Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2018


Siri, define "hacky sci-fi"

On the future's saddest, dumbest artificial intelligence, self-destructing houses, and the self-destructing screenplays that create them

Director: Federico D'Alessandro
Screenplay: Noga Landau
Starring: Maika Monroe, Gary Oldman, Ed Skrein, Fiston Barek and Ivana Zivkovic
Rated R / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 2.35:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)

Netflix began its foray into original film distribution with Oscars in its sights, dropping Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation on its platform (and a few select theatres it made no effort to promote) early in the 2015 awards season. The Oscar nominations didn't come, although the film did land Idris Elba a Screen Actors Guild award and a handful of scattered nominations. Nearly three years later, Netflix isn't so much a prestige label, or even your typical major distributor, but a miscellaneous grab-bag of indiscriminately selected film content. Like a restaurant shooting for a Michelin star casually including cans of Spam on the menu alongside its chef's signature dishes, or a craft brewery offering flights of Smirnoff Ice.

Which means, on one hand, that within the next year or so it will be releasing, among others: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, Paul Greengrass' 22 July, Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw, Nicole Holofcener's The Land of Steady Habits, Ariel Vroman's The Angel, J.C. Chandor's Triple Frontier, and even Orson Welles' long-awaited, finally-completed The Other Side of the Wind. Netflix is squarely in the auteur business.

And then there's stuff like Tau. In the spirit of major studios creating small labels to distribute their lesser (or less-marketable) offerings and direct-to-video crap, Netflix should create a special discount service for movies like Tau. Call it Netflix Jr or Netflix Lite or Qwikster or, I don't know, MoviePass? Make it four bucks a month, and for that low low price you get access to the types of movies that in the olden days you would have rented when the movie you actually wanted was out of stock. Can't find E.T. on the shelf? Don't worry, Mac and Me is available. Her is out of your streaming-subscription price range? Have no fear - Tau will do the trick. You'll get exactly what you pay for. (This plan also offers exclusive access to the future works of McG.)

With respect to Steven Spielberg's contention to the contrary, a Netflix movie is not a "TV movie." And the company's resources and cultural sway suggest it should be long past the glorified direct-to-video model. And yet with the likes of Tau, Netflix seems hellbent on proving us all wrong, as if desperate to retain and dominate even that disreputable niche. As if it still thinks of Redbox as a competitor. In its dual roles as TV network and movie studio, casting a wide net - covering the high and the low, with as many formats and genres as possible - is normal. But at a certain point, the goal seems to be to overwhelm us with so much content that there's always something new to watch even though a lot of it is shit. Watching Tau, it's hard to imagine what standards of quality exist, if any, in Netflix's acquisition process that would deem this thing releasable. Or more to the point, it confirms - or reinforces - that Netflix's strategy is entirely about volume.

It's easy to see why this would be an attractive movie on paper. It's about artificial intelligence at a time when that's a zeitgeisty pop-culture subject; it co-stars a popular, newly minted Oscar winner (albeit in a voice-only role); it's a genre film starring an up-and-comer who made her bones in small, well-liked genre films (It Follows, The Guest). Which makes its sheer ghastliness so strange and inexcusable. This feels like a knockoff of a knockoff of a not-very-good sci-fi movie. To watch this movie is to watch a movie barely even trying. It feels so fake that I'm not entirely convinced I watched it.

What I do or do not remember watching is a movie in which the world's most brilliant bad-boy tech genius has created mankind's most advanced artificial intelligence - which somehow knows almost nothing, failing to comprehend common words and certain basic language constructs. Its primary duty - beyond keeping an eye on the unexpected houseguest - is doing the cleaning and dusting. What I'm saying is the world's most brilliant bad-boy tech genius has created a Roomba that talks. This highly advanced unprecedented artificial intelligence that is actually a talking Roomba can also issue commands to Aries, a heat-seeking killer robot that's basically the ED-209 from RoboCop, except with Bender's arms, and less competent than both.

The famously brilliant bad-boy tech genius who created the talking Roomba and the clumsy killer robot has deliberately withheld all information about the outside world from his talking Roomba - whose name is Tau and is voiced by Gary Oldman - but has somehow not prevented his creation from learning information about the outside world from houseguests, defeating the entire purpose of his own preventative measure. One such houseguest arrives, albeit accidentally. It's a kidnapped thief named Julia (Maika Monroe), who escaped her captivity (at the hands of the bad-boy tech genius) and blew up his underground prison, only to find herself imprisoned in his impenetrable fortress of a home instead. (Typical chilly, lonely-rich-guy home, by the way. Smells of rich mahogany. All the latest in artificially intelligent Roomba technology.) Alex (Ed Skrein) needs her brain for his research. Or rather, needs the results of the myriad tests he's performing on her brain, which will provide him the decisive data he needs to perfect the final version of his highly advanced artificial intelligence that right now can basically only lock doors, vacuum things and turn on the radio.

The famously brilliant bad-boy tech genius named Alex with the clumsy killer robot and the kidnapped houseguest who spends her days casually teaching the talking Roomba all the things he's been explicitly programmed not to know has done another smart thing, and that smart thing is rigging his impenetrable fortress of a smarthome with a self-destruct mechanism, a piece of information Tau tells Julia about in casual conversation because it definitely makes sense that the tech wunderkind who can control the behavior of his highly advanced, personal artificial-intelligence system would allow such a loophole as allowing said personal artificial-intelligence system to tell complete strangers about a secret self-destruct failsafe button. Anyway, how can we blame Alex, he's under the gun from his "board," which has given him an arbitrary deadline by which to complete his new prototype otherwise the entire company is going to collapse.

How this works is: The bad-boy tech genius spends his days dramatically walking in and out of rooms while Tau administers brain tests to Julia, the results of which Alex analyzes each night and then works into his prototype. In their downtime, Julia teaches Tau words like "person," which Tau previously did not know, and which then causes him to become self-aware ("Am I a person?"), and clearly from the sound of it you can tell this is, as previously declared, a super highly advanced artificial intelligence that is going to change the world and stuff. Just after he learns what a person is. (We can assume that shapes, colors, and simple math problems will be next on the agenda.)

The highly advanced, game-changing artificial-intelligence system that doesn't know anything and is basically a talking Roomba learns, through Julia, about the world, then learns what it means to be human and almost instantly develops empathy, which causes a conflict with his creator and master, the bad-boy tech genius who intends to use Julia's brain data and then kill her, and whose extremely useful self-destruct failsafe button will not at all become an issue.

The world-renowned bad-boy tech genius is said to be "weird" and "eccentric" and yet he is actually more like a Brooks Brothers model who just wants to get a reservation at Dorsia and needs to return some video tapes and whose entire performance boils down to walking around handsomely, looking confident and vaguely peeved but not peeved enough to stop being handsome and confident.

Tau is a monumentally lazy waste of time, a movie in which nothing makes sense and no effort is made to justify any of the conceits the entire premise is built on. This is a movie with the plotting not of a bad B-movie but of a student film purporting to imitate the plotting of a bad B-movie, only the whole thing has the slick veneer of a mildly expensive Hollywood actioner, which somehow makes it worse, and infinitely more depressing. This is a movie that should not exist, and almost doesn't.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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