A surveillance thriller for an age when everyone knows they’re being spied upon at all times — even, perhaps, by the same device on which they’re watching it — Steven Soderbergh’s “Kimi” is a simple but satisfying genre exercise that uses its agoraphobic heroine to ask what people are supposed to do with their paranoia now that virtually everything is out in the open.
Her name is Angela Childs, she’s played by a coiled and squirrely Zoë Kravitz (sporting a blue “Amélie”-esque bob), and she hasn’t stepped foot out of her gorgeous Seattle loft since COVID-19 came to town. Nor has she needed to: The modern world was made for shut-ins, and Angela can get almost everything she requires at home, including no-strings-attached sex from the neighbor she watches from her window (an exasperated Byron Bowers), and a cushy paycheck from her job working for the Amygdala Corporation, which is days away from its IPO on the strength of a new Alexa-esque product called… Kimi.
What makes Kimi different? I’m glad you asked. Unlike its competitors, Kimi is monitored by a small army of actual people instead of an algorithm — “Voicestream Interpreters” like Angela — so the device is better equipped to learn from miscommunications and adapt to each of its users; this is of course very cool and not creepy at all, according to that one guy you hated in high school who got so rich in tech that he’s now become a full-time Elon Musk reply guy. Angela’s typical assignment is more frivolous than dystopian (we see her listen to a frustrated tween struggle to make Kimi play “Me!” by Taylor Swift, for example), but it’s only a matter of time before things go full “Blow Out” and our girl overhears what sounds like a brutal murder. When Angela realizes that her bosses at Amygdala would rather she just keep her mouth shut (even if that means silencing her forever), it’s clear that she’ll have to conquer her anxieties and brave the outside world in order to get to the bottom of things. Alas, there’s always someone watching the watchmen, and those people have become powerful enough to commit any manner of crime in plain sight.
Kimi might promise to simplify our lives, but Soderbergh — a peerlessly resourceful problem-solver who approaches each script like it’s the daily game of Wordle, and often seems less interested in making great art than he does in completing the puzzle in the fewest turns possible — knows better than anyone that simplicity is the most complex thing of all. He’s made a cool-headed bloodsport out of wrestling messiness into order, and become the most nimble director alive in the process; not only did Soderbergh anticipate the pandemic with “Contagion,” he pivoted towards shooting through it with such grace (even glee) that you might assume “Kimi” was conceived in response to COVID, and not merely altered for it.
Scripted by veteran screenwriter David Koepp (whose “Panic Room” ultimately influences this movie as much as any of the New Hollywood masterpieces that are baked into the premise) and tailored to the antiseptic urgency that has defined so much of Soderbergh’s digital era work, “Kimi” is a slender 89-minute headrush that’s so contained and cut down to the bone that it might feel like a half-hearted COVID doodle if not for how vividly it embodies the pandemic’s twin pangs of isolation and agoraphobia. So many of us went stir-crazy in our homes because of the danger involved with leaving them. More to the point, so many of us found that the tools designed to connect people together ultimately made us feel more alone — an exaggerated version of the same dynamic that our always online society had already put into place.
Angela may not be the most nuanced protagonist Soderbergh has ever built a movie around — she’s more of a look than a person — but Kravitz lends her a nervy tetchiness that allows “Kimi” to keep a certain edge no matter how smooth the plotting gets, or how convenient its details become in the process (if the extremely Soderberghian decision to cast “In & Of Itself” artist Derek DelGaudio as the dirtbag CEO of Amygdala is something of a curveball, there’s no sleight-of-hand involved when it comes to the character’s obvious function in this story). Despite her various compulsions and the awful trauma that caused them, Angela isn’t played for pity.
The film silently recognizes her selfish complicity in the hostile invasion of big tech, and it isn’t shy about suggesting that Angela can be an asshole about how she uses the various tools that enable her agoraphobia. She’s frigid towards her fuck buddy, she uses her friends for tech support, she hangs up on her therapist (“Gilmore Girls” alum Emily Kuroda), and she’s snippy with her mom (Robin Givens) over FaceTime. “Kimi” eventually doubles back on itself in order to highlight the potential upsides of consumer modernity — and revel in the ways that we might use invasive tech as a weapon to free ourselves against the corporations that foisted it on us in the first place — but the majority of this movie is devoted to the idea that putting so much of the world at our fingertips has allowed people to keep the rest of it at arm’s length. COVID may be making Angela’s neuroses worse, but it’s also inviting her to indulge in them to the detriment of her health; she can badger her dentist into prescribing painkillers over her webcam, but it’s hard to fix an abscess with telemedicine.
A bit slow out of the gate, even if every “throwaway” detail of Koepp’s script eventually factors into the story one way or another, “Kimi” hits its stride when Angela does the same. The film’s jittery and largely handheld second act races after its wannabe whistleblower as she power walks through Seattle on a mission to unmask the coverup, during which she’s targeted by the same technology that supports her lifestyle. Between sneaking through office cubicles, being thrown into unmarked vans, and hiding amidst a sea of protestors (whose march against the city’s anti-homeless measures offers a half-baked expression of the film’s broader concern with human welfare), Angela plays all the hits of a standard paranoid thriller, with Soderbergh leaving just enough meat on the bone to keep things fresh.
The sheer banality of Angela’s cat-and-mouse game against the corporate assassins on her trail is chilling enough to compensate for the movie’s limited scope, and Soderbergh creates such a vivid sense of plein air claustrophobia — of being caught in a net as wide as a wifi signal — that he can stage an intense action set piece in a public/private space as small as the back seat of a van. But it’s not until the third act that “Kimi” fully transcends its “we made it because we could” pandemic vibe, as Koepp’s script pushes beyond a facile truth (technology is only as moral as how people use it) in order to reach a more complicated reality (this shit isn’t going anywhere, so we better start using it to our advantage). “Why can’t things [just] be good?” Angela asks at one point. “Why do they always have to be the best?” It’s a sentiment that Soderbergh has refined into an artistic ethos, and one that “Kimi” has some well-honed, harder-than-it-looks fun extending to the 21st century at large. This is the world that we’ve made for ourselves, and it’s one in which we’re being listened to and watched from every direction. All we can do now is to return the favor.
“Kimi” will be available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday, February 10.
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