Thursday, July 5, 2018

On Netflix: TAU (2018)

(US/Luxembourg - 2018)

Directed by Federico D'Alessandro. Written by Noga Landau. Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Fiston Barek, Ivana Zivkovic, voice of Gary Oldman. (R, 97 mins)

After WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY, THE TITAN, and ANON, it seems like Netflix's apparent criteria for acquiring sci-fi films to stream as original movies begins and ends with "Could this pass for a middling feature-length episode of BLACK MIRROR?" Such is the case with TAU, the directing debut of Federico D'Alessandro, a veteran storyboard artist and animatics supervisor who's been buried in the closing credits of many a Marvel blockbuster. Given D'Alessandro's experience with the visuals of films in their planning stages, it's no surprise that TAU, set largely inside an expansive, high-tech house, looks terrific. Its early exterior scenes have that sort of rainy neon that's been de rigueur for the sci-fi genre since BLADE RUNNER, but it's a look that rarely gets old. TAU's inspirations come from other sources, mostly video store fixtures from a generation ago, like Richard Stanley's 1990 cult classic HARDWARE, Stephen Norrington's 1995 HARDWARE-esque DEATH MACHINE, and the same kind of dystopian atmosphere of 1993's CYBORG 2, not to mention an imposing, AI-controlled robot called Aries that looks like the ED-209 from ROBOCOP's significantly less graceful cousin. Factoring out some expectedly janky CGI explosions and destruction in the climax and TAU probably could pass for a straight-to-VHS Vidmark Entertainment title from 1995. Scraping by fencing stolen watches and credit cards acquired at clubs, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Julia (Maika Monroe of IT FOLLOWS) has dreams of going to music school and lives in the usual drab apartment with the light from an exterior neon sign constantly flashing into her bedroom. She's knocked out and abducted and wakes up in a cell wearing a Hannibal Lecter-type mask made of rubber. There's two other captives, who reluctantly tag along when Julia plans an escape. The other two are killed almost instantly while the more resourceful Julia survives and meets her captor: brilliant and deranged scientist Thomas Alexander "Alex" Upton (Ed Skrein).

Alex is hard at work on a billion dollar project for a mysterious tech firm, and he's using unwitting test subjects to create the perfect "memory algorithm" for use in "Tau," a sentient artificial intelligence that he's designing. His massive home is run by a prototype of Tau, who follows every command and also controls security robot Aries and numerous baseball-sized "drones" that can do all the chores around the house, including cooking and cleaning. From the start, it's clear that Julia (or "Subject 3") is smarter than other test subjects, so in time, she's granted a bit more freedom around the locked-down house as long as she completes her tests administered daily by Tau while Alex is at the office. It isn't long before Tau--voiced by Gary Oldman, presumably before his recent Oscar win--grows fond of Julia in a friendly way and becomes eager to explore its human side that cruel Alex has kept in the dark. Of course, none of this would occur were it not for Skrein's Alex being one of the dumbest villains ever. Even after she manages to nearly escape numerous times, and even after he concludes Julia is more intelligent and perceptive than he anticipated, he provides her with enough expository info to foreshadow his own downfall. "You control the information, you control the behavior!" he says of Tau, adding "Tau doesn't know about the outside world...and he never will!"

Naturally, as soon as he leaves Julia alone with the childlike and inquisitive Tau, she's reading it books about classical music, art, and poetry from Alex's massive library ("I'm not allowed to read the books," Tau explains), teaching it independent thought and action. It also works in Julia's favor that dumbass Alex designed Tau as the most easily-manipulated AI in sci-fi history, so much so that you could make a drinking game out of how many times Tau emphatically declares "I am not permitted!" before immediately folding like a card table when Julia asks it to do something it's not allowed to do a second time. The production design in Alex's house is first-rate, the few exteriors are appropriately gloomy and despairing (this was shot in Serbia, though the unseen Oldman probably phoned his lines in over a DARKEST HOUR lunch break while in full Winston Churchill makeup), and the score by Bear McCreary is decent. TAU is maybe worth a stream on a slow night or if you're an Oldman completist. It's completely disposable and forgettable, but on the Netflix Original grading curve, there's been much worse.

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