‘It has an ‘Aliens’-like vibe:’ ‘Atlas’ director Brad Peyton on channeling James Cameron (exclusive)

Adding more combustible material to the inferno of AI unease sweeping the globe, director Brad Peyton “(Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “San Andreas,” “Rampage”) is experiencing a healthy surge of adrenalin to his Hollywood filmmaking career that seems to have no ceiling as evidenced by his latest entertaining project.

His new Netflix sci-fi thriller, “Atlas,” combines an explosive assault of “Titanfall”-like mech action paired with timely themes surrounding our inherent apprehension about the encroachment of artificial intelligence into every aspect of our daily lives.  

Starring Jennifer Lopez, Simu Liu, Sterling K. Brown and Mark Strong, “Atlas” kicks off on a near future Earth in the chaotic aftermath of an apocalyptic robot uprising.

Related: ‘The first time I read the script … I sobbed.’ ‘Atlas’ stars Jennifer Lopez and Sterling K. Brown on AI paranoia and their film’s emotional core’ (exclusive)

Director Brad Peyton and Jennifer Lopez on the set of “Atlas” (Image credit: Netflix)

Atlas Shepherd (Lopez) is a military data analyst with a serious distrust of AI who insists on teaming up with a Ranger unit led by Colonel Elias Banks (Brown) to hunt down a renegade android named Harlan (Liu) on a remote planet. Shepherd must overcome her deep-seated fears and bond with an amiable AI called Smith installed inside her armored mech-suit if she’s going to have any chance of destroying the genocidal robot terrorist and returning safely home.

Peyton is an instinctive director who continues to hone his craft over the last decade by sticking with the types of action adventure storytelling he loves.

“I grew up loving the invitation to go to as rich a science fiction world as I could,” Peyton tells “When I was a kid I discovered James Cameron was Canadian, and I’m Canadian. So as a 13-year-old that’s going to see ‘Terminator 2,’ you can imagine the impact something like that has on you when you discover that a Canadian from a rural place can go to Hollywood and make THIS movie. It kind of blew my mind. As a teenage I wasn’t thinking as a filmmaker, it was as a human being that it seeped into me, this possibility that I’d never imagined before.”  

Cameron has always been a huge inspiration for Peyton in all his projects and tonally you see this most prominently in the film’s unrelenting third act. 

“It has an ‘Aliens’-like vibe because of the grounded, grittiness to it,” he explains. “The other reference point, and it’s really strange, but there was this movie I saw in 1989 called ‘Robot Jox.’ That movie planted a seed. The thing I like about going back to those films is that they’re tight stories that have very focused narratives. Some of them are a little simplistic now, but what I like about them is they’re not indulgent in a way. They just move through the story they’re trying to tell and I love filmmaking like that. 

“I like putting you on a ride and then just firing through that experience. I think the ’90s and the pacing those movies had affected me in a big way. Those movies had really great characters, succinct stories and really big concepts matched with talent that was interested in telling those types of stories.”

Simu Liu stars as the villainous Harlan in Netflix’s “Atlas” (Image credit: Netflix)

Regarding his exceptional cast, Peyton singles out how Simu Liu (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) was chosen to portray the film’s chilling AI baddie. 

“In all honesty, Simu came after us,” Peyton recalls. “I think he saw the opportunity to play a villain with the role. At first I probably had the same thought everyone had, which is, ‘This guy’s too nice to play a villain.’ He’s a fellow Canadian and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I was very involved with him about doing something we haven’t seen before. That’s where the blue eyes come from and the designs in his hair. When he put his contacts in they were so blue he could barely see anything. So when he’s on set, he’s looking at people but he’s kind of more looking through people, which made it extra creepy because he couldn’t really focus on them. That’s one of the things that I reveled in everyday. Sterling, Jen, Simu, are all movie stars!  

“I’ve wanted to work with Mark Strong since ‘Body of Lies.’ The whole cast was a bit of a dream to work with because they’re all high caliber actors that were just bringing it every day. With Simu in particular, the thing we locked onto, that was sort of a touchstone for both of us, is that you can’t really put a finger on where he stands. I find the people that say the least, that don’t give away their behavior, are the most scary people I’ve ever met. They don’t feel the need to say much.” 

Jennifer Lopez pilots her military mech in “Atlas” (Image credit: Netflix)

Peyton believed that with Jennifer Lopez aboard, he was including someone who’s a remarkable performer and that in the right piece of material, with the right filmmaker, was going to shine in a unique way.

“I loved ‘Out of Sight’ and I loved ‘The Cell.’ Those are very distinct movies in her filmography. So I focused a lot on the character and then crafting a process that would help support her and get the best performance. For me it was a really rewarding experience being able to work so intimately with her. 

“A lot of these scenes are her in a mech-suit, Greg [Cohan] voicing Smith in a sound booth next to my monitors, and just me talking to her and that’s it. And she’s one of the most intuitive actors I’ve ever worked with. For someone who works off intuition, you need to give them space in order to let them feel it out. She’s phenomenal in the movie and I think it’s one of her best performances in a long, long time.”

Sterling K. Brown leads the heroic Rangers in “Atlas” (Image credit: Netflix)

Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Sterling K. Brown (“This is Us,” “American Fiction”) also embodied that same superstar wattage Peyton was fortunate to add.

“There’s a certain thing that movie stars have,” Peyton explains. “There’s a charisma and a way they take the reality of a scene and make it their own. They’re augmenting the sensation of the set. They’re augmenting the feeling of the room. That’s the charisma they have and Sterling has that. And of course he’s been nominated for an Academy Award since I’ve worked with him. 

“The reason you’re drawn to seeing these three together is that they’re movie stars in their own right. And the roles they have in this movie support that because that’s the type of material I like to work on. I like to give people great introductions, meaty characters, great deaths if they have to die, but it’s movie star treatment and those three people occupy that space perfectly.”

“Atlas” streams exclusively on Netflix starting May 24, 2024.

Watch “Atlas” from May 24 on Netflix

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