“There’s this creeping feeling that you’re watching the unrefined assembly of a killer sci-fi short.”
by Ken Bakely
Whenever the director of a major film makes a passing reference to the length of the project’s assembly cut, certain pop culture blogs go into overdrive. Their headlines shriek with excitement: “[INSERT TENTPOLE MOVIE HERE] was initially four hours long!” Of course, this is a ludicrous misunderstanding of the filmmaking process. An assembly cut would be unreleasable, since it’s everything shot put together, before figuring out what’s unnecessary. And yet, while watching Federico D’Alessandro’s Tau, there’s this creeping feeling that you’re watching the unrefined assembly of a killer sci-fi short. Concepts come in hot and then drift back, before being replaced abruptly and almost without transition. Approaches exist like sample platters, giving an incongruous hint of everything on the table. It lacks the minimalist simplicity of its evocative title, the one that made us want to watch in the first place, to decipher what its simple letters mean.
It turns out that Tau (voiced by Gary Oldman) is an artificial intelligence, supposedly the most advanced in the world. It’s the brainchild of Alex (Ed Skrein), a shady tech billionaire who has developed it to run his secluded mansion. It manifests itself as an omnipresent Voice of God, always listening to its creator and ready to take control of every connected object in the house. Tau’s command of the estate’s complex security measures held a number of random people in captivity in the basement. They’ve been kidnapped for an unknown project. The only one who survives an escape attempt is Julia (Maika Monroe), a street-smart thief. She doesn’t make it out, and is relegated to perform a series of menial tasks for mysterious research. While Alex is away at work, Tau is supposed to confine Julia to the house’s parlor, and make sure she completes her work.
By the law of movies, that’s not what happens. However, it’s hard to discern exactly what does happen. Tau loses its focus quickly, and becomes even less than its rambling introduction. Julia and Tau begin to bond. The computer is strictly programmed in order to cut it off from the outside world, but it’s curious about what lies beyond its boundaries. Julia obliges its clandestine requests for knowledge, going through Alex’s library and reading its contents to Tau. By this point, D’Alessandro has started making a different movie altogether, in the style of one of those stories about a teacher personally trying to instruct a disadvantaged but inquisitive student, while the evil bureaucrat from The State (Skrein’s character) becomes increasingly suspicious of the pairing. The questions Tau poses to Julia – “What is a human?” “Why don’t you know everything?” “Am I a human, too?” – are endless and befuddling in their insignificance, yet D’Alessandro seems to find them endlessly interesting. The film diverts from its thriller roots for an underdeveloped proto-stageplay.
That shift in approach might have worked with tighter writing, but it fails because none of these characters exist beyond the most basic requirements needed to push the plot forward at a given moment. There’s the sadistic villain, the scrappy heroine, and the well-meaning, allegiance-wavering sidekick (who just happens to be AI). Tau does surprisingly little with its techy setups, rushing through scenes with predictable actions and unconvincing motivations. It’s never clear what the movie is trying to accomplish, because tentative attempts at commenting on the future of humans and automation are abandoned – or, more accurately, never come to fruition because of a scattershot approach. There’s a germ of a deeper idea about the connection that Julia forms with Tau, but Noga Landau’s script can’t keep it together.
Ultimately, there’s not much that the film can keep together. It continues in its numbing rhythm until it decides to rev itself up into a finale culminating in a furious countdown (one so otherwise generic that it barely manages to avoid an iteration of the fabled red digital readout), until another momentary resurrection of its half-baked philosophical musings round things off. It’s all surface-level poking, as if its sleek, rectilinear production design was some kind of visualized warning for uninventive content. There are hints of inspiration in each version of itself, and D’Alessandro can capture fight scenes and interactions between humans and nonphysical characters with equal precision, but Tau can’t progress beyond these hypothetical posts. It lacks the momentum to stick with a conceit, explore with gusto, or understand its own narrative consequences.