Directed by: Federico D’Alessandro
Written by: Noga Landau
Starring: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman
Oh look, it’s another original garbage pile from Netflix. Taking a concept that Alex Garland already proved can be made into truly alluring cinema, debutante director Federico D’Alessandro (previously a mainstay in the Marvel Studios Art Department), shows us how to turn what is essentially a three-character chamber piece into a quite irredeemably brainless exercise in futility. Tau plays like an unholy hybrid of Ex Machina, Electric Dreams and Beauty and the Beast that sits atop an inexplicably illogical setup that never straightens its course. It’s too bad considering that it stars the still very promising Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein (Francis from Deadpool, strangely miscast as a Bill Gates-esque computer genius) and Gary Oldman who voices Tau, an A.I. shaped like Gravity Falls‘ Bill Cipher, while attempting thoroughly to not sound like himself.
D’Alessandro’s background in art and storyboarding is quite apparent as evidenced by the production design, quite possibly the one interesting aspect of the whole production. Most of the time it is intent on staying as far away from your standard sci-fi tropes as possible. Tau’s manner of interacting with the physical world involves an array of minute drones that do all the housekeeping (or so we are supposed to believe since we are not ever shown) and an honestly decent-looking enough robot (picture a super simplified version of Bay’s Transformers fresh off Cybertron before taking up vehicle forms) named Aries. Their living quarters is a mixture of sixties bachelor pad and contemporary minimalism, lit by every imaginable source of lighting depending on the mood of the scene playing: red neon for death-threatening jams, gentle artificial sunlight for the library and so on.
The rest can’t be salvaged. Mad, nebbish scientist Skrein (without all that much screen time we know he’s a nerd because he occasionally wears glasses and shyly averts his gaze when Monroe doesn’t have a lot of clothes on) is working on a new, higher level kind of A.I. Tau is the old model that simply cleans, cooks and kills for him, rendering the notion of hiring a housekeeper risible, and it is in dire need of human test subjects to implant chips in their brain cortexes to learn from them. Of course, this former Forbes magazine wunderkind kidnaps people without family or friends from the slums to carry on with his research instead of actually hiring them for peanuts and the occasional warm meal.
You can turn a blind eye towards such stupefyingly lazy writing (by Noga Landau, a staff writer on The Magicians). I did, consciously and forcefully, and I am still waiting for my full 20/20 to return, but it becomes difficult when it is something that could have been so very easily fixed / avoided. Tau consists of an ever-evolving series of false starts that could have led to other, better movies if followed all the way through. The billionaire insists on treating his prisoner like dirt, keeping her half naked, starving and tied up until she refuses to continue unless given access to a shower, clothes and food. The mad scientist begrudgingly agrees (he must be the cheapest human being on the planet) and they reach this playfully hostile relationship where he awkwardly gifts her lacy lingerie (so she won’t peg him as “prudish”) and she uses the pieces of a puzzle she’s supposed to solve to spell “go fuck yourself psycho.”
All signs point to the story going for the unlikely romance route – or reluctant mutual respect – but that’s not the case. At all. Mad, nerd scientist starts disappearing more and more often – he’s married to his job – and Monroe slowly realizes that she can not only reason and have conversations with Tau but actually manipulate it to try and escape. She does so after discovering Tau’s insatiable need to acquire knowledge (“why do you cry?”, “what is love?”, “where do trees come from?”… at least one of those is actually in the movie) which she starts exchanging for little tidbits of information or help for herself.
Once again, all signs point to the story going for an unlikely romance but it is not to be. I honestly feel that further discussing the actual course of this story hardly qualifies as a spoiler but I’ll leave it at that just in case I really fumbled my attempt at trying to keep you away from this embarrassment. The end result is not infuriating but frustrating in all of its wasted potential. If it sounded mildly interesting, I apologize – I am clearly not the wordsmith I should have been. — Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar