Rated PG-13 “for strong sci-fi violence, action, bloody images and strong language.” Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press