Netflix’s original series have mostly been stellar, but Netflix films do not always live up to the same standards (except Gerald’s Game, which was great). I had high hopes for Tau, the sci-fi film recently advertised upon logging into Netflix. The trailer looked great. The lighting is weird and cool, and there’s Maika Monroe, who was wonderful in It Follows, one of the best horror films in recent years. Between the huge, futuristic mansion and the artificial intelligence theme, it looked like a cool Ex Machina-esque story. It was not.
The movie begins with Julia (wearing a badass dress and really cool wig) seducing men and stealing their phones and wallets out of their pockets to turn around and sell the items for cash. When she gets to her apartment, we see her put the cash in a savings jar and then quickly get abducted. At this point, I was in. I was glad the movie didn’t waste time getting her into the crazy mansion we were promised in the trailer.
Julia wakes up with something over her face preventing her from screaming, and she apparently undergoes some kind of painful shock thing while restrained to a high-tech chair. It seems to make a lot of her memories flash before eyes, and because this happened, I figured these memories would become important later on. Spoiler: they don’t.
Then she’s in a concrete cell, still with her face covered and her hands zip-tied at the wrists. She discovers two other prisoners and notices the back of their necks have a green glow to them like something has been inserted under their skin. She feels her own neck to discover the same thing. When she goes back to the chair for more weird shock stuff and meaningless memory flashes, she steals some scissors to cut off her mask. She frees the other two prisoners from their constraints, and the three of them make the world’s most implausible escape involving shredded pieces of fabric from their “prison suits.” I won’t spoil this one. You should just watch this part to see how to escape from this very specific situation.
When the three of them try to exit the house through the front door, they discover it requires handprint recognition. When the male prisoner tries to scan his own hand, an obnoxious-looking art sculpture comes to life and kills him. Think Transformers but for house art. Then it kills the other female prisoner. Julia is spared at the last minute by a voice commanding, “Tau, STOP.” And here we see Alex for the first time.
Alex is a weirdo millionaire who has been on the cover of Wired magazine and every other important tech publication on the planet. Yet he seems like he’s never interacted with another human being in his life. The killer art sculpture/transformer takes commands from Alex and lets Julia go. And has to kind of “explain” what happened to the other two prisoners, who left a lot of damn blood in the living room. Julia gets tied to a taller piece of art (?) and some tiny drones fly out and clean up the mess. Think Dorothy II from Twister. Like those little sensor things. That’s what these drones look like. Wait, maybe this is a sequel to Twister…
So when Alex goes to “work” during the day (Which I have an issue with because he can video conference from home and apparently hasn’t set foot inside the boardroom in recent memory, according to the other board members…so where the hell is he going??), we find out that Tau, one of the most advanced AI systems in the world, cleans the whole house using the drones and prepares dinner for Alex and greets him like an enslaved wife whose only job was to put the food on the table.
Somewhere in here, Alex explains to Julia, aka Subject 3, that he needs her to complete tasks and tests while he is away at work to test her cognitive abilities. From what I could gather, these tests are used to learn about human cognition in order to improve the AI system. This undertaking is due in a few days, and it seems Alex hasn’t made sufficient progress. Why people would need to be KIDNAPPED in order to take these tests instead of doing like, oh, I don’t know, let’s say, a CLINICAL TRIAL, is beyond me.
So basically she can be unrestrained during the day if she’s doing her tasks with Tau in the atrium of the house (yeah, it has an atrium), and Tau’s job is to keep her in line or else he’ll (it’ll?) have to “inflict pain” on Julia/Subject 3. But Julia and Tau start talking when she tells Tau not to call her Subject 3 because she is a person. Then Tau asks, “What is a person?” and all hell breaks loose. And by “hell,” I mean a string of very simple questions that continue throughout the rest of the film.
