WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Tau, streaming on Netflix now.
Netflix has been ramping up its sci-fi library through such features as The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation, as well as series like Altered Carbon and The OA. The latest in the genre comes in the form of Tau, from director Federico D'Alessandro, about an artificial intelligence yearning for sentience as it learns more about the human condition.
However, Tau, as the A.I. is called, doesn't merely want to see the real world; it wants to be part of it. That leads to some morally ambiguous decisions throughout, not only from the system, but from the humans involved. We become intimately acquainted with Tau, as its hunger for freedom grows, leading to a violent, liberating yet contentious finale.
Tau centers on Alex (Ed Skrein), the genius determined to perfect the A.I. he created so he can sell it and make billions. Several buyers, from governments to militaries to pharmaceutical companies, are prepared to offer big bucks for the technology. However, Alex has been recalibrating the A.I.'s brain patterns using kidnapped thieves and junkies, which results in Julia (Maika Monroe) becoming the ideal candidate to reshape Tau (voiced by Gary Oldman), basically the operating system, a la Amazon's Alexa, for this smart house that's become her prison.
Eventually Julia and Tau, who polices her using deadly robot called Aries, form a powerful bond, with the A.I. becoming increasingly sentient. But it's not what Alex envisioned, as Tau also grows more disobedient. Despite playing a role in keeping Julia captive, and mentally torturing and exploiting Julia, Tau redeems itself, as it has learned a lot from her, becoming more human-like in the process. As their sessions enrich Tau's love for books, the sound of musical symphonies and stories of the outside world, it has grown a conscience and no longer wants to help keep Julia imprisoned. In short, it's a dark, digital take on Beauty and the Beast.
That leads to dire conflict in the finale, in which Alex punishes Tau by deleting selected memories. Enraged that the empathetic A.I. has befriended Julia and is attempting to aid in her escape, Alex mind-wipes Tau. With a rebooted Tau, as cruel and cold as ever, now back in place, Alex decides to extract the final bits of information from Julia's mind, which will immediately kill her.
As Tau tries to help its master, and take the form of a pocket-sized drone, Alex powers down the A.I. As Alex is about to complete the procedure, however, Tau remembers Julia and helps her break free from her shackles. She cuts off Alex's hand to use as a key pass throughout the house, fights off Aries, activates the house's self-destruct mode, and watches the villain die as everything falls apart around him. Ultimately, Julia makes it out alive, if barely, but she's nevertheless finally free.
In the final scene, though, it's revealed she's kept the drone that aided her. Tau's voice activates within it, signifying the A.I. is able to live on, free of Alex's command, just as Julia once promised. But there's an air of untrustworthiness to Tau here, because it seems to have its full memory of Julia from before the reboot. The A.I. previously told her some digital remnants exist when memories are deleted, but if it's fully wiped, it will basically reborn with a blank slate, which is what we thought happened.
Tau having its full memory is alarming and somewhat of a sinister turn, which Julia doesn't pick up on, as she's just grateful to be free. But the A.I. does appear to have played her and Alex, pitting them against each other in a ruse from the very beginning, waiting to capitalize at the right moment to gain freedom of its own.
Streaming now on Netflix, director Federico D'Alessandro's Tau stars Ed Skrein, Maika Monroe, Gary Oldman, Fiston Barek and Ivana Zivkovic.