Today I watched Tau. A journeyman cross between Ex Machina and the Disney Original Movie, Smart House. For 90 minutes I watched a woman slowly teach an AI that runs a house about music, art, and history as she tried to escape from the clutches of an emotionally vacant murderer. It holds together about as well as that description.
Tau is about a woman, Julia (Maika Monroe), who is captured by a techbro, Alex (Ed Skrein) who captures people to put a chip in their head to…make better chips for heads? Helping Alex maintain house and home is Tau, his AI. Tau sometimes brutally murders people because Alex tells him to. After Julia destroys the holding cell and lab she (and two other completely disposable characters) are trapped she escapes upstairs to the rest of Alex’s house.
As a film, Tau is astoundingly overlong and never finds itself becoming very interesting. Some of the CGI is unconvincing and stands out from the generic science fiction colors of blue and orange. The script doesn’t give the excellent Maika Monroe much room to act and I was shocked to learn that Gary Oldman was the voice of Tau. If Tau taught me anything, it’s that Gary Oldman does so much of his acting with his face and doesn’t work as well as a glowing circle.
Tau is not very good but it’s also not memorably bad. The movie brilliantly fills up 90 minutes while you try to feel less alone in an otherwise empty room. In that way, this is the perfect show for Netflix, breezy and incredibly decent. That’s not to say the movie isn’t problematic or that it doesn’t have problems. Instead, it’s low to mid-tier content that a generation of us could see so often on the Sci-Fi Channel before it was the Syfy Channel.
The most impressive achievement is also its greatest failure. The movie doesn’t leave any sort of impression except that it reminded me of watching other more memorable movies. Smart House might be an almost 20-year-old Disney made for TV movie, but it treads a lot of the same ground with more humor. Ex Machina is also massively problematic but it’s memorable.
This lack of impression is increasingly the type of movie that Netflix wants on its platform and is beginning to define Netflix as a platform. It’s constant distribution of shlocky time-wasters makes it hard to find the movies and shows it hosts that are actually worthwhile. It’s becoming a dumping ground for movies that are just checks to the actors and sometimes awful vanity projects for directors.
I watch a lot of bad movies. But I watch them because they are bad. I choose them specifically because they’re not good. Tau isn’t that. It’s not classically bad or even entertainingly bad. It might not even be “bad” as much as it’s middling and not exceptional in any way except how not except it is.