Having just dropped on Netflix as an exclusive this past weekend, Tau has a lot going for it on the surface. It’s on Netflix, for one, which has been a pretty solid base for original and interesting concepts. It stars one of my new favorite actresses, Maika Monroe (It Follows), as well as Ed Skrein (Ajax from Deadpool), and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight, Hannibal)! And it involves murderous AI. Which is why it is so disappointing that Tau falls so hard on its coded face…
…Directed by Federico D’Alessandro and written by Noga Landau, Tau tells the story of Julia (Maika Monroe) who is kidnapped by a maniacal programmer named Alex (Ed Skrein). She is held captive inside of a high-tech house controlled by an advanced AI named Tau, where she discovers that Alex has sinister plans for her.
The characters/cast are what ALMOST saves Tau from becoming another run of the mill, direct to VOD sci-fi film. Maika, as usual, emanates a strong sense of vulnerability coupled with an inner strength that she pulls out when needed, making her character Julia a heroine worth rooting for, especially because it makes the almost motherly relationship she forms with Tau (more on that later), so much more believable. Ed Skrein is arguably more robotic than Tau (in a good way), with his cold and calculating demeanor. If you’ve watched his character Ajax in Deadpool, he’s essentially that, but even more soulless. At this point, Skrein has cemented himself as the emotionless villain in film, and I’m okay with that. He’s perfect for it. And in the few moments he’s actually allowed to be that in Tau, Skrein oozes creepiness to the point where his harsh words are like ice on your skin. I certainly wouldn’t want to be kidnapped by him. Unfortunately, Skrein is allowed so few of these opportunities to show what he can do, because his character Alex is constantly leaving the premises, resulting in Julia and Tau getting all the screen time.
Tau (voiced by the always incredible Gary Oldman), stands out, ironically, as the most three-dimensional character. When we first meet Tau, we’re shown just how vicious he and the robotic security guard he controls can be. Oldman’s voice, like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is calm and soothing, but at the snap of the fingers, he can kill quickly and efficiently using the giant security guard roaming the house, which makes his “character” unpredictable and terrifying. The terror largely comes from the robot itself, which is reminiscent of a more advanced model of the ED-209 from Robocop. Only this one isn’t a clunky piece of junk. Tau is a force, and he can find, and get to, literally any space in the house. There is no hiding from him. This is why Tau becomes so interesting as a character. You see, Tau is flawed, because he does not know anything about the outside world, and like any intelligent thing, is curious. Julia decides to use to this her advantage and begins teaching him while Alex is gone, which leads them to build more of a bond, and lets us see the softer, childish side of Tau. “He” is not the villain. Alex is. Though, frankly, I would’ve preferred Tau to retain his frightening intimidation.
The problem is, Alex just isn’t a very good villain. Sure, Skrein does a great job, but Landau’s script doesn’t give him much to work with. As I mentioned earlier, he spends most of his time off screen, and when he is present, doesn’t really offer much of a threat to Julia. He implies, and intimidates, but without any sort of physical danger on screen, a lot of those threats fall flat. Tau actually is forced by Alex at one point to hurt Julia, but the audience isn’t witness to how or the repercussions of that, which again, takes away some of the tension because we don’t see how this is affecting Julia, making the whole damn thing seem less dangerous. It’s only when we learn of Alex’s true intentions that the threat seems more real. But with half the film spent between Julia and Tau learning about the earth, joking around, all while Julia pulls information out of Tau, who is an all too willing participant, the suspense earned early on dissipates quickly. Tau becomes far less frightening, and I only wish that he would’ve remained more threatening and suspicious of Julia. It’s one thing to have Julia mother him and try to persuade “him” to help her, it’s another to have the most frightening piece of a sci-fi thriller transform into what might as well be a fluffy Roomba.
Suspense takes a backseat not just because of the lack of conflict that takes place, but also because Tau becomes so damn repetitive. I don’t know how many times I can watch Julia teach Tau something, followed by an escape attempt, followed by getting tied up, rinse and repeat, over and over again. As a writer, I’ve often done this myself. It can be easy to let yourself fall into a pattern like that in these isolated kidnapping thrillers, but on screen, if you’re characters aren’t progressing and trying much of anything new, it won’t work. Especially when your audience no longer fears the villain(s).
(SPOILERS AHEAD) While much of the film is ultimately forgettable due to lack of tension/surprise, one element that I did find truly fascinating was Tau’s eventual realization of the fact that he is a murderer. Julia teaches him that the “subjects” which he has been taking care of per Alex’s orders, have actually been deleted/killed. Now that Tau has learned the basics of “life” and “living”, he immediately regrets what he has done, and must confront what he truly is. This is something which I haven’t seen many sci-fi films deal with. It’s almost like a killer with split personalities being shown pictures of the people they have murdered. The illusion created by the mind, or in this case, artificial mind, is so strong, and the development of Tau is so well done, that its utterly heart, er, core-breaking? Sure, we’ll go with that. (END SPOILERS)
There’s also the fact that D’Alessandro has an eye for imagery. As you can probably tell from the image above, Tau is a beautiful film, both visually and, in some ways, emotionally. I was legitimately impressed by a lot of the digital effects and the way they are framed on screen. Sometimes, the imagery chills to the bone, like the strange green mask Julia first wakes up wearing after being kidnapped, like something out of a Hellraiser film, and at other times, there’s are shots that are so captivating, you could print them out and pin up on your wall as the gorgeous art they are.
Tau isn’t a bad film. The cast is great, the production design and visuals are spectacular and often eerie, and the character development of Tau deserves, at the very least, a nod of approval. Altogether though, none of that is enough to make up for multiple repetitive, suspense-less moments which ultimately drag Tau down from something more memorable into a pretty standard sci-fi film that will likely be lost sooner rather than later in the world of digital platforms. It’s is upsetting because there is a great amount of effort and talent that goes into Tau. It deserves to be better than it is. It just isn’t, and it shows the importance of knowing how to create atmospheric tension when filming a sci-fi thriller. On a side note, can Gary Oldman please be the voice of AI in the future? I need it.
By Matt Konopka