Julia starts to teach Tau about the world outside of the mansion through books, drawings, and music. Because apparently Tau “likes” music? How? Tau begins to think it is also a person. Julia is able to manipulate Tau by making him trust her somehow. And he seems to like her? I don’t get where the emotional stuff comes in because as far as I could tell from the tasks, human emotion wasn’t one of the desired functions of Tau. But honestly I don’t know at this point. Sigh.
Here is where I started to be like, “Wait, what even IS Tau?” He’s this system she can talk to from wherever in the house but seems to have a home base by the fireplace. He controls the drones (or he is also the drones?), and he controls the murderous art transformer (or he is the art?). He can make dinner for Alex. He’s allegedly the smartest AI system on the planet, but he really can’t grasp basic concepts like “What is a tree?” And Alex is like…weirdly abusive to him. If something isn’t cleaned, Alex erases some of Tau’s memory. I have several issues with this. 1) Tau screams like this hurts. How is he feeling physical pain? He has no physical being. 2) If this project has to be unveiled soon, isn’t erasing the prototype’s memory only screwing up Alex’s own project? 3) It’s unclear what is actually getting erased. Is it Alex’s programming? Is it the stuff Julia is teaching him, like what a tree is and what is outside the house? Tau still seems to “feel” a kinship with Julia even after his punishments.
Now is a good time to mention that Tau is voiced by GARY OLDMAN.
Why is Gary Oldman in this movie?! The level of complexity of Gary Oldman’s dialogue never surpassed “For dinner, we have Chilean sea bass, Alex” and “Am I a person?” And speaking of robots, Alex is the most wooden character in the world, and I don’t mean that as a compliment to the actor for conveying how weird he is. He literally seems like he is an AI system himself. Which I thought would be a big reveal. Like, what if Tau was being tested on the house but actually this humanoid robot is the end game experiment? (FYI Netflix, that’s a better movie. Hit me up next time.)
Anyway, Tau and Julia kind of “team up” in a series of miracle near-misses at the end of the film. Julia is able to pickpocket Alex and attack him (the pickpocket move is literally the only time her outside life is relevant to what happens in the house). Tau’s memory is almost totally gone, so he’s coming after Julia but still kind of seems to not “want” to. I’m hesitant to even say that because honestly I don’t know what he was doing at this point. But anyway, she’s able to escape to Alex’s bedroom and start a program that makes the house self-destruct, which Tau told her about in secret. Why he would tell her that is unclear. He couldn’t be programmed to keep that info on lock? Robot Gary Oldman is not the best AI ever.
Anyway, the house starts crumbling. Somehow Alex is alive after being slashed with a knife and he’s trying to crawl to safety but is crushed by falling concrete (not sorry for this spoiler; it’s dumb). Julia of course is hit by nothing on the way out, and then we see she made it out with one of the drones. She’s able to reach Tau through the drone and show him the world she’d been telling him about this whole time.
As dumb as the whole house destruction was, I actually did kind of like the end, but I’m still confused about how Tau got out in the drone because the program was also supposed to destroy him. Anyway, I guess now he remembers stuff again? It’s all unclear, but I like the idea of her kind of “saving” Tau.
A couple other issues that I didn’t know where to put:
1) The lighting in this is so odd. It’s like mostly red, blue, or gold lighting everywhere. At first I was kind of into it because I was trying to figure out what cool thing this was doing with the story, but I concluded there really wasn’t much of a reason.
2) The person I watched with pointed out how weird it is that Alex didn’t have surveillance cameras in his home to make sure Julia stayed in the atrium. And that got me thinking: Wait. This guy has a smart house, but there was nothing watching the subjects while they were in their jail cell making this long escape? There’s no way if the subjects were that precious that you’d leave them wholly unattended without surveillance. Just saying.
One of the cool things about AI/robot stuff is that it makes the audience question what it means to human. But Tau mostly just made me question the logic of the movie. Gonna give this a 2/5 stars, and the two stars are for Maika Monroe, Gary Oldman, and Julia saving Tau. In conclusion, you should probably just watch Ex Machina again instead.