If sci-fi cinema’s taught us anything, it’s that artificial intelligence and houses don’t mix. In the sleazy 70s epic Demon Seed, Julie Christie wound up trapped in a high-tech bungalow ruled by a violent and very amorous computer system. Tau, a thriller available now on Netflix UK, sees its slick, futuristic setting – part dream home, part mad scientist’s lab – patrolled by a killer robot and an all-seeing AI voiced by Gary Oldman. Once again, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as Julia, a young pickpocket who’s kidnapped from her home one night and later finds herself in a shadowy prison cell. As Julia wakes up, gagged and caged with a couple of other luckless captives, it looks as though we’re in for another locked-room challenge type movie along the lines of a Saw sequel or Nacho Vigalondo’s cult hit, Cube.
Instead, Tau takes an abrupt left-turn in the first act, and reveals itself as the unholy union of Ex Machina and, of all things, Fifty Shades Of Grey. Ed Skrein plays Alex, a devilishly handsome yet cold-blooded tech genius who’s like Christian Grey with a computer science degree. Obsessed with cleanliness and fine dining, Alex holds Julia as his hostage and number one test subject; he’s fitted some kind of gizmo at the base of Julia’s skull that reads her brain waves, and he intends to use that information to perfect his AI experiments.
A battle of wits ensues, as the ever-resourceful Julia tries to figure out how she can escape from Alex’s fortress-like home. There’s also a ticking clock to worry about: Alex’s experiment is due to conclude in two weeks’ time, and Julia’s chances of surviving it are slim to say the least.
Tau’s the feature debut of Frederico D’Alessandro, a filmmaker whose previous credits are largely confined to the art department on glossy Marvel movies like Ant-Man and Captain America. He brings a bit of visual flair to a clearly modestly-budgeted movie, with his use of shadows and saturated light making the most of his angular, minimalist sets. Unfortunately, Tau never quite finds its stride as a thriller; even with the triangle of a mad scientist with high cheekbones, a resourceful petty thief and a killer AI, Tau moves at something of a plod. Potential escape routes are teased and shut off at a predictable rhythm, and big, jagged killer robot – which unfurls and moves around like a haunted Toblerone – is singularly lacking in menace.
Where Tau does succeed, though, is in its disarming moments between Maika Monroe and Oldman’s softly-spoken computer. Although Tau’s quite capable of murder, it’s also childlike in its fascination with classical music and the outside world; like Julia, Tau’s trapped inside Alex’s cavernous house. Julia and Tau also have something else in common: they’re both the products of uncaring, sadistic parents. The way screenwriter Noga Landau deftly reveals these connections – and turns the computer into a victim rather than a villain – is arguably Tau’s strongest element.
As we’ve seen in her other movies, Monroe’s an accomplished actress, and it’s her sparky, determined performance that makes these scenes of human-machine drama stand out. Ed Skrein’s pretty good, too, as the dead-eyed, billionaire villain, though the plot fails to adequately explain why he’s willing to go to such murderous lengths to perfect his fancy computer system.
Even at a lean 97 minutes, Tau begins to drag by the second half, where we’re treated to repetitive scenes of Monroe creeping around Alex’s posh house while wearing an array of glamorous frocks.
Things finally get going in the dying moments, where the horror overtones of the first act suddenly return with a blackly comic vengeance; by this point, though, any wisps of tension and suspense have long since ebbed.
Tau is available now on Netflix UK.