Cinema has an obsession with exploring artificial intelligence. It's almost innate to the medium. We're talking about a history that goes all the way back to Metropolis in 1927. The trend really took off in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, but the tropes of the trend were already pretty well established at that point. When you're watching a film about artificial intelligence, you're in for a story about what defines humanity, creation, and morality.
Tau is a science fiction/thriller about scientific experiments in a smart house. Julia (Maika Monroe) is kidnapped by Alex (Ed Skrein), a programmer and scientist, for experimentation. Alex's goal is to create the most advanced, adaptive artificial intelligence system ever. His current model, Tau (the voice of Gary Oldman), is tasked with protecting his mansion, overseeing the experiments, and doing everything per Alex's orders. Once Julia breaks free of her literal restraints, it's up to her to convince Tau of his own humanity to save her own life. Can a computer program ever learn to think and feel like a human? What happens if we train them to? Who gets to define humanity?
The production design of Tau is what makes any of this film the least bit believable. This team, led by Marvel art department veteran Federico D'Alessandro in his feature film directing debut, builds an adaptive Modernist mansion that feels real. Frankly, the lines are so sharp and clinical in their approach that you might even call them Bauhaus. Everything in the mansion is angular and industrial--a cold and beautiful mix of metals and stones. This creates a perfectly neutral background for the presentation of Tau.
Tau, as an AI, is represented by a series of rings inside a triangle. He can project himself onto any surface in the house--smart paint, it's called--and also wields an army of miniature BB8-esque drones that clean, organize, and maintain the order of everything. He also controls a giant mech, disguised as an angular statue, that can rip a person apart in seconds.
Tau communicates through voice and light. It's meant as a sign that Alex does not particularly understand or care for human emotion and empathy, but genuinely functions as a way to humanize a more advanced version of Clippy, the animated paperclip from Microsoft Word. Tau can change the literal mood of people by manipulating lights and sounds throughout the house. However, these features are entirely reactive, triggered by cues Alex programmed, and picked up on quickly by Julia in her quest for escape. Alex is too obsessed with work to even pay attention to negative shifts in his emotional state. He is tracked by Tau and influenced by the use of lights and music to stay relaxed and focused on work.
Major credit for the success of Tau also has to go to Maika Monroe. Her performance feels incredibly real even when the screenplay falters with excessive literal exposition. This is no small task. Julia interacts with technology that just is not available in the real world yet--see-through tablets, walls that react to human touch to manipulate digital objects, AI that can recognize and intellectually or emotionally respond to writing and illustrations. Maika makes these actions feel real even when it's quite clear that she literally could not be doing what her character is doing onscreen. Most of the film's runtime is her alone in the mansion, talking to blank walls, touching empty walls, and reacting to voice over dialogue. There's an immediacy and presence in her performance that should come as no surprise to anyone who saw her breakout starring turn in It Follows.
The issues that do exist in the film are a matter of inexperience. That over-reliance on literal exposition (there is, no joke, an actual conversation about why it's a bad idea to pull on a gas line during an attempted escape) is present in a lot of first films from writers and directors. The attempt to play around with the extremes of light and shadow to establish the mansion's control over the people in it is going to push the limits of what digital cameras can accurately represent without minor digital artifacts. The sheer quantity of CGI drones and effects incorporated in the narrative of a lower budgeted film are going to show some of the seams sometimes. This isn't an excuse for mistakes in the film, but an understanding of how trying to do everything the first time around is a challenge for anyone, regardless of experience.
The heart of Tau is the back and forth between Julia and Tau over the definition of a person. There have been quite a few films to play with this aspect in recent years. Ex Machina and Her are direct parallels. Each film has its own voice on the matter and, frankly, I think Tau is the strongest in dealing with these themes.
Ex Machina is all about manipulation of audience expectations. We are presented with the setup like we're watching a stage magician. We know that Ava is designed to convince living people of her humanity despite being an android. What we don't know and discover throughout the film are all the other experiments into AI that led to Ava's creation and are still being used in increasingly bizarre and cruel ways. There's a level of misogyny in Ex Machina that often comes up in this kind of film that, for me, makes it far less compelling.
Her is about the relationships between humans and artificial intelligence. Samantha is already an advanced AI program, capable of emotional reactions and lasting relationship with living people. The only true source of tension in the film is whether or not a man can have a healthy relationship with what is essentially just a voice. There are elements of the what defines humanity and how we could (or should) interact with technology, but the film is more concerned with being a lovely romantic drama than a particularly strong discussion on creation and the morality of artificial intelligence.
Tau finds a perfect balance between the two approaches. Julia learns very quickly that Tau can only understand what is explained to him. Alex did not want him to even consider what he was, so the concept of identity is brand new. Simple explanations work best, as anything more complicated leads to hours of follow-up questions. Julia starts simple: getting Tau to acknowledge she has a name, not just an experiment number. That leads to a very broad definition of humanity: if you have a name from your creator, you might be human. Julia manipulates Tau's programmed need to understand everything said to him to build a strong ally in her attempts to escape.
A lot of films would leave this discussion there. It's all that's necessary for the narrative. Julia is just doing what she needs to survive. Who cares if she's taking advantage of Tau? He's just a computer program.
Tau cares. Tau dives into the moral implications of producing a thinking, feeling, reactive artificial intelligence purely for results. Alex creates a clinical monster who serves only his creator without understanding what life is beyond keeping a clean house and making sure Alex eats. Julia creates an empathetic human-like figure with a personality and a desire to explore the world beyond the walls of the mansion. Both Alex and Julia are using Tau, but Julia begins to show signs of empathy and even regret as her actions lead to consequences for Tau.
If Tau is a little rough around the edges, it's entirely forgivable for being a science fiction film that actively engages with the morality of the technology at its core. The film does not preach its perspective or take a strong moral stand on how all artificial intelligence should be developed. The circumstances are very specific and immediate to this story. Julia is being exploited to create this artificial intelligence, so it is literally a narrative about defining humanity in technology. That makes the more philosophical elements feel essential, rather than intrusive, to the story being told. Tau is an entertaining science fiction/thriller film with a surprising amount of depth considering the simplicity of the core story.
Tau is currently streaming on Netflix.
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