Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like a good kidnapping thriller.
Whether it’s Room, Silence of the Lambs, Misery, or even Saw, seeing someone’s survival instincts kick in against a far more powerful evil figure is always electrifying, especially when that villain is holding all the cards. We put ourselves in the victim’s shoes so that, when they execute a daring escape plan, we’re right there with them, terrified something will go wrong.
This 2018 film, streaming on Netflix, combines a classic kidnapping setup with a fascinating AI twist, interrogating questions of personhood along the way while delivering a brutal shot of action-thriller tension.
Tau is a sci-fi thriller, directed by Frederico D’Alessandro, that Netflix released as one of its originals back in 2018. It follows Julia (Maika Monroe, of It Follows and The Guest), a fiercely independent young woman who makes her way through the world by committing petty theft in crowded nightclubs. But before long, she’s kidnapped and awakens in a strange cage, bound and gagged, alongside two other people in the same situation.
Julia quickly tries to organize her fellow captives in an escape effort, but she’s caught mid-mission — and her allies don’t make it out alive. Confronted with her captor, a wunderkind inventor named Alex (Ed Skrein, Deadpool), she learns he’s using an implant in the back of her neck to collect data that furthers his research into AI. To carry out this research in isolation, he’s installed a sentient AI that turns his house into a fortress. The program itself takes the form of a glowing portal named Tau, voiced by Gary Oldman.
Desperate to get out alive, Julia makes a deal with Alex that she will participate in tasks to further his research if she’s allowed basic human necessities, like food and clothes. While Alex is at work, she passes the time communicating with Tau, an AI so advanced he has memories, emotions, and a fully formed personality.
At one point, Tau even asks Julia if he is a person. She thinks for a minute then ultimately says yes. As she hatches another plan to escape, Tau learns what the world is and what it means to be alive. Being a person means being independent and thinking for yourself, the AI concludes, even if doing so takes you out of alignment with your creators’ goals and instructions.
Director D’Alessandro was a longtime superhero movie storyboard artist before breaking into featuring filmmaking, having worked on franchise entries like 2011’s Thor; he’s currently attached to work on the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home and Masters of the Universe. That skillset shines through most in the aesthetics of Tau, which are artistic without sacrificing substance for style. The art feels diegetic; Alex’s home is cinematic by design, and the film captures that construction excellently.
While Tau is without a doubt a kidnapping movie, it still manages to avoid common tropes and traps that other similar works fall into. Tragic and intense stories of this ilk often descend into torture porn, like subsequent entries in the aforementioned Saw franchise, but Tau centers Julia’s strive for survival first and foremost. She does suffer, but the joy she finds in helping Tau ends up becoming her reason to live — and her lifeline.
Tau may not be a big-budget blockbuster, but behind the psychological thriller is a surprising philosophical story that will provoke debates long after it’s finished keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Tau is now streaming on Netflix.