Netflix’s original film, Tau, is a bit of a strange film to evaluate. On the one hand, for what is essentially a TV movie, it boasts some pretty strong visual effects and cinematography, while employing a cast you’re more likely to see on the silver screen than on the streaming platform. However, the film’s reliance on well-worn sci-fi tropes helps turn what could have been an underrated sleeper into a tacky exercise in perfunctory storytelling that feels all too familiar. On a positive note, Netflix’s output of original films are getting better even if they’re not quite comparable to what Hollywood consistently puts out in theaters. This is a promising sign for a streaming giant who thus far have knocked TV series out of the park but has struggled with features.
The film is a Philip-Dickian sci-fi thriller, following Julia (Maika Monroe), a young twenty-something female who makes ends meet as a thief. The script’s first sin is the fact that this is a pretty pointless back story. I’m sure the writers intended to give their main character some back story to flesh out her character, but our introduction to Julia really has nothing to do with what will transpire for the rest of the film. Coming home to her apartment after a night out, Julia’s apartment is invaded and she is abruptly abducted. The film at least gets credit for brevity as the inciting incident of the film occurs before you can put your notifications on silent. Before we know it, Julia has awakened in a strange, isolated location. Trapped, she has a chip implanted in the back of her neck. After making repeated attempts to escape, Julia is eventually introduced to her captive, tech mogul Alex (Ed Skrein), and the computer program that is most responsible for keeping her hostage – Tau (voiced by Gary Oldman).
We learn that Tau is an A.I. that powers Alex’s home. He’s essentially the smart house that the world has simultaneously feared and anticipated for decades. And he’s worth an incredible amount of money to Alex, who has a billion dollar contract on the table if he can get Tau ready to land on the consumer market. This is where Julia comes in, as she’s needed to complete problem-solving tasks for Alex’s software, which will help Alex complete the software and meet his deadline. Which begs the $1,254,678,760 question of why the hell is Alex risking a considerable amount of jail time when he could easily put together a focus group to complete these tasks. The film does not go into great detail on what the problem-solving activities are, and thank goodness as the film is weighed down in enough pointless exposition, especially since you can see where the film is headed the moment that Tau is revealed. As Tau and Julia start to form a bond while Alex is away at work, she begins to contemplate using their friendship as a means to escape.
The major issue with the film, if it isn’t clear thus far, is how much it languishes in the mediocrity of tame tropes and characters when there are so much better ingredients on the table. It doesn’t even ask the right questions, opting for the tired “what does it mean to be human?” riddle. Perhaps a more engaging theme would be to explore how horrible Alex is as a person, and if Tau’s personality, while artificial, allows for more productive and enriching relationships. Is it possible for a computer program to be a greater member of society than many of the humans that inhabit it? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what could have been explored. It seems the entire film is made up of unused ideas. Julia’s character never evolves beyond the basic survival mode of her predicament; the film is mostly just an escape flick. And Alex is such a wet noodle of a villain; he doesn’t make you angry, uneasy, or even remotely moved – he’s kind of just there, waiting to be defeated. Skrein’s performance is intended to be cold (just cold, he doesn’t do any actual calculating) but he’s really just a boring archetype. And for such a supposedly smart character, he loves to divulge everything Julia needs to know in order to use Tau to enable her escape. There’s a much better representation of the slimy tech egomaniac, played by the underrated Jesse Plemons in an episode of Black Mirror (USS Callister, S4 EP1).
If there is a saving grace in the performances and characterization, it ironically comes from the A.I. itself. Oldman brings an empathetic combination of curiosity and anguish to what could have easily been a cold, emotionless performance. When I first read the billing for the film, I believed that Gary Oldman had to have been duped in taking this role. But after the viewing the film, it’s clear to see the potential that Oldman may have seen as well. And part of that potential is realized. Legendary cinematographer Larry Smith (Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut) hasn’t lost a step, creating a slew of mesmerizing imagery. Far too often the sci-fi genre settles in the drab, monochromatic scheme just because they can get away with it. Tau boasts vivid colors without being overwhelming or cheesy. The problem is the cinematography calls for much more provocative and exciting material. Aside from a couple of kills, the content here wouldn’t be out of place on a random CW show.
Netflix is putting a stranglehold on the entertainment market, and for good reason. Their content is among the best in the world, and their original programs such as Bojack Horseman, Stranger Things, Big Mouth, and American Vandal are some of the best programs on television right now. Their ventures into films, while admirable as things could have gone a lot worse, still needs some work. Some may counter by pointing out the critical reception of Mudbound (2017), but that film was merely distributed by Netflix. It is not considered an original film of the streaming platform. Films such as Bright (2017), Okja (2017), and now Tau represent varying degrees of quality, but plenty of hope for the future. It’s no secret that Netflix has the resources to manage large productions, or acquire insanely high quality talent in front and behind the camera. Now it just all has to come together in the screenplay and the direction of these films. Perhaps it’s just like the algorithms Alex is attempting to test in Tau. Eventually Netflix will get it right, I just hope there are no kidnapped young women locked away in their headquarters, forced against their will to beta-test the likes of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.