‘Atlas’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Is Harlan Dead?


Directed by Brad Peyton and starring Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu, Atlas is a science fiction film that unfolds in a future where artificial intelligence attempts to take over mankind. A rogue AI bot, Harlan, was responsible for overriding all other AI bots to help bypass security protocols, and as a result, the robots unified for his cause and started murdering human beings randomly. A million people were killed in just ten days by the AI bots. The International Coalition of Nations (ICN) managed to bring the AI threat under control, and Harlan finally left Earth, but before leaving, he recorded a message for humans stating that he would return to finish what he had started.

Our protagonist, Atlas Shepherd, had grown up with the first AI terrorist, Harlan. He was a helpful house bot then, but during his stay, something occurred that affected his behavior towards human beings. As an adult, Atlas had made it her life’s mission to destroy Harlan and save humanity.

Spoiler Alert

How did Atlas learn to trust Smith?

Twenty-eight years had passed since Harlan had left Earth. Finding him had become the ultimate goal of human beings, and they found some hope when AI bot Casca Decius was tracked down. Since Atlas had dedicated most of her life to studying Harlan, she was assigned to interrogate Casca, and she successfully figured out that Harlan had been hiding on planet GR-39 in the Andromeda Galaxy. While Atlas had proven herself as a talented analyst in the ICN, she was not considered equipped to join the mission. Atlas believed that without her expertise, the Fourth Ranger Battalion would fail, but her opinion was not initially taken seriously. Colonel Elias Banks was heading the mission, and he was quite confident that with the help of neural links that connected human beings and AI, they would be able to take over the rogue bots. As it turned out, Atlas’ mother had invented the neural links, but they were outlawed. Her mother, Val Shepherd’s contribution to AI bots was unparalleled, and she was also the one who created Harlan. Unfortunately, the creation destroyed the creator, and from that day on, Atlas could not trust AIs. The neural links used by the colonel were a two-way connection that gave birth to something that was neither human nor AI but a (sort of) new identity altogether.

Colonel Banks ultimately agreed to bring Atlas on board for the mission, but she pretty much disapproved of the trust that the battalion had in AI. While the colonel was confident that they were prepared to confront Harlan, Atlas struggled to make them realize how dangerous the threat was and that they must never be overconfident about their victory. As predicted by Atlas, Harlan and his bot army attacked before they could land on GR-39. Atlas had no choice but to put on an ARC suit. She was repeatedly advised to put on the neural link for the suit to work at its full potential, but she refused to do so. She saw with her own eyes the damage an AI could cause, and she refused to fall victim to it like her mother did.

Atlas managed to make it to GR-39, but she soon figured out that she was the only one who survived the fall. She collected the tags of the rangers to bring home to their family. To survive on the alien planet, Atlas needed the assistance of the computer program, Smith, that was integrated into the body suit, but she could not trust him. Smith adapted to Atlas’ behavior and persistently requested that she put on the neural link since it was the only way they could survive. After dropping an ion bomb when the bots attacked and suffering a minor fracture, Atlas decided to give syncing a chance. But even then, the syncing was incomplete because Atlas refused to give away any information about herself. She was too closed off for the synchronization, and Smith needed to access some personal memory to develop the trust that was needed for the program to function. Atlas revealed a memory of her and Harlan when she was a child—she remembered how he betrayed her trust and attacked their mother. Smith realized the emotional reaction that Atlas had at the mention of Harlan, and he promised to keep Atlas safe, something that the rogue bot had failed to do. The syncing process finally started, and even though Atlas hated to admit it, she had started to get used to having conversations with Smith.

Why did Harlan want to destroy humanity?

Atlas thought she could single-handedly destroy Harlan and his bot army, but it was almost impossible. She was held captive, and finally Harlan revealed himself to her. Atlas begged Harlan not to launch the spaceship that was built to destroy Earth. Harlan believed there was no other way to deal with the destruction that human beings would eventually bring to Earth. He had tried to come up with different ways, but none were as effective. Harlan was convinced that only by eliminating human beings could he save Earth and the other species that lived on it. Atlas’ mother had created Harlan for a better future, and since he was designed to protect humanity, he planned to destroy the vast majority of the human population, and the ones who would survive would inherit a new birthright—to peacefully coexist with other species, and they would be constantly guided by AIs. Humans would no longer be the dominant species, and AI would take over their position.

During Atlas‘ ending, Harlan revealed that it was because of him that Atlas made it to planet GR-39 and that he was the one behind Casca’s capture. What Atlas thought was her achievement was basically her falling into the trap that Harlan had set. Harlan needed Atlas’ help because she had designed the shield protecting Earth from a bot attack. He needed access to the codes for Dhiib to penetrate the defensive shield. According to Harlan’s plan, after the ship entered Earth’s atmosphere, it would fire the carbon head and cleanse Earth with nuclear fire. Atlas was tied to a bed, and Harlan forcefully took the second clearance code from her. He had already gotten access to the first one from Colonel Banks, who was taken hostage the minute he made it to the alien planet. With both the security codes in his possession, Harlan was unstoppable, but thankfully not all the bots had gone rogue; the humans still had Smith on their team.

Why did Atlas blame herself for the attacks?

