*A HUGE, MECHA-SIZED SPOILER ALERT APPLIES TO THE ENTIRETY OF THIS ARTICLE*
The premise of the Netflix Original: Tau (2018) is that Alexander Upton (Ed Skrein) – billionaire, philanthropist, psychopath – is discreetly running nefarious tests on a handful of Society’s poor unfortunates, having kidnapped them and locked them in the basement of his state of the art home.
One such prisoner – the main protagonist, Julia AKA ‘Subject 3’ (played by Maika Monroe) – is having none of it however. Armed with makeshift tools and just a dash of cunning, she plans to escape captivity by any means necessary. Unfortunately for her – and predictably enough – it very much becomes an “out of the frying pan and into another, hotter frying pan” situation.
Upton Tech is an industry-leading AI company, due in large part to the amoral experiments Alex undertakes on those he captures, unbeknownst to the board of directors, who appear time and again as a thorn in Upton’s side. “Your A.I is way ahead of anything else in the field,” they tell him, “but you’re too secretive. If you shared your research methods with us…”.
At its most basic, Upton’s research method involves monitoring the thought processes of individuals – their capacity to solve problems – when exposed to extremes of violence and fear. This is necessary, he says, as the best ‘algorithms’ are produced when individuals are subject to strong emotion. We learn this when, having escaped into the house proper, Julia is propositioned by her captor into continuing her life as a lab rat.
After Julia escapes the basement, Upton explains his methodology to her in full – telling her she is his only hope to meet the deadline imposed by his more level-headed colleagues; quite why a psychopath would allow themselves to be dictated to in such a manner is beyond me, but I digress. Upton sees fit to promise Julia that she’ll go free if she complies for a time, and she goes along with it.
The fact that Upton explained his vile scheming to Julia is the surest sign that he absolutely cannot allow her to ever leave, and this is something she would have figured out immediately had she any wit – but then that wouldn’t have worked for the plot. You see, Tau is a perplexing, genre-bending mess; quickly turning from Thriller into something which at times borders on a Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque Rom-Com.
Instead of lovable anthropomorphs like Cogsworth or Mrs Potts, we have Tau, the eponymous A.I. system voiced by Gary Oldman, national Treasure. Tau is highly advanced, and highly – woefully – inept. He has, in fact, been disconnected from the wider world, due to his propensity for erratic behaviour. In light of Tau’s insatiable curiosity, this disconnect becomes Julia’s in, as she offers to teach Tau about the world outside in exchange for – essentially – the means to escape.
Whilst Upton is out-and-about doing his important, and presumably less-killy business above ground – believing Julia and her algorithms to be in Tau’s capable hands – Julia offers Tau tuition on a variety of forbidden subjects. Bizarrely, though, the bulk of the knowledge she seeks to impart to Tau comes from Upton’s extensive library of books, and this whole aspect of the plot begs the question: ‘WHAT!?’
Why doesn’t Tau just read the bloody books himself? He is a highly advanced AI system, and could presumably assimilate the information far more quickly by flicking through the pages, than by listening to Subject 3’s asinine regurgitations. But no, we’re told – by Tau – that Master Upton has forbidden him from reading the books. PRESUMABLY THERE WERE ALSO RULES AGAINST CONSPIRING WITH THE TEST SUBJECTS, EH TAU?!
One could say that Tau makes some incisive observations about the obscene power of wealth, and its ability to put those that wield it beyond reproach; one could view it as a cautionary tale of sorts; a warning that the ever-increasing economic divide between those at the top and the rest of us can only lead to a dark, plutocratic future; HOWEVER, if Tau wanted to be taken quite so seriously, then greater care should have been taken to plug some of the more glaring holes in the plot.
Having merrily kidnapped, tortured and killed countless other subjects, the antagonist – when faced with the pressures of an artificially imposed deadline – offers to pay Julia for her services (and silence), raising the fundamental question: WHY THE HELL DIDN’T HE JUST PAY THESE PEOPLE IN THE FIRST PLACE? The risk of a story about ones morally questionable, but crucially non-murderous, business practices being leaked is surely more palatable than the risk of ones secret murder basement being discovered. Just an observation, Mr Upton, but hey – you’re the genius here.
Strong emotions – pain and fear – create the best algorithms, and that’s – apparently – why these conditions are necessary; HOWEVER, this notion appears to go out of the window as the plot wears on, and Julia is encouraged – absent any threat of violence from Tau – to complete tasks that are about as involved as Connect 4; what she in fact does is she spend her days piss-farting around with Tau, only to rush through the tasks last minute, like some forgotten homework assignment – making a complete mockery of the film’s premise.
DO WATCH / DON’T WATCH
This artificial intelligence flick isn’t as clever as it would have you believe, and if you go in expecting the ‘Psychological Thriller’ Tau purports to be, you’ll doubtless be disappointed; however, if you go in with an open mind, you might find that there’s some fun to be had. Parts of Tau are entertaining, and it’s almost worth watching simply for the absurdity of Oldman’s character, and the ludicrous relationships he has formed – but on balance we can’t recommend watching it.
*The images used throughout this article are stills from the Netflix Official Trailer (above) available on YouTube.