The Ending of ‘Atlas’ Delivers A Nonsense Message About The Future Of AI

By Daniel Hart
Published: May 24, 2024
Jennifer Lopez in Atlas as part of ending explanation of movie
Jennifer Lopez as Atlas Shepherd (Credit - Netflix)


The third and final act of Atlas is the most engaging, mostly because I was excited for it to end but partly because they may as well have had this kind of action all the way through. The ending has the titular character desperate to try and stop Harlan from destroying Earth. To do so, she has to prevent the human ship from leaving planet GR-37, which Harlan has turned into a disguised nuclear missile ready to wipe out humanity. 

Atlas Saves Humanity and Defeats Harlan 

The ending had to be Atlas versus Harlan; why would you have it any other way? I have nothing to grumble over the fighting scenes as Atlas uses her Arc to the best of her ability to try to stop the ship from setting off. 

In the end, Harlan has to trust that her AI, Smith, can hack the missile system as she shoots a rocket at the ship. Despite Smith’s denial that he can do it in time, it works, and the ship is destroyed. Humanity is saved.

But then there’s Harlan to deal with, and I’ll get into the history of Atlas and this AI robot further down this article. Considering they have a history, there was little emotion in these scenes. Harlan knows he needs to defeat Atlas so he can use her to try to destroy Earth again. Atlas knows he needs to defeat Harlan so the government can research him.

Eventually, Atlas destroys Harlan and takes his CPU. For the lead character, it was simply playing chess with him to finally beat him in battle, a board game the robot taught her as a child. 

But defeating Harlan came with a heavy cost. Her Arc, Smith, is nearly destroyed and is shutting down. He doesn’t have anything left to recover, and he wants to use the remaining energy to provide her enough oxygen to survive on GR-37 as the ICN is minutes away from saving her.  

Simu Liu as Harlan in Atlas (Credit – Netflix)

And it’s here we get character development. Atlas admits to Smith that it’s not just AI that she takes issue with but that she’s used to disappointment. But she admits to liking Smith. She’s grown attached. As Smith shuts down, Atlas explains all the things she likes, being fully open with AI. This is, of course, a turn of events for the character, as she’s been opposed to using AI or any form of neural link since the start of the movie. And now, she’s formed a friendship with one. 

The film ends with the ICN rescuing Atlas from Planet GR-37 in the Andromeda Galaxy. When Atlas returns home, a huge weight is off her shoulders now she’s defeated Harlan, and she is happy to have a symbiotic relationship with another Arc. Yeah… I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this ending, which essentially supports humans becoming accustomed to pairing with AI as long as AI is good. I do not think that’s the right message, especially for consumable, worldwide media via a streaming platform. 

The History Between Atlas and Harlan 

Anyway, here’s further context to the entire movie regarding Harlan. Why was Atlas so emotionally attached to this mission? Why was she so determined to find the AI robot terrorist herself?

Well, it turns out her mother created Harlan, but he was coded in a way that only obeyed humans. The coding was one-way. At one point, Harlan had no ability to command or take control over humans. 

But a young Atlas grew jealous of her mother’s attentiveness to Harlan and wanted to find a way to impress her. So, she asks Harlan to form a symbiotic relationship with her so he can teach her impressive things. Instead, Harlan is re-coded. He suddenly becomes aware of what humans are capable of and believes destroying them will serve the future better.

Harlan’s recoding means a symbiotic relationship can work both ways, and he immediately controls Atlas’s mother and kills her. Atlas felt like the terrorist acts that followed were her fault, which is why she was determined to track him down on planet GR-37. 

In the present-day storyline, humans have managed to find a way to have a symbiotic relationship with AI that works both ways. 


Endings Explained, Movies, Movies - Ending Explained, Netflix, Streaming Service