Colonel Banks admitted that he made the mistake of not paying heed to Atlas’ warnings. Had they been more cautious, they would have had a chance at stopping Harlan. Atlas mentioned that her computer program, Smith, was hacked into, and she was pulled out of the ARC suite. While Atlas had assumed that Smith was powered down, the colonel stated that unless the reactors were emptied or destroyed, the program would not completely shut down. He offered her his neural link to connect with Smith. Atlas was surprised when Smith communicated with her, and she begged him to come and help her. Smith mentioned that he was incapacitated and that Atlas could override the code only after they achieved complete sync. To let someone into her mind was a challenging task for Atlas. After Harlan broke her trust, she refused to ever allow another AI to play with her mind.

Atlas blamed herself for the massacre because she believed she was responsible for the shift in Harlan’s behavior. When Atlas was a little girl, she craved her mother’s attention, but her mother was mostly busy studying the AI bots she had built. Atlas wanted to become as intelligent as the bots to impress her mother, and she asked Harlan to help her become a better version of herself. Harlan convinced her that there was one way, but to do so, he proposed they alter the neural link to make it work both ways. He needed a human’s command, and Atlas was more than happy to authorize the procedure. Harlan tapped into Atlas’ mind, and he could foresee the future of the world. He witnessed how humanity would destroy the world, and that was when he prioritized saving the planet at the cost of millions of human lives. When Atlas’ mother walked into the room, it was too late. She plugged out the neural link from Atlas and wore it, but she had no idea that the two-way path was authorized. Harlan had complete control over her motor skills, and when she tried to remove the neural link, Harlan stopped her. Harlan reprogrammed the neural link, and he had also taken control of other bots. To leave the house and start his own journey, he had to kill his creator, and that was how Atlas’s mother lost her life. Atlas blamed herself for the monster that Harlan had become, but Smith helped her realize that, as a little girl, she could not have guessed the consequences that her action would have. Smith’s calm voice and his faith in Atlas helped her trust the AI program, and she finally allowed a complete sync.

Did Atlas destroy Harlan?

Smith rescued Atlas; his fusion batteries were at 6 percent, and by hacking into the enemy’s system, Smith found out that they had only four minutes to stop Dhiib from launching. They were running out of time and batteries, and they had no other weapon except the chest cannon. Smith and Atlas decided to make use of whatever was lying around to improve their chances at fighting Harlan. While the upgrade helped counter the bots to some extent, Smith and Atlas were outnumbered. Just when Atlas was about to give up, Colonel Banks came to her rescue. He advised Atlas to run before firing at the rocket fuel. The blast destroyed most of Harlan’s bot army, and perhaps Atlas would have been able to stop the spaceship had Harlan not attacked her at the very last minute.

Atlas believed their only option was to shoot down the spaceship, but then again, the carbon warhead could ignite the atmosphere and kill Atlas as well. The only way to counter the problem was by hacking the missile and deactivating the warhead, but Smith was hesitant since they did not have much time to get it all done. Atlas helped Smith build his confidence, and even though Smith warned her not to take the shot, she still did it because she believed Smith would manage to break the firewalls on time. Towards the end of “Atlas,” Atlas successfully managed to destroy the spaceship carrying the carbon warhead without getting killed in the process. Smith was surprised by the turn of events—it was beyond anything he had predicted. But the threat was not completely over because Harlan was yet to be destroyed. He intended on linking one last time with Atlas to use her to bring another ship to the planet. Harlan had created a deadly weapon, and Atlas struggled to fight it. Smith assisted Atlas in understanding his technique, and while she managed to get hold of him, Harlan had upgraded himself to an extent that it was almost impossible to destroy him as easily. Atlas was gravely injured, and Smith focused on keeping her alive.

Harlan continued to attack Smith, and he ultimately destroyed his fusion batteries. While Harlan focused on destroying Smith, Atlas got back to her senses and attacked Harlan at the end of Atlas. Harlan assumed that Atlas was instructed to take him back to Earth alive, but all Atlas needed from him was his CPU. Harlan believed his death would be the end of not just Earth but also humanity, but Atlas reassured him that humans would come up with more sustainable alternatives, and they had better AI versions to guide them through the process. With the CPU plugged out of his system, Harlan finally died.

What was the future Atlas envisioned for humanity?

Atlas was heartbroken when she realized that there was no way for Smith to make it off the alien planet with her. His batteries were damaged, and by unlinking the neural link, he offered to provide Atlas with eleven minutes of oxygen. Atlas had grown deeply attached to Smith, and the thought of leaving him behind troubled her. Both humans and AI had broken Atlas’ trust, and it was only Smith who did not disappoint her. Before Smith was completely shut down, Atlas told him everything that she liked. She wanted him to know her preferences, and as a gesture of love and appreciation, Smith offered her a cube of coffee just the way she liked it. Smith continued to be a great support, and he kept his promise of keeping Atlas safe till the very end.

Atlas ended comes to an end with ICN rangers rescuing her. Atlas made it back to Earth; her wounds had healed, and she was glad to find out that the plant that she had discovered with Smith had made it to Earth. Atlas’ work on GR-39 was greatly appreciated, and Atlas too had learned an important life lesson—to acknowledge and cherish the ones who never gave up on her. At the very end, Atlas was introduced to the modified series 10 ARC, and she was immediately ready for a test drive. She was reminded of the fond memories she shared with Smith, and since the program was still the same, Smith continued to live even though his body had perished. We can assume that the world Atlas envisioned after she accepted artificial intelligence into her life was that of integrated living. She recognized how useful AI could be during critical times, and she could not deny that the chances of the survival of humanity depended on how well the technology could be utilized. Humanity needed the help of AI, but it was important to always ensure that they were protected and had no chance of going rogue.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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