Interview: 'Atlas' star Simu Liu reflects on AI technology and his 'terrifying' turn as a robot villain

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After most famously playing a Marvel superhero and a Ken doll, actor Simu Liu now takes on the role of an AI robot in Netflix’s latest sci-fi thriller “Atlas,” starring Jennifer Lopez.

Lopez, who portrays Atlas Shepherd, a “brilliant but misanthropic data analyst” that distrusts AI, joins a mission to capture Harlan (Liu), a renegade robot with whom she shares a mysterious past. When their plans go awry and they become stranded on a hostile planet, Atlas must learn to trust her AI companion to save herself and humanity.

Traditionally known for playing “nice guy” characters, Liu found it refreshing to take on the villainous role of a robot identified as “the first AI terrorist” in the fictional high-tech world.

“I feel like for an actor, you always want to go where people don't expect you to be,” Liu tells NextShark. “I think part of that went into the decision making of wanting to portray Harlan. I felt like he was very much in stark contrast with a lot of the other characters that I portrayed.”

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Drawing inspiration from iconic AI characters like Lieutenant Commander Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and HAL 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the 35-year-old actor aimed to blend these influences with his own unique take to create a “terrifying” and “chilling” character. Playing a villain as opposed to a hero this time around offered Liu greater freedom and fewer constraints, which he says culminated in a thrilling fight scene he thoroughly enjoyed.

Although the Hollywood star is not new to shooting action scenes, he admitted to facing new challenges posed by fighting as a robot and against a giant mech for the first time. Reuniting with “Shang-Chi" stunt coordinator Mark Wickham, Liu embraced the physically demanding stunts involving wire work and hydraulics.

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“I'm kind of a very competitive person, and I hate when I can't do something, so I always try to make sure that I'm putting my best foot forward,” Liu says, noting that he aimed to perform as many stunts as possible despite the inherent difficulties, leveraging his experience from previous action roles.

Liu reveals that most of the movie’s action scenes were of Lopez, who filmed in a cockpit setup for about three weeks. He admired her professionalism and dedication, particularly her efforts to promote diversity in the film. He credits Lopez for bringing him and award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown into “Atlas,” which she also produced.

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Reflecting on his character’s desire to eliminate humanity for the greater good, Liu disagrees with Harlan’s logic from a soulless, nihilistic viewpoint. He emphasizes the need for caution in AI development, advocating for a human-first approach to ensure ethical and empathetic progress in society.

“I could see how a robot with absolutely no soul and no empathy could come to the conclusion that humanity would just need to be wiped out. And I don't agree with that,” Liu shares. “I tend to be an optimistic person. Despite all of our flaws, we are intrinsically good people, and we all seek to do good and to make the world better.”

Liu further expressed concern about AI's potential impact on various aspects of life, particularly its implications for labor and art. While recognizing the inevitability of AI's advancement, he questioned the artistic value of AI-generated content, emphasizing the significance of human creativity and the stories behind artworks.

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“It's who is painting the canvas and who is making these brushstrokes that is as important as the brushstrokes themselves,” Liu says. “What was the artist trying to convey? What was their story when they were making that painting or writing that song? And when AI is just able to assemble or replicate something similar, can that even really be considered art? When there's no soul behind it? There's no story there. It's just an amalgamation of what's out there.”

The actor doesn’t want AI to lead decision-making in both creativity and business. He doesn't want hiring, firing or movie production decisions to be based solely on algorithmic data. Instead, Liu hopes for the industry to continue on with decisions driven by human passion and perspectives, noting the importance of keeping humanity at the forefront as the world advances with AI technology.

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“I don't want to work in an industry where the movies are greenlit by data and algorithms,” he says. “I want movies to be greenlit by passion.”

“Atlas,” directed by Brad Peyton, is now streaming on Netflix.

 

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