This week, we gave our group of interns a challenge: pick a movie from the past decade that didn’t seem like it was for you, so you didn’t see it. Watch that movie and review it. You can find all of their reviews on the Projects page.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a pretty terrifying concept, whether it involves killer sentient robots or merely automating human jobs out of existence. Films have explored the idea of machines with human characteristics and emotions for almost as long as science fiction has existed, yet modern filmmakers have the additional challenge of coming up with original ideas to compete with the horrors of real-life tech.
In TAU, it’s as if the AI itself (named “TAU” and voiced by Gary Oldman) became self-aware and wrote a screenplay about AI — relying on formulaic tropes rather than creatively developing multi-dimensional characters or a substantial message.
When we first meet the film’s protagonist, Julia (Maika Monroe), her main occupation seems to be wearing a wig and pickpocketing jewelry from rich people at clubs, the first of TAU‘s many vague and seemingly arbitrary choices. She’s followed back to her apartment and kidnapped, waking up strapped to a machine that uploads her memories and brain activity to a hard drive. It’s unclear why she has been chosen as a human subject for this particular science project.
In an attempt to escape, she blows up the lab and her high-tech jail cell, which leads the other two unnamed captives to their deaths via killer robot security system and destroys all the data besides the chip implanted in her brain stem. Like a frustrated college student when Microsoft Word crashes with no backups, the mad scientist AI creator Alex (Ed Skein) is pissed.
The visual design of Alex’s sprawling mansion, including the AI interface, tiny spherical flying drones, holograms of brain scans, and the killer robot transformer, are all compelling and remind the audience what’s great about the futuristic sci-fi genre. First-time director Federico D’Alessandro has worked in the art departments of over a half-dozen Marvel films, and it’s evident in the quality and realism of the graphics.
Both the film’s design and Monroe’s performance as a defiant captive keep the film watchable. But the flat writing of the characters, especially the brutal yet painfully lifeless tech billionaire Alex, weakens the foundation of TAU. As eccentric and outgoing as most tech executives are, Alex has the personality and social skills of a psychopathic Buddhist monk, pacing the floors of an empty mansion in absolute silence.
TAU’s pace slows considerably into prolonged hostage negotiations when Alex and Julia begin to interact in earnest. Julia’s cognitive data gives her enough leverage to eat, shower, and nap on the couch since Alex is on a deadline to finish the AI prototype and divulge information to investors. To provide enough data for the “project,” Julia is kept occupied by TAU’s tests and games, at one point spelling “fuck yourself psycho” with digital puzzle pieces. \
Feel free to fact check, but I’m almost certain AI doesn’t require electrical signals from human brains to produce algorithms, and the actual business-related purpose of the AI prototype is left ambiguous as well. (For what it’s worth, Elon Musk has already founded a startup to make implants to merge human brains with computers.) The film drags as Julia is confined to a single room while trying to devise an escape route, though she finds a valuable ally by trading information about the outside world for TAU’s trust.
In an odd turn of events for someone who has been kept prisoner by the AI’s creator for at least two weeks, Julia befriends TAU, at first in an attempt to convince the AI that she’s “Julia” and not “Subject 3” because she’s a human being with a name. In exchange for some more details about the technical vulnerabilities of the house, she teaches the AI how trees grow, reads it books about music and poetry, and prompts an existential crisis when TAU asks, “What does it mean to be a person?”
The 1999 Disney Channel original movie Smart House about a computer-run home gone awry may have been ahead of the curve and made TAU’s point first. It’s all a little bit too on the nose with the tech tropes, even when compared to recent Netflix originals like Black Mirror and Maniac as well as Joaquin Phoenix’s AI romance in Spike Jonze’s Her.
Julia’s captivity may be a relevant allegory for how Silicon Valley titans mine our personal data to hone their algorithms, but TAU is simultaneously too predictable and too baffling to communicate that in an innovative way. The claustrophobic entrapment of Julia within the mansion’s walls signifies that the promise of a free and democratic internet has begun to sour, the film functioning as a weirdly elaborate escape room with frustratingly little action before the final sequence.
In the end, Siri or Alexa or TAU are the least of our worries. Technology isn’t inherently good or evil; it’s a tool in the hands of flawed individuals. AI isn’t literally harvested from brains, but biases and human psychology can be amplified by algorithms to infringe on freedom and privacy. Fear of the unknown, fear of big tech, fear of AI, and fear of a sentient Roomba seeking revenge are all valid, but TAU falters by not going far enough beyond the surface-level of any of these fears to truly push the necessary boundaries.
Regardless, maybe the FBI ought to investigate some tech CEO’s mansions for any human-sized cages in their basements, just to be safe.