The most fun part of any movie in which a smart home runs amok is seeing ordinary household items get turned into instruments of mayhem. These moments give these movies not just dramatic power, but thematic richness, inviting the viewer to ask big questions like, “Aren’t we all imprisoned by our possessions in one way or another?”, “Are the material trappings of the home just a way to hide the chaos and violence that lives at the heart of domestic life?”, or “What if I got an escalator installed in my house and it went so fast it threw me out the window into the pool?”
Tau, directed by Federico D’Alessandro and recently released by Netflix, is ostensibly another entry in the canon of “evil smart house” films. (Netflix’s description: “She’s imprisoned in a high-tech house designed by a sadistic genius. To survive, she’ll have to get past his sophisticated AI.”) However, one of the (many) things that makes Tau a less-than-satisfying viewing experience is that the house in question is more of a generic mad scientist’s lair than anything even remotely resembling a familiar home environment. When our hero Julia (Maika Monroe) escapes from the house’s basement prison and makes it to the ground floor, one of the other captives who escaped with her asks, “What is this place?” Julia replies, “It looks like somebody’s house.” I suspect this dialogue was added in post, and it’s a good thing it was, because otherwise the viewer would have no idea that the film does, in fact, take place in somebody’s house. It does not look like somebody’s house, it looks like the lobby of a bank, but even more impersonal than usual. (Though I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that this is how tech billionaires actually decorate their homes.)
In Demon Seed, another horror movie about a smart house, it’s scary and surprising when the house’s heating system is turned into an instrument of torture. In Tau, a creepy pointy sculpture turns into a creepy pointy robot that stabs people. The house seems to have been built explicitly for imprisonment and misery, so there’s no compelling or thought-provoking juxtaposition that comes from seeing a character imprisoned and miserable in it. There are, however, a few moments in the film when the horror gives way to almost a kind of hominess. Where it’s a little less Saw and a little more Better Homes and Gardens. Here are a few places in Tao where you might find yourself briefly thinking, “Okay, maybe I wouldn’t mind living here. Or at least I could Airbnb it for a few days, as long as I was sure the owner was definitely going to be away.”
Alex (Ed Skrein), the evil tech billionaire who built the house, has a genuinely cozy office. The chairs look comfy. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with handsomely bound books. The desk is nice and big, and even though the windows behind it turn out to be screens, they still add a touch of hygge. We first see the office when Julia and the other captives run into it while trying to escape from the aforementioned stabby robot.
I have to say, as someone who enjoys cooking, I appreciated how big the kitchen was. It seems like there’s a lot of space in the cabinets and drawers (which open and close automatically and are controlled by an “internal magnetic field,” naturally) for all kinds of kitchen equipment, including a (very weird looking) knife, which Julia steals and uses to slash Alex across the stomach. Tau (voiced by Gary Oldman), the AI who runs the house, of course, does all the actual cooking. One meal he prepares is “Chilean sea bass served with foie gras–stuffed fingerling potatoes.” This sounds to me like something one of Janelle Shane’s neural networks would come up with if it were trained on a list of “clichéd foods for billionaires to eat.” But then again, maybe it’s not actually that crazy compared to some of the food that’s actually served to rich tech folks.
Very Nice Cleaning Robots
The house is cleaned by a bunch of charming tiny round drones. They seem mostly to be used to dispose of dead bodies and clean up blood. But still.
This isn’t really something related to hominess, but I do want to give a shout out to Tau’s “smart paint.” What is “smart paint” you ask? Why it’s a high-tech version of chalkboard paint that can turn every wall in a house into a kind of screen. When Julia starts to befriend Tau, she uses the smart paint to draw pictures to teach him about the outside world. Why is Alex expending so much effort on a convoluted scheme to abduct people and force them to solve puzzles to help make Tau a better AI (no follow-up questions about the plot, please) when he’s sitting on a multibillion-dollar idea like smart paint?
Alex locks Julia in the bathroom to keep her hidden while some deliverymen are in the house. Julia screams and bangs on the walls, desperately trying to get their attention, but to no avail: The bathroom is soundproof. Now, I admit that soundproofing any part of your home is undeniably sinister, but a bathroom from which no noise can escape does have a certain appeal, even if you’re not someone who eats mostly sea bass and foie gras.
When Julia tries to escape through an air duct (what, you don’t have an air duct big enough for a person to crawl through in your house?), she has to go through an exercise room. It seems like a totally normal exercise room. The weights don’t come to life and try to bash her or anything. There’s nothing “smart” about this room, except to the extent that it’s smart to keep yourself healthy with a consistent exercise regimen.
The House Itself
We only get a brief look at the exterior of the house, but from what I can tell, it seems like it has a lot of windows and should get a lot of natural light — not that you would get that impression from the parts of the house you actually see in the movie.The house explodes before we can get a good look at it, though, because Julia initiated the house’s self-destruct sequence. Julia asks Tau (and you might also be wondering), “Why would [Alex] create a self-destruct button?” Great question. The number one must-have feature of any mad scientist’s lair is a self-destruct sequence. It’s almost as if this house wasn’t designed with comfortable living in mind.