A stylish B-movie flipping the script on today’s worries about all-powerful algorithms, Federico D’Alessandro’s TAU imagines a trap, with a woman imprisoned in an automated home, in which it might just pay to give the computer all the information it wants. Before readers start to gloat, “see, I told you putting all those megacorp-serving microphones and cameras in the house was a good idea!,” note that this is not the customary in-the-cloud AI: Despite the up-to-date trappings, the eponymous intelligence in Noga Landau’s script is a throwback to old standalone creatures, made by mad scientists, who begin to suspect their creators don’t have the best of intentions. The feature debut for D’Alessandro (an art department veteran of a slew of Marvel films) and Landau alike, it’s a strong enough genre entry to have warranted a spin in multiplexes before video, instead of starting life as one more entry in the neverending Netflix Original Movie queue.
Maika Monroe plays Julia, a small-stakes thief who is already faring poorly when she’s kidnapped and whisked off to a subterranean laboratory. Two other fringe-dwellers share a cell with her, waiting to be saved in between the painful experiments a silent doctor (Ed Skrein’s Alex) performs on them. Observing that “we’re not the kind of people the police go looking for,” the resourceful Julia decides to make her own way out, and it works — up to a point.
Fun, if less cutting-edge than it sounds.
Soon she’s in the more comfortable part of Alex’s slick, Deco-echoing mansion, negotiating one-on-one with her captor: He needs to keep digitally plundering her brain in order to train the artificial intelligence that will soon make him even more rich than he is; and he has a sharp-angled homicidal robot and swarm of flying drones that can force her to stay and do his bidding. Seeing the deck stacked decisively in his favor, Julia settles for regular shower access, real clothes, and solid food instead of prison gruel.
All those robots are controlled by Alex’s one-of-a-kind digital manservant TAU, who at first seems perfectly obedient to his master. But TAU is a prototype for the AI Alex hopes to bring to market, and is only 95% reliable. Julia hears the inventor on a conference call, admitting that its occasional errors can be weeded out by controlling what information the computer has access to. Julia decides to mess with the ‘bot’s data diet in hopes of getting him to set her free.
The film’s most engaging (if somewhat credulity-stretching) scenes observe Julia and TAU while Alex is out of the house for work: Despite his competence at a wide variety of chores, the computer is unfamiliar with the concept of personhood, or with reality beyond the confines of this windowless house. Julia begins teaching him, slyly planting the idea that both of them deserve to experience autonomy in a world beyond Alex’s grasp.
Though he has no body, TAU has a visual interface in which a glowing triangle contains multicolored, 3-D swirls of light; the resemblance to an eye’s iris is surely intentional, a far more sympathetic update of HAL 9000’s impassive red dot. He speaks intelligently, in a human-like voice, though not one viewer in a thousand would guess Gary Oldman spoke these lines. Perhaps the actor supplied the pacing and intonation of line readings, then had his actual voice replaced by that of another human or a lifelike machine. After disappearing under prosthetics for Darkest Hour, Oldman may have developed a taste for unrecognizability.
As it turns out, Alex is less emotional than his creation, though he does get testy as he starts to wonder if Julia’s running some kind of scam on him. (Having his company’s board members nag him about deadlines doesn’t help.) Cast and crew do a fine job balancing his suspicions with both Julia’s scheme and her growing, let’s call it friendship with the computer. The late revelation that Alex has ways to punish the AI itself makes for a few surprisingly poignant moments.
Little if anything in the picture speaks to the actual crises in humanity’s developing relationship with computers. For that, one can go to Black Mirror, or risk true horror and watch souls decay in real time on Twitter. But TAU is winningly guileless as it dresses an old story up in new clothes: Sometimes it takes a Creature to understand the depths of Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrosity.
Production companies: Phantom Four, Addictive Productions
Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman, Fiston Barek, Ivana Zivkovic
Director: Federico D’Alessandro
Screenwriter: Noga Landau
Producers: Russell Ackerman, Terry Dougas, David S. Goyer
Executive producers: Jean-Luc De Fanti, Luc Etienne, Dan Kao
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Miljen Kreka Kljakovic
Costume designer: Momirka Bailovic
Editor: Scott Chestnut
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting director: Emma Callinan
R, 97 minutes