Julia is just a sex kitten pickpocket, working the lurid clubs and working “it” for a few shekels a night, before heading home to her industrial dump of a loft.
Then she’s abducted, trussed up like Hannibal Lecter at his scariest, another blonde bound for torture porn town, right?
Operating theater, classical quartets playing in the background, brain blasts that force memories out. In “Tau,” beware the creep with the cattle prod.
This minimalist, digital-effects-packed thriller hurles us and Julia into a “Saw” knockoff, where “Jigsaw” is a homicidal robotic house filled with drones, a security robot and oter things that won’t just keep her there, they — “he,” the computer system named “Tau” with the voice of newly-crowned Oscar winner Gary Oldman, or the combat robot Ares — could tear her apart.
Julia’s not the only one gagged and bound here, in this futuretech prison with expressionist lighting, electrified cages, some sort of implant thing on her neck. Who took her, for what reason and what purpose?
She’s tough and resourceful, and quick to come up with a plan. Improvise. Pilfer. And my personal favorite, set something — EVERYthing — on fire.
“Stay away from the gas line or we’ll all go up in flames.”
The thing about “mysterious” abduction tales is that they always work best when you cling to the mystery. Remember “Old Boy,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Split,” the endless “Saw” films, track down Noomi Rapace in “Rupture.” Not knowing who or what has taken the heroine (usually) connects us with their plight, narrows our focus to what they can see, what their panicked priorities are.
Who gives a damn about the kidnapper? Even Jigsaw? A little information goes a long way, even in films in which the ticking clock of this or that chance of escape and thus show us James McAvoy and his alternate personalities chatting with a shrink as his prisoners scramble to get out.
But “Tau” shows us its bespectacled billionaire (Ed Skrein) holding people in his lair, far too early. And even gives us a pedestrian “The rich will kill us if it pays dividends for them” motivation.”
“Tests,” you say? Ones that don’t involve chainsaws?
“Tau” transforms into an over-designed cat-and-mouse game, war of wills. We’ve seen people die, the villain is supposedly super-smart. How can she leverage anything into a chance at escape, a negotiated release, or whatever? Will developing empathy with Tau save her?
Skrein has the right, emotionally-lacking chiseled villain look and air, but inspires zero fear.
Monroe, gripping in the higher-stakes, panic-stricken and sexually charged “It Follows,” is a bland heroine, physically engaged with the role but rarely more than a pretty presence at its center. She seems tougher in the beginning, and more emotionally disengaged from the sci-fi/AI cliches that pass for conservations with the machine.
“What is…a person? Am I…a person? I have more questions.”
Jokes — if you can call them that — disintegrate into the ether.
Tau, visualized s a gigantic, all-sensing/all-seeing talking triangle, gives daily updates for “Subject 3” and her tasks and the “project deadline,” and don’t add urgency.
Still, the production design — digital backdrops augmenting vast living rooms and a library, even — is impressive. It’s rare that production design ever rescues a movie from a script that’s gone down the rabbit hole of ridiculous that “Tau” does.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language
Cast: Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein, Gary Oldman
Credits:Directed by Federico D’Alessandro , script by Noga Landau. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:37