Tau review: Netflix's latest sci-fi film adds a promising new twist, but fails to leave an impression
There is very little intelligence in Netflix's Tau, a film about artificial intelligence.
With Federico D’Alessandro’s sci-fi thriller Tau, Netflix tries yet again to mark a notch on its science fiction catalogue, this time taking an interesting concept and adding a promising new twist to it. But, in the end, it fails to leave an impression and, sad as it is, what could've worked as the film’s biggest asset is exactly what lets it down.
Maika Monroe plays Julia, a petty pickpocket and thief working seedy bars, nightclubs and back alleys — fencing stolen cellphones, personal trinkets for a fistful of dollars to put bread on her table. Through blink-and-you-will-miss-it references early on in the film, we learn that she has had a troubled life — full of neglect, violence and abuse. However, Julia is smart with superior problem solving skills and a sharp eye for details.
When a sadistic scientist named Alex kidnaps her and keeps her confined to a house that is controlled entirely by an artificial intelligence entity called Tau (presumably named after the letter of the Greek alphabet, and voiced by Gary Oldman), Julia soon learns that she is being used as a test subject to help create the perfect thinking machine which Alex hopes to sell to the highest bidder. Alex keeps her in captivity and makes her solve puzzles. An implant in her head monitors and records her neural activity, which are then processed to create the intricate algorithms for the enhanced A.I. Knowing well that Alex wouldn't make the mistake of letting her live once his objectives are fulfilled, Julia slowly begins to plan her escape — by befriending Tau and teaching him ‘emotions’.
It’s a fascinating concept, if you think about it. I was instantly drawn to the premise before I set out to watch the film. We have seen quite a few Artificial Intelligence entities in movies — starting from HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to VIKI in Alex Proyas’ flawed but constantly watchable I, Robot. We've also come across enough examples of mad sadistic evil genius scientists running cruel experiments on human test subjects. But this is perhaps the first time that we have seen the Stockholm Syndrome being applied to an artificial intelligence in movies. While the likeness to Alex Garland’s brilliant 2014 science fiction thriller Ex Machina cannot be denied, Tau does handle the subject with a fresh — and perhaps a tad facile — new approach.
To its credit, Tau dons a moody atmospheric look as well; something apt for a subject such as this. It manages to keep us invested in the story from beginning to the end. There is the primarily red or blue ambient lighting of the house, the plush spotless interiors, the cold heartless feel to the rooms and, amidst all of these, an intelligent young woman walking around barefoot, thinking all the while, scheming to escape to the world outside.
There are only three primary characters in the film — Julia, Alex and Tau — and what really lets the film down is the fact that only one of them manages to make a mark when it comes to performances. And surprise, surprise — it isn’t Gary Oldman. In fact, fresh out with an Oscar, it is Oldman’s cringe-worthy voice that is the real disappointment. It is exactly the sort of narcissistic, superior air, all-hail-the-Queen, vain British accent voice that no scientist — mad or otherwise — would ever think of building into his artificial intelligence. Comparisons are perhaps unfair, but while HAL’s mono-note mechanical drone sent shivers down our spines, all that Tau’s uptight school-masterly voice manages to do is invoke a few sniggers.
Ed Skrein is no better. For most part of the film, he keeps a straight and impassive face, often making us wonder whether he is a humanoid cyborg himself. and when he doesn’t, he is a pain to watch. Maika Monroe is decent in her portrayal of a street-smart girl who knows that her survival depends on her keeping her wits about her, and who slowly begins to win the confidence of a non-human being. What doesn’t come across in her performance, though, is the many complexities of the relationship between a woman and a machine.
While the first half of the film manages to hold our attention, the second begins to drag as soon as Julia begins to befriend Tau. The plot doesn't really go anywhere and leaves us with too many unanswered questions. Why does Alex, with all the money he has, kidnap people for his experiments instead of letting them volunteer in return for fair compensation? Why does Tau feel ‘pain’ when Alex wants him to? And how does Alex know that the random people he kidnaps will be intelligent enough to solve his puzzles? The film doesn’t even make an attempt to answer these questions, and chooses to focus on (commendable) cinematography instead. As a result, the entire film just doesn’t hold, and ends up being an ordinary experience. There is very little intelligence in this film about artificial intelligence.
Tau is currently streaming on Netflix.
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