Steven Soderbergh ’s Kimi is a COVID-influenced technology thriller that is the director’s best film in years, with a likeable and introverted performance from Zoë Kravitz.
In Seattle, a tech company named Amygdala has created a new smart speaker to rival Alexa and Siri. Its name is Kimi, and it has a unique selling point: its operating system is controlled by humans. Tech workers listen to recordings from Kimi devices and resolve errors, improving the operating system by making sure they never reoccur. One of these workers is the blue-haired Angela (Zoë Kravitz). She spends her days listening to other people and fixing Kimi’s faults, whether it has failed to recognise paper towels or Taylor Swift’s ‘ME!’. She is also agoraphobic because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an assault she was the victim of. So, she restricts her relationships to her various screens. Inside the walls of her spacious apartment, she interacts with her friend with benefits Terry (Byron Bowers). But when they arrange to meet at a food truck, her anxieties become too strong, and she backs out.
Angela seems content to stay in and maintain her meticulous routine with the help of Kimi. However, her world is turned upside down when, on one stream, she hears loud techno music and the sound of a woman being attacked. And after tinkering with the sound and accessing the woman’s other Kimi recordings, she uncovers what appears to be a sexual assault and murder that involves the company’s CEO. Knowing what she went through, Angela tries desperately to report the crime. An Amygdala executive, Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson), offers to help and help her in-person – although that would mean Angela has to head outside.
Since his supposed retirement in 2013, director Steven Soderbergh has made seven movies. Some of them have been filmed on iPhones, all of them have been shot and edited by Soderbergh under pseudonyms, and all of them have been wildly different. His latest film Kimi is no exception, a contemporary technology thriller that takes cues from several classics. From Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Soderbergh borrows a main character who uncovers a major conspiracy and knows how to work a giant soundboard. Angela has a spacious apartment she cannot leave, just like L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Additionally, her job listening to other people reminds you of The Conversation, especially when Soderbergh asks whether Angela (and the audience) can trust what they hear. There is even a little bit of Minority Report: Angela has gone through a traumatic event and uncovers the major conspiracy with a piece of tech central to the plot.
But for all these cinematic tributes, the most important influence on Kimi actually comes from real life. From the man who predicted how we would respond to a pandemic with Contagion, comes a film set during (and influenced by) COVID. Everyone – including Angela – is wearing masks outside. Zoom has become a regular occurrence in everyone’s lives. And Angela is afraid to step outside partly because of the virus, to the point where she would rather live with a toothache. “COVID was a little bit of a setback”, she says to her dentist over a video call as she refuses to come in for a root canal. The truth is Angela sums up our collective feelings and fears. We all went a little agoraphobic during these past few years of lockdowns. That fear is encapsulated perfectly in Kimi through Zoë Kravitz.
Kravitz has always had a transfixing presence – something we will see next week when she stars in The Batman. But here, she does incredibly well in a role full of anxiety, insulation and paranoia. It is a realistic, versatile performance that is likeable even if Angela isn’t necessarily a likeable character. She prematurely (and sneakily) hangs up on her therapist when she starts probing Angela’s deep-rooted habits. She can be cold and distant around other people, to Terry or even her mother (played by Robin Givens). She can also be reserved and defensive, complete with impatient eye-rolls that Kravitz performs perfectly.
The camerawork from Soderbergh (or Peter Andrews, as he is credited) is very compact in the first half, staying mostly inside Angela’s apartment and relying on slow pans and crane shots. But when the action picks up in the second half, the cinematography does too. Now she is outside, the handheld camera becomes noticeably shaky, with dutch angles also used. It makes sense because Angela is now off-kilter, trying to navigate an outside world she has feared for so long. Angela herself is more inward and reserved, walking quickly to avoid contact with anyone in a way that demonstrates how physical Kravitz’s performance is. Furthermore, there is one amazing bit of camera trickery that makes you think Angela is in one place, only for the camera to pull back and show her crouching behind a wall.
Kimi was released on HBO Max in the US and Sky Cinema in the UK, meaning it bypassed cinemas entirely. That is a shame, because this would have succeeded in the late 1970s when De Palma was doing well (or even the late 90s, when Soderbergh made Out of Sight and The Limey back-to-back). Regardless, this is a compelling thriller that makes glancing points about surveillance, privacy and corporate bureaucracy. As Angela tries – and fails – to report the sexual assault, the higher-ups would rather the crime be swept under the carpet. The script from David Koepp is streamlined and tense, keeping the film at a brisk pace. The score from Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer (and frequent Soderbergh collaborator) Cliff Martinez is Bernard Herrmann-esque. And although the final act is slow, it does confirm Angela’s journey from introverted to heroic, another wrinkle that Zoë Kravitz’s brilliant performance adds. All in all, Kimi is Steven Soderbergh’s best film in years.
Kimi is now available to watch on digital and on demand.