Science fiction and horror films have a long and proud tradition of exploiting our fears about technology. The exploitation works in large part because despite our use and reliance on technology, we have such little understanding of how it works. With Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, we’ve witnessed some admittedly trippy advancements in Artificial Intelligence. We’re not quite at Skynet yet, but I still don’t trust Siri.
To date, Netflix hasn’t had much luck with its original movies. The Open House and The Cloverfield Paradox were anemic follow-ups to the poorly-received Bright. But Tau boasts a timely premise and boasts some impressive talent on both sides of the camera. The idea of a smart house incarcerating and controlling someone has the possibility of cutting at some very real concerns and fears.
Maika Monroe (It Follows) plays Julia, a struggling young woman, who is abducted in the middle of the night by an unseen stranger. When she wakes up the nest morning, she finds herself trapped in a smart home controlled by an Artificial Intelligence called Tau. Julia quickly discovers that she’s a subject in an unscrupulous scientist’s experiments designed to create a new, advanced artificial intelligence. W
Tau Boasts an Impressive Cast
Netflix clearly want their original films to work. They’ve assembled an impressive cast for Tau both behind and in front of the camera. Maika Monroe is quickly becoming a genre favourite with her work in It Follows and The Guest. In Tau, Monroe delivers an earnest and believable performance, which is impressive given that the screenplay doesn’t give her much with which to work. The screenplay, written by Noga Landau, confuses ‘underdeveloped’ with ambitious.
This issue is worse for Ed Skrein’s mad scientist, Alex. Skrein registers as oddly flat in Tau. To a large extent, you can chalk this up again to a screenplay that underdevelops its characters. Skrein isnt’t given enough to make his villain and there isn’t nearly enough over-the-top fun to make Alex a fun throwback to the ‘evil scientists’ of 1930’s and 1940’s horror. Gary Oldman is just plain wasted as the voice of ‘Tau’.
An odd Story Direction
Much of my problem with Tau was with the direction it took with its story. With so many interesting directions the film could have gone with smart home technology, Tau instead goes full science fiction with its concept. Most episodes of Black Mirror are so compelling because they pose even just a little bit of plausibility with their premises. You could imagine some of the technological horrors posed by some of the episodes actually happening. Comparatively, Tau occurs in a completely fictional world, which makes it so less interesting.
… Tau occurs in a completely fictional world, which makes it so less interesting.
For the first 10 to 15 minutes, Tau impresses with its striking background visuals and the element of mystery around Julia’s abduction. Sadly, once Ares, the robot controlled by Tau, is introduced everything does rapidly downhill. The special effects aren’t SyFy movie terrible, but they’re not much better than what you might find on television. Simply put, the story exceeds what the effects can deliver. What’s particularly unfortunate is that it just wasn’t necessary for the direction Tau could have adopted. A more grounded take set in a technological reality closer to our current smart home technology would have presented a much more fascinating and scarier tale.
A Failure to Maintain a Consistent Tone
Early in its story, Tau promises a neo-noir sci-fi mystery that quickly introduces some horror elements. In its final moments, Tau delivers on some fun cat-and-mouse chills as Julia attempts to escape her ‘smart’ prison. Yet for most of the film, Tau feels like an extended television episode from a science-fiction anthology series with little tension. Even worse is that the interactions between Julia and Tau are nowhere near as insightful or poignant as the screenplay intends.
However, Tau never comes close to giving these themes the treatment they deserve.
Somewhere beneath the surface are some interesting ideas. The idea of an Artificial Intelligence growing smarter and ‘more human’ intersecting with a creator who becomes increasingly inhuman is a premise ripe with potential. However, Tau never comes close to giving these themes the treatment they deserve. What we’re left with is a film that drags for much of its second act with little in the way of atmosphere or tension.
Tau is Another Netflix Original That Misses The Mark
To be clear, Tau is far from being a terrible film. It features a decent cast with impressive background set design and visuals. There’s also a lot interesting ideas floating around this Netflix original. Perhaps Tau is best described as an underwhelming film, with nothing approaching the depths of awful but little ever rising above mediocrity. For viewers looking for truly interesting films exploring the dangers of artificial intelligence you’d be better served with Alex Garland’s Ex Machina or the low-budget 90’s film, Hardware.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+