Director: Federico D’Alessandro
Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman
Watch TAU online in the UK: Netflix UK
Legend has it that there is a curse that plagues Hollywood. A tiny, golden hex that falls upon any actor blessed enough to be praised for their performance on a sunny March evening, a jinx that dooms them to follow their acclaimed film with an immediate, embarrassing, ear-scrapingly bad movie. We speak, of course, of The Dreaded Oscar Curse. Previous victims include Eddie Murphy (Norbit) and Eddie Redmayne (Jupiter Ascending). So when word came of Gary Oldman following his Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour with a thriller in which he voices an evil house, you can understand why some might be wary of TAU.
TAU is the name of the sentient AI software that controls said home, which belongs to scientist Alex (Ed Skrein). In an attempt to perfect TAU’s programming, Alex is using a string of human lab rats to develop the software, plugging transplants in their necks and making them feel fear, before giving them lots of puzzles to solve. It’s a premise that’s immediately muddled, as Alex’s motivations switch from The Maze Runner to Nintendo’s Brain Training; we’re never entirely exactly what he’s trying to achieve with these subjects, other than the fact that he has an important meeting with investors coming up and needs to impress them with the finished product. (Nothing says tension like a board meeting with some financiers.)
Into this scenario stumbles Julia (Maika Monroe), a thief who is snatched off the streets for testing. She, understandably, doesn’t take kindly to be imprisoned, and starts to plot a way to escape. A technologically advanced Home Alone, complete with robotic booby traps? A domesticated Chappie? Federico D’Alessandro’s film, which was snapped up by Netflix last year, has “high concept” written all over it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have it written anywhere inside the script, which takes its solid gold premise – Gary Oldman voices an evil house – and fails to do anything with it.
After The Guest and It Follows, Maika Monroe does ruthless in the face of fear exceptionally well, bringing some emotional weight to her escape. That weight mostly stems from the notion that rather than overpower her captor, she must befriend it. The film’s best scenes involve her teaching TAU about the outside world, which he’s cut off from, as he asks about everything from cavemen to the sky with a childlike curiosity. While Oldman’s voice is as expressive, sympathetic and human as ever, though, even he can’t redeem Noga Landau’s screenplay. The odd clunking line of dialogue isn’t the problem, but the script’s inability to develop its idea; over 90 minutes, TAU manages to avoid making any pertinent observations about our attachment to tech, our reliance on computers or even the boundary between man and machine.
D’Alessandro, making his directorial debut after a lot of work on Marvel projects, has fun with blue and red lighting, and finds some creepily clinical touches in an army of small drones used to execute the home’s security and cleaning protocols. Indeed, the slick production design is the main reason to boot TAU up, from the lethal weapon at the home’s heart to the 2001-plus appearance of TAU’s red-eyed enigma. But with Skrein struggling to make his two-dimensional villain intriguing, and the potential for tense set pieces squandered by the largely repetitive sight of Julia sneaking around the living room without achieving very much, TAU winds up disappointingly lacking in menace or wit. A little more of either and this could have been a fun cousin to Cube or a brother to Ex Machina. As it is, TAU is something more tragic than a victim of The Dreaded Oscar Curse: it’s a wasted opportunity.
TAU is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.