When it comes to marketing, all Netflix films are clearly not created alike.
Tau, the streaming service’s latest sci-fi thriller, hits Netflix today with relatively little promotion—curious, given that it can make the claim of starring 2017’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor, Gary Oldman. One wonders what—beyond the paycheck—drew Oldman to the prospect of voicing a rogue artificial intelligence in a film from a first-time screenwriter and first-time director, but the bottom line is that his presence certainly uplifts Tau for the better. Still, even with the credentials of Oldman, the film often feels like a merely serviceable potboiler rather than the thought-provoking techno-thriller that was likely intended.
Tau is the directorial debut of Federico D’Alessandro, an animatic/storyboard artist who has worked on a rather incredible string of high-profile, CGI-laden blockbusters, including the likes of The Avengers, Thor, Terminator Genisys, Doctor Strange and The Mummy. One might expect that to imply a certain visual panache in Tau, but if anything, the film’s art direction and cinematography are on the staid side, buttressed by some not-so-great, waxy-looking CGI that belie a smaller budget. What likely should have been the film’s biggest strength is instead an area of weakness.
The performances, on the other hand, are a bit better. Tau is the story of Julia (Maika Monroe of It Follows), a young, family-less grifter who is abducted by supergenius robotics scientist Alexander (Ed Skrein) and forced to participate in a brain study with the intent of building a more advanced form of AI. While Alex obsesses over his work and faces the mounting stressors of impending deadlines, Julia’s primary guardian is Tau (Gary Oldman), the sheltered, older model AI in control of his high-tech house/Julia’s personal prison. With some very brief exceptions, this triangle forms the only characters of consequence in Tau, as Julia attempts to escape from the home by forming an emotional bond with the hungry-for-knowledge AI. Why is Alex abducting attractive white women, rather than marginalized people/immigrants that no government agency would bother trying to locate? That’s the kind of question Tau would prefer you to not ask.
As Julia, Maika Monroe attempts to stretch her range a bit, with occasional success. Having primarily appeared in low-profile indie projects since her 2014 breakout in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, she’s let down somewhat by Noga Landau’s script, which envisions Julia as a character of substantial but unrealistic craftiness, constantly displaying talents for pickpocketing, sleight of hand and MacGyver-esque fabrication and escape tactics. It’s a more difficult assignment than the naturalistic teenage dialog that Mitchell wrote for It Follows, because Julia seems much more the construct of a screenwriter than an actual person. The decisions to dress her in a series of steadily escalating sexy outfits, including a red dress that seems fashioned after Number Six’s famous one from the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, only adds to the sense of artificial fan service. One wonders if the filmmakers realize the irony, given that Number Six’s name was a direct reference to Patrick McGoohan’s character from The Prisoner ... itself a scenario not unlike what Julia is experiencing. Still, Monroe is certainly more effective than the emotionless, sneering Skrein, who has none of the douchey verve here that made him memorable in Deadpool.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Oldman who makes the most enduring impression. As Tau, he has the most challenging assignment of the film’s performers, portraying an entity with a great deal of naivety toward any aspect of human life outside the house where he resides. His lust for information and eventual humanization reminds one of Short Circuit’s Johnny 5 in some respects, although his design is obviously a much more direct reference to the HAL 9000 of 2001. Still, there’s an impishness to his characterization that makes Tau sympathetic, even if his actions tend to be inconsistent in terms of when and how he deems himself able to subvert his master’s wishes.
There are small kernels of “deep questions” in Tau, but unlike films such as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, these thoughts on the nature of sentience and personhood never get beyond the Philosophy 101 level. Its questions, a la “For what purpose do we create ourselves?” and its simplistic answer, “for each other,” are the stuff of freshman college dry erase boards, even while a fairly effective imprisonment thriller is unfolding around them.
Ultimately, the thought I kept returning to throughout Tau is that you could likely give this same premise and these same characters—perhaps even these same actors—to one of this generation’s promising writer-directors, and that person would get considerably more out of what they’d been given. Tau, in the hands of an Alex Garland or a David Robert Mitchell, or perhaps a Jordan Peele, could be the smart, philosophically aware techno-thriller that it wants to be, and elevate the performances of everyone in it. Here, it’s just passable popcorn entertainment for a Friday night on the couch, and not on the same level as more inspired Netflix genre movies from the likes of Mike Flanagan, such as Hush or Gerald’s Game.
It is what it is. Tau displays some signs of life, but it wouldn’t pass a Turing test.
Director: Federico D’Alessandro
Writer: Noga Landau
Starring: Maika Monroe, Gary Oldman, Ed Skrein
Release date: Friday, June 29, 2018, via Netflix
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.