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Sci-Fi Invades Netflix—as They Both Invade Your Home

Sci-Fi Invades Netflix—as They Both Invade Your Home
09 Jul
4:22

Has Netflix’s sizeable investment in original science-fiction movies been a bust? By one popular metric, Rotten Tomatoes, the answer would seem to be: Categorically. Since 2017’s Okja, a feisty ecological fairy tale by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, Netflix has put out seven back-to-back stinkers, their average “freshness” score rounding up to 30 percent. You can practically smell the putrefaction.

Well, perhaps that’s harsh. Only one of the seven can be called unwatchable: Duncan Jones’ Mute, an overlong and sexually confused nightclub noir that trips over itself to imagine a neon-colored vision of future Berlin peopled by the likes of a mustachioed Paul Rudd. This is terribly sad, considering the director’s first two films, Moon and Source Code, were the exact opposite—careful, contained stories that played out in modest settings. A man alone on a ship. Strangers talking on a train. Nothing flashy, but minor masterpieces nonetheless, infinitely more enjoyable than Mute, not to mention Jones’ other recent catastrophe, Warcraft.

In fact, the best sci-fi movies of the past few years share this early-Jones quality of smallness. We’re witnessing, it seems, the localization of the genre, if not its full-on domestication. Consider: Arrival takes place in a field; Annihilation, a swamp; Ex Machina, quite literally a house. The first two follow women negotiating motherhood and an affair, respectively; the latter centers on what is essentially a perverted stay-at-home dad. Starships will always jump to light speed and boldly go, but the franchising of outer space by the Marvels and the Disneys has pushed our more inventive creators inward. They think less about far-out expanses and more in terms of interiors, enclosures, zones, family units.

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So, it turns out, does Netflix. That’s what’s doubly (or septuply) unfortunate about this unhappy heptalogy of feature-length flops. With the exception of Mute, these films get the idea. Diligently, they’re tightening their focus, relocating sci-fi to terras more cognita—Anon and The Titan star fathers in confined industrial spaces; What Happened to Monday features seven identical sisters trapped indoors—in order to find in these intimate environs new conflict and meaning. The impulse is as noble as the execution is dreadful. And the best-worst example might be the most recent addition to the list, last month’s Tau.

Much like Ex Machina, Tau is set in a house, the definitional domicile. Tau is, in a sense, the house itself, the artificial intelligence (voiced, the credits insist, by Gary Oldman) that runs it. Our protagonist, a petty thief named Julia (Maika Monroe), knows nothing of Tau when she wakes up in one of its cells, mouth covered and hands tied. In short order, a man whose face is conveniently obscured by shafts of evil light puts an implant in the back of her head.

Once first-time director Federico D’Alessandro—he’s a Marvel vet in animatics—sees fit to unshadow our villain, the reveal provides minimal shock: It’s Ed Skrein (the original Daario Naharis in Game of Thrones) playing a wunderkind inventor named Alex with a sadistic habit of keeping people locked up in his basement so he can convert the electrical signals in their brains into algorithms that will make some future version of Tau even more HAL-like. He keeps an issue of WIRED magazine with a smarmy photo of himself on the cover hanging from a wall. That last detail, at least, feels perfectly plausible.

Julia spends nearly the whole movie under Tau’s watchful, pulsing triangular eye. Where Tau can’t go, its squad of nano-drones or its killing-machine enforcer, Aries, can. Escape is therefore unlikely; safer simply to explore the habitat. Not since Ridley Scott’s labyrinths has a setting been so comprehensively mapped: main room, kitchen, living room, library, bathroom, hallways, back rooms, staircase, bedroom. Most surfaces are covered in “smart paint” that lets you open doors or summon Tau. Alex is an absent father. He forces Tau to perform tests on Julia, showing up mainly to issue threats and eat gelatinous squares of future food moodily.

Applaud the concept. In the modern era, the home is very much the locus of lived science fiction, our most private space made uncanny, unheimlich, by the invasion of technologies with names like Alexa and Nest. Correctly, sci-fi creators perceive this fear and wish to explore and exploit it. If Tau had even a byte of *Ex Machina’*s intelligence, that movie’s examination of power and control, it would’ve been a worthy effort.

But what’s it saying? Julia, a nothing character, ends up teaching Tau, a generic AI, about history and the outside world, while an empty villain punishes both. The only shading is the uncomfortable lighting, which switches between harsh reds and blues and yellows to broadcast Tone and Mood. Even the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House brought value to the proposition. There, the central AI has to work through notions of protection versus imprisonment, a real dilemma for any higher-functioning robot. Here, the AI wants to learn more about cavemen.

In the modern era, the home is very much the locus of lived science fiction, our most private space made uncanny by the invasion of technologies with names like Alexa and Nest. Correctly, creators perceive this fear and wish to explore and exploit it.

Not every piece of sci-fi must have a deep point, of course. The most watchable of Netflix’s Unmagnificent Seven is probably The Cloverfield Paradox, in which an international crew of astronauts must find a way to restore energy to Earth. Then something happens and they pop into a parallel reality. Classically space age-y though it seems, Cloverfield Paradox too is domestic sci-fi. The film only leaves the confines of the spacecraft (a floating house) to cut to Earth, where the husband of the one of the astronauts thinks about his wife and family. They lost their kids in an accident, but in the other dimension, the kids are still alive. It’s fun stuff, and the cast is outstanding. To name a few: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Chris O’Dowd, Ziyi Zhang, and Elizabeth Debicki, who makes the greatest entrance of the year, screaming as she bloodily materializes in the walls of the ship.

Dumb ending, though—but then they needed to position Paradox within the Cloverfield paracosm. The other six Netflix originals can’t make that excuse, and to a one their codas implode. Nonsensical twists, bad speeches, and so, so much death, multiple bodies in every movie, the pile-up somehow both tedious and gratuitous. (Noomi Rapace is offed not just in What Happened to Monday—several times—but also in Bright, the Will Smith buddy-cop fantasy that’s not as joyless as it looks, but certainly as stupid.) That’s Netflix’s other major failing here: the infusion of horror. Unless very subtly applied, horror tropes are too obvious in domestic sci-fi, where we’re already plenty scared, claustrophobic, and alert.

Very early in Tau, both of Julia’s prison mates are murdered by a killer robot. Picture pleading eyes and hear limbs being torn asunder. What we’re left with is just Julia, a random, boring, unsympathetic woman with a thing stuck in her head. There’s really only one explanation, one final defense of this ridiculous exercise in filmmaking. Think about it carefully. That thing in her head, the implant, is measuring Julia’s brainwaves, decoding what she thinks and feels in response to stimuli so that evil men can build better, smarter “emotional algorithms” that make them billions of dollars on the global market. We are Julia; Tau is Netflix.

Ugh, I know. Way too close to home.


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Source: https://www.wired.com/story/netflix-sci-fi-tau/

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