Movies to watch this weekend: AI, AI, Uh Oh…

Posted: 20 July 2018 3:30 pm

Netflix's Tau isn't quite what it sells itself as but is worth a watch if you're into murderous artificial intelligence.

Welcome to the Netflix Original sci-fi thriller that makes the phrase “safe as houses” a painfully antiquated term (emphasis on the word “painfully”). Fair warning, Tau is not exactly what its trailer would lead you to believe. Yes, a girl named Julia (Maika Monroe) is fighting against the titular, house-wide AI but there's a fair bit of drama and philosophising going on in-between. Go in expecting a sci-fi Saw and you're going to be disappointed, sorely.

Interestingly, Tau marks the feature film directing debut for Federico D’Alessandro who's been hiding off in the shadows of film production for quite a while now (serving as a storyboard artist on projects like I Am Legend and Captain America: The First Avenger). The man clearly has an eye and he isn't afraid to use it – this is a slickly-produced romp that's more or less a hi-tech prison break story.

The main conundrum, in a nutshell, is this: Julia has been kidnapped by an inventor (Ed Skrein) who uses her as a test subject to perfect his robotic AI. The HAL 9000 in question is voiced with unsettling aplomb by Academy Award winner Gary Oldman. So far so good, right?

You've put my interest under house arrest, tell me more

Let's dive deeper into the setup here. Julia isn't the most sympathetic of heroes, being a loner who makes money as a thief in seedy nightclubs. One night, she pisses off the wrong patron, is snatched from her home and awakens in bondage somewhere else. Her new roomies, known only as Subject 1 and Subject 2, share a common bond, a mysterious sub-dermal implant in the back of their necks.

Julia is stripped of her identity and given the fairly unimaginative designation of "Subject 3". The collective group is then made to endure a series of torturous psychological sessions wrought by the hand of the mysterious owner of this lab, Alex. This detached sociopath reveals the implant is collecting all of their neural activity as they try to solve increasingly difficult and disturbing tests. The info being gleaned is clearly very important as the project involves a shadowy buyer and an encroaching deadline. The latter term may prove to be literal.

Street-smart Julia eventually manages to talk her way into special privileges. In exchange for undertaking additional tests, she'll be allowed limited mobility around this trippy technological prison. However freedom of movement comes with its own dangers, as Tau is an unstable god with a battalion of drones and robots under his command. He's not afraid to “evict” yet another Subject; apparently he's been through half a dozen already. When Julia realises Tau's only weakness is his curiosity and thirst for knowledge of the outside world, she hatches a daring plot to escape.

What Tau trivia can I drop at parties?

Start a debate by trying to rank Tau in a list of science fiction’s most haunting AI villains. The most obvious entrants would be Stanley Kubrick's terrifying vision of automation gone wrong, HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. That murderous spaceship captain would be on even standing with SKYNET, the time-meddling defence network of the Terminator franchise. In the same vein, but hilariously dated by its Apple II screens is the WWIII proponent WOPR, from 1983's WarGames. Last but not least, you can't go past the calculating and incredibly verbose Architect from The Matrix. Ergo. Concordantly. Vis-à-vis. Etcetera.

You could also scare your audience by mentioning the worryingly advanced state of real-life AI. In late 2017 Google CEO Sundar Pichai declared the company's intention to shift focus to "AI first” instead of “mobile first”. Heavy investments have since been made in machine learning research, developing frameworks to create more sophisticated applications that can mimic us and be autonomous.

You may have seen some of this at work already in Gmail. An assistant will read an incoming message, figure out the basic context of it and offer you one-click responses like “thanks, I'll be there” or “sounds good, put me down as interested”. That's the shallow end. Google Duplex's next milestone is providing an Assistant of sorts who can be called up and trusted to set appointments for you (haircuts, dinner reservations, all depending on your trust levels, really). From there, who knows? My money is on world domination.

What can I watch afterwards that's in the same style?

You have a few Netflix options that are lighter fare than this thriller. Steven Spielberg was ahead of the curve with 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which starred a young Haley Joel Osment. Netflix is also home to Chappie, a Neill Blomkamp action romp centred on a self-aware police robot who falls under the tutelage of an insufferable South African rapper.

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