SYNOPSIS: Held captive in a futuristic smart house, a woman hopes to escape by befriending the A.I. program that controls the house.
‘Tau’ won’t be the first science-fiction movie to pose the question of whether it is possible for artificial intelligence to possess humanity, which is also precisely why it proves to be underwhelming. The high-concept premise of director Federico D’Alessandro’s film revolves around a woman who is kidnapped and trapped in the high-tech home of a twisted inventor that is run by the titular AI programme. As you can imagine, the woman starts to interact with the AI, which leads the latter to start asking existential questions and attempt to overcome the limitations of its source code. It’s also not that hard to guess that the AI will come to defy its creator, thereby leading to a climax where it has to decide if it is simply a computer or if it can be more.
As written by Noga Landau, ‘Tau’ is essentially a three-hander among the woman Julia (Maika Monroe), the inventor Alex (Ed Skrein) and the AI (voiced by recently-minted Academy Award winner Gary Oldman). Even so, the movie suffers from a lack of character depth, and there is not much plot to make up for it as well. At the start, we see how Julia stalks nightclubs and steals the valuables of those whom she gets close to; and then, when she first wakes up strapped on a laboratory chair, we get a twenty-second montage summarising her childhood isolation and abusive parents – but that is the extent of how much we come to learn about Julia, and why she might just be the subject that Alex’s experiment so desperately needs for a breakthrough. Alex, on the other hand, is depicted as plain cold-hearted, with nary a qualm for sacrificing the lives of his captives in order to further his own research.
But arguably, the most interesting one among the trio should no doubt be Tau itself, since it is the very subject of the movie. To be fair, it is the most intriguing among the trio, but not quite enough to convince us that it is some cutting-edge prototype which Alex has developed. Indeed, Tau’s abilities seem no more than efficient smart home technology at the beginning, what with its ability to keep the house clean, regulated and ready for Alex. Its interactions with Julia are probably the most fascinating parts of the movie, what with Julia teaching it about the confines of the house, the history of mankind and the classical music composers whose works it is enamoured with, and the very concept of personhood. Thanks to some beautiful visuals, these scenes have a transcendental quality, and recall one’s own journey learning or teaching our kids about the world and what it holds.
Still, Tau’s transformation could be much more compelling. Like we said, you’ve probably seen similar such movies before, and ‘Tau’ doesn’t break any new ground. There is but a couple of scenes where we get to see the tension Tau faces between following orders and following its newfound instincts, and even so, they aren’t quite emotionally or intellectually gripping. It doesn’t help that Tau is too quickly reduced to a shadow of its former self each time one of these encounters takes place, given how Alex punishes Tau by deleting his most recent memories, thereby leaving less and less learned intelligence and more and more programmed source code. To put it simply, the sense of perspective and empathy which Tau gains over the course of the movie needs to go further and deeper, in order for us to truly appreciate the dilemma which it supposedly faces.
That said, ‘Tau’ isn’t a bad film, especially not if you’re looking for something undemanding on the streaming platform. Clearly made as an independent film, it tries to make the best out of its limited budget, and for the most part, is fairly successful at keeping you engaged throughout its duration. Its premise might sound new, but don’t go in expecting its execution to be anything else but. This is a B-movie through and through, and it isn’t smart enough to distinguish itself from similarly-themed ones which have come before it and will most certainly come after it. On a final note, we’re not quite sure why Oldman signed up for this, but the veteran character actor’s involvement alone lends ‘Tau’ some prestige, much as the movie can’t justify his presence, so you’d do well to bear that in mind if it’s Oldman that’s gotten you keen on this one.
Review by Gabriel Chong