Atlas director says Jennifer Lopez’s dance skill was key for mech work

Brad Peyton’s Journey to Directing Jennifer Lopez in a Mech-Suit Movie

A lifetime of scarfing down sci-fi, video games, and comic books brought director Brad Peyton to the job of said lifetime: directing Jennifer Lopez in a frickin’ mech-suit movie. Signing on for Atlas, now streaming on Netflix, was an easy yes: With two big-budget Dwayne Johnson vehicles under his belt, Rampage and San Andreas, Peyton was no stranger to A-list-driven spectacle. Still, the film was an intimidating prospect for someone with a deep appreciation for mech suits, mech tanks, oversized mecha, and all the made-up classifications in between.

Reimagining Mechs in the World of Atlas

“I was very aware of what had come out ahead of me,” Peyton tells Polygon. The director cites James Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar as obvious but undeniable milestones in the art of on-screen mechs. He knew that the Titanfall games put pressure on any new live-action attempt, having created full immersion into the experience of mech fighting. But when he started imagining how to rethink mechs, he returned to the first piece of mecha media that really blew him away: Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox.

Designing the Mechs of Atlas

“My biggest thing was: I knew I had to separate from everything,” Peyton says. “I had no interest in repeating. I said, Pac Rim’s [mechs] are this big. In Avatar, they’re this big. In Titanfall, they’re this big. So mine is gonna be this big. This one might be square and blocky, so mine is gonna be circular. I come from animation. So a lot of it started with me sketching the silhouette and figuring how to make it unique and different.”

The World of Atlas and the Mech-Suit Action

Atlas takes place in a relatively sunny future that still exists in the shadow of an impending apocalypse. Decades earlier, a rogue artificial intelligence named Harlan (Shang-Chi’s Simu Liu) fled Earth for an alien planet with the intent of one day returning to lay waste to humanity. When scientists discover Harlan’s whereabouts, Terran forces launch a mission to take the fight to the robot army’s doorstep. Leading the charge: Atlas Shepherd (Lopez), a data analyst recruited to go full Jack Ryan on Harlan’s ass. Of course, the attack doesn’t go as smoothly as the Earthlings would hope, and Atlas has to begrudgingly click into an AI-powered mech suit in order to survive an alien planet populated with androids who want her dead.

The Evolution and Choreography of Mech Motions

As Atlas traverses the biomes of Harlan’s base planet — from snowy tundras to swamps inspired by Peyton’s love for Return of the Jedi — the film’s hero loosens up on her “no AI” stance and forms a cognitive link with her mech’s digital interface. Like a twist on the buddy-cop movie, the two bond for survival, which presents itself as more fluid mech motions.

The Demanding Shoot of Atlas

It also helps that Lopez routinely performs for thousands all by her lonesome on a stadium stage. Peyton says Atlas turned out to be one of the most demanding shoots of his career, simply because for six to seven weeks, it was just Lopez performing solo on a gimbal rig that would be completely painted over with plate shots, VFX environments, and bursts of other action sequences shot elsewhere.

Delighting the Audience with Unique Mech Sequences

All the prep work required to realize a mech with the capacity for real action, and clicking in a star who was up to control it, was in service of jolting the audience, says Peyton. The first time we see the mechs in action isn’t in an act of valor; they’re caught in an ambush, mid-flight. The carrier ship goes down — and so does Atlas, in her rig.

Atlas is streaming on Netflix now.