Netflix's latest thriller about a young girl trapped in a smart house is pure, unapologetic schlock, with workmanlike performances and plot holes you could throw a supercomputer through.
Tau, Netflix’s latest original fim, tells the story of Julia (Maika Monroe), a street-smart gal who uses her wiles to steal everything from low-grade jewelry to the occasional iPhone. It’s not much, but it’s enough to allow her to subsist on her own terms and save for her dream of going to music school. However, all of that ends abruptly when she is kidnapped by tech wunderkind Alex (Ed Skrein) and forced to help him finish his frustratingly vague grand AI project. But it’s pretty sweet, so he says. Sweet enough that he has implanted a chip into the neck of at least a dozen people, forced them into situations that produce stress & fear, then remove the chip (which kills them) to extract all that mysterious fear data. Alex tasks his at-home AI, Tau (Gary Oldman), with presenting tests to Julia that will produce all the information he needs to finish his newest project before an ominous deadline.
Herein lies the biggest problem with Tau: the rules of the world and Alex’s scheme are so thoroughly unclear that it is difficult to really understand what is ultimately at stake. Alex claims his AI will change the world, but he never says or shows us how. Tau gives Julia what amounts to puzzle games to solve, but other than being held captive in a future AI house, the tests don’t demonstrate how they would create any excess kind of fear. So much of the world is spoken of in generalities and vague bits of grandeur that it’s impossible to get a feel for the most important aspect of the movie: Julia’s fear and her ability to overcome it. Honestly, it becomes very hard to feel frightened for a character when the villain is gone at work and she’s left alone to do Sudoku-Adjacent brain teasers in relative peace.
It also doesn’t help that when Tau tries to ramp up the action, it becomes more comical and distracting than genuinely tense. The first major action scene is peppered with tone-ruining ADR, the CGI of Alex’s main security bot (Robocop’s ED-209) varies between SyFy Original to low budget good in terms of quality, and the climax of the movie is cut right in half by the worst placement of a Wilhelm Scream I’ve heard in ages.
It really is such a shame, because it’s when Tau slows down that the best moments of the film really shine through.Maika Malone’s shifting nature of sweetness (one moment being for pure cunning escape, another based in heartfelt curiosity) blends so well with Oldman’s honest naivete that you can’t help but be charmed by the banter between the two. This makes it all the more frustrating when Julia uses their closeness to attempt escape, often to the detriment of Tau’s safety. It’s those wonderfully difficult moments that blend the theme of the film into such a great pairing and force the audience to really question at what point is something a person and deserving of empathy. The fact that it took until the second act for this relationship to even begin feels like such a loss. Ed Skrein also does a good job bringing humanity to a character that is written as a two-dimensional avatar of obvious evil.
Overall, Tau does present some fun acting moments for its performers. But no amount of performance can distract from the multitude of questions that arise from the vague world it inhabits, a flatly written antagonist, and that freaking Wilhelm Scream.
Tau is currently streaming on Netflix.