‘Tau’ Review: A Smart AI Thriller Even If No ‘Ex Machina’

Critics say Netflix sci-fi thriller ‘Tau’ short-circuits big time, but I disagree. Here’s why…

Catriona Campbell

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“I have been instructed to inflict pain should you not comply with my commands,” says the hostile AI to the frightened captive girl in Tau.

Of course, as you might be able to tell from the careful wording of his menacing threat, the eponymous Tau (voiced by Gary Oldman, an actor well-versed in bad-guy roles) isn’t the true villain here. No, Tau — which appears as an illuminated red triangle on the wall — is simply being told what to do.

The true villain is 30-something mad scientist Alex (Ed Skrein), who abducts our protagonist, street-smart grifter Julia (Maika Monroe), after she’s finished with an evening of nightclub pickpocketing.

The brooding and reclusive Alex has programmed Tau not only to run his futuristic smart house (free domestic labour and all that) but also to monitor his reluctant guinea pig, administering punishment if she doesn’t complete her tasks.

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Those tasks include a series of bizarre puzzles and cognitive tests, with Julia’s neural activity collected by a glowing electrical implant embedded in the back of her neck.

Alex’s twisted objective in all this? To perfect a new, even more advanced artificial intelligence programme he’s currently working on. And he needs to achieve this within a tight deadline too. Otherwise, the billion-dollar contract his Silicon Valley employers are dangling in front of him will fly right out of the window — or it would, at any rate, if the bunker-esque pile had any windows.

I’d be fibbing if I said Tau was one of the better additions to the genre I’ve ever come across — gaping plot holes, flat moments, poorly employed tropes, ludicrous dialogue, and shoddy science abound. A big old B-movie, and a sternly executed one at that, it’s certainly no Ex Machina.

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Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com