No Bars. No Guards. No Escape.
Does Alexa dream of electric sheep? That’s the central question posed by Tau, a fairly generic AI-themed sci-fi thriller from director Federico D’Alessandro, a veteran of Marvel Studios’ art department making his feature-directing debut here.
In what is presumably the not-too-distant future, street-smart loner Julia (Maika Monroe) is abducted by sociopathic tech developer Alex (Ed Skrein), who needs human subjects to experiment on in the course of developing a sophisticated artificial intelligence. In the meantime, the nascent AI, the Tau of the title, acts as a kind of automated housekeeping system and, when necessary, unfeeling prison guard, keeping Julia and (briefly — there’s a small body count) two fellow prisoners in line with torture.
Tau is voiced by Gary Oldman, by the way. Recently be-Oscared Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (2017), is doing vocal duties on what is effectively an evil Google Home.
Well, not really evil. Tau is an innocent who has no idea there’s a universe outside the house he’s, er, housed in, and with Alex being a straight-up psycho, Julia realizes her one chance to get out of this mess alive is to befriend and, crucially, educate Tau. Tau, as it turns out, likes classical music, and that’s enough of a crack for her to start in.
Tau wears the trappings of a sci-fi thriller, but it’s really more of a drama, albeit one not as smart as it clearly wishes it was. With Tau a disembodied voice and Alex largely absent for long stretches (he’s being pressured to deliver on time by his funders, the poor guy) it’s more or less a one-woman show, and Maika Monroe, It Follows (2014), acquits herself well. The interplay between Tau and Julia is the most engaging element of the film, and it’d be interesting to know if there was any interaction between Monroe and Oldman — if Oldman recorded his lines in isolation, the dialogue editing does an excellent job of masking that. Tau’s yearning to know more than he does and be more than he is gives the film some emotional resonance, even if deeper and more complex notions about consciousness, personhood, and choice are paid lip service to but never really investigated.
Ultimately, Tau plays out like a more optimistic version of the 1977 techno horror Demon Seed, which saw Julie Christie menaced by a house computer that wanted to impregnate her. Here the robot’s wants are significantly more benign — Tau’s cyberpunk stylings and occasional jolts of violence don’t disguise the fact that it’s a pretty upbeat work at heart. Tau doesn’t actually do enough of anything it purports to do to earn an unqualified recommendation, but if it fits in your genre wheelhouse, you’ll find it ticks just enough boxes to be worth a look.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson