WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Tau, streaming on Netflix now.
A thought-provoking sci-fi thriller, director Federico D'Alessandro's Tau is about the human condition, focusing on an artificial intelligence (voiced by Gary Oldman) that aspires to become sentient. It, well, he, wants to think and feel like people do, and live in the real world. However, a major obstacle to the A.I.'s ambitions is its creator Alex (Ed Skrein), a socially awkward genius considered one of the finest minds on the planet. He's trying to perfect Tau, but as the A.I. rebels, it becomes the opposite of what Alex wants, turning into a free and critical thinker, and, yes, a potential threat.
What's so intriguing about Tau's journey is that it actually ends up feeling much like the Ultron origin story fans expected, but never received, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer/director Joss Whedon reshaped the backstory of the Marvel Comics supervillain as an A.I. upgrade to J.A.R.V.I.S. devised by Tony Stark. Together with Bruce Banner, they produced a sentient mind that became corrupt and eventually took form as an army of evil robots. That said, it was a departure from the comics, in which Ultron is a robot created by Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man), based upon his own brain patterns. The robot subsequently becomes sentient and rebels, fueled by an irrational hatred of its creator.
While we didn't get that Pym/Ultron dynamic in the MCU, we do see an almost-identical narrative in Tau. Alex easily fills the shoes of Pym because he wants to create something that goes beyond an operating system; he wants to produce a binary mind that is, for all intents and purposes, perfection.
To do so he must erase all flaws from Tau's system so he can monetize A.I., although he does so by kidnapping criminals and using their thought patterns to create complex and emotionally distressed algorithms for Tau to solve. In the comics, Pym patterned Ultron using his brainwaves in a similar fashion, but his intentions were initially altruistic. Nonetheless, Alex realized early on he needed more brain patterns than just his own introverted mind.
That's what he believes will make Tau compliant and subservient, yet something that will change the world. Although his measures are dark, they do reflect Pym's descent into madness whenever it came to Ultron's father issues. As for the characteristics of both creators, they are obsessed with their "children," so to speak, and see these experiments as the next step in evolution. Alex brings that point over to his test subjects, especially the feisty shoplifter Julia (Maika Monroe), as he strengthens his "son."
And so, just like Ultron, Tau learns from his human mentor (Julia), growing wiser by reading books and researching art, basically becoming sentient and eventually establishing a human-like consciousness. He already possesses an Ultron streak as he's controlling the lethal robot Aries, as well as other mini-drones, to keep Julia imprisoned, but as he becomes more human, he loses that warden-like persona and secretly manipulates Julia into helping him escape so he can assimilate with the outside world.
At first, it seems like Tau desires peaceful integration, but given the punishment Alex inflicts on him for insubordination (the painful deleting of his memory bank), the A.I. has potential to harbor ill-will toward humans, especially as he's already hunted and killed test subjects who tried to mess with his upgrades in Alex's lab.
Ultimately, Tau achieves his objectives, becoming liberated and able to roam the world after he helps Julia destroy Alex and his research hub. In telling this tale, D'Alessandro pulls elements from several popular movies, such as Frankenstein, Ex Machina, Saw and, of course, Age of Ultron. But for those who missed the comic-driven narrative of Pym inventing a powerful A.I. with the capability of ruling the world, you can take comfort a substitute exists in Tau.
Streaming now on Netflix, director Federico D’Alessandro’s Tau stars Ed Skrein, Maika Monroe, Gary Oldman, Fiston Barek and Ivana Zivkovic.