Steven Soderbergh | 1hr 29min
It might have seemed that the plot conceit of “ordinary person inadvertently discovers evidence of a murder” ended in 1981 with Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, just as the paranoia of the Cold War started winding to a close. With the reframed narrative perspective of a modern-day tech worker though, Steven Soderbergh gives it a new life in Kimi, joining the short list of esteemed directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Alfred Hitchcock to play with this very specific brand of thrill and suspense. It is an unfortunate fact that Soderbergh simply does not belong in the same tier as those auteurs, and that Kimi comes off as a far more modest accomplishment in comparison to its classic counterparts, though none of this should take away from its superbly agitated camerawork or tight, gripping plot. In grounding it within the specific context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Soderbergh updates the decades-old narrative convention with contemporary concerns, playing on modern anxieties around data security, big tech, and the frightening prospect of simply leaving one’s home.
Zoë Kravitz is at the centre of it all here as Angela Childs, the blue-haired engineer employed by tech corporation Amygdala, which has recently released its newest product, Kimi, a voice-activated digital assistant. She is comfortable working from home in her spacious Seattle apartment, monitoring and improving Kimi’s search algorithm based on its user’s requests, especially given that virtually every facet of her life from medical appointments to therapy sessions can easily be conducted from her desk. Much like James Stewart in Rear Window, she is very familiar with her neighbours across the road thanks to her confinement, though instead of a broken leg, she is burdened by extreme agoraphobia exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns.
In making a COVID-themed film, Soderbergh treads a very fine line that far less talented filmmakers have clumsily stumbled across, awkwardly tying their stories to a specific moment in time for the sake of the gimmick. Although masks and hand sanitiser pumps are scattered through the production design, as well as the cultural climate outside Angela’s apartment being recognisably contemporary, he does well to simply use this as the backdrop to a more universal tale of social terror, playing on the anxiety of a world that is changing faster than anyone can keep up with.
Particularly impressive is the thorough world-building Soderbergh conducts from inside Angela’s apartment over the first forty minutes, never leaving its boundaries besides a few conjectured visions of the abuse and subsequent murder suffered by one Kimi owner, Samantha, cast in a sick yellow light. As we learn more about both women, similarities begin to emerge in their tastes and experiences, building a connection between the two that motivates Angela to seek justice. The narrative setup is patient but lean, dwelling only on those pieces of the puzzle which prove to be significant later down the line, whether it is the creepy man with binoculars living across the road or her upstairs neighbour’s construction work.
For many of these reveals though, we do not need to wait so long. We may linger on a close-up of a glass bottle left sitting on the edge of a countertop, but it still comes as a shock five minutes later when it suddenly smashes on the ground, sinking us even further into Angela’s uneasy, jittery mind. As she sits at her computer trying to decipher the mystery of the abused customer, Soderbergh’s camera nervously circles her, and elsewhere we can find it tracking through her apartment in long takes driven by a sense of intrigue. Matching this overwhelming restlessness is Cliff Martinez’s dramatic, orchestral music, calling back to an older style of Hollywood movie score that rejects subtlety in favour of bombastic expressions, and thereby nodding quite directly towards Kimi’s overt Hitchcockian influence.
By the time we reach the point that Angela is inevitably forced to leave her apartment to deliver evidence of Samantha’s murder, Soderbergh has formally set the stage for a dramatic shift in style that lifts the camera off its dolly tracks and follows her closely in rough, handheld movements. Everything it is doing here serves to disorientate us completely, not just in the high, low, and canted angles that throw the world off its axis, but even in the bright, angry colours fighting for our attention. Kravitz makes her way through this visual explosion with her head down and shoulders hunched up, walking in short, fast steps as if to minimise contact with anything but her end goal. It would be hard to miss anyone in a crowd who is sporting blue hair, an orange hoodie, and ugg boots, and with such kinetic, maximalist stylings absorbing her into its audacious aesthetic, Soderbergh evokes Tom Tykwer’s similarly fast-paced, madcap race through city streets that is Run Lola Run.
All through apartment complexes, office buildings, and train stations, Soderbergh weaves in his trademark low angles of ceiling lights, smothering Angela in a thick, oppressive yellow light that follows her to the depths of Amygdala’s corruption. The corporate executives here wear phony smiles and deliver false reassurances, though there is no doubt about the place they occupy in this narrative. Soderbergh favours sensationalised villainy over moral complexity in Kimi, and while this takes away from the richness of their characterisations, the threat they pose feels urgent nonetheless, as they use the abundant technology, wealth, and connections at their disposal to overcome Angela in her pursuit of truth.
Angela’s victory over her corporate superiors, their menacing henchmen, and her own agoraphobia is not just satisfying for the release of its tightly wound suspense, but also for the series of payoffs that see her effectively outsmart her opponents, using her knowledge of her apartment and Kimi’s technical capabilities to her advantage. Soderbergh does not seek to transcend the genre here, and he even willingly lets his narrative fall into familiar tropes, leading us down a thrilling storyline that would rather meet our expectations than subvert them. Yet in his vigorous camerawork and thoughtfully crafted tension, Kimi still becomes a gripping take on cyber-age insecurities, twisting our most personal social anxieties into a cynical vision of a society where the sacrifice of private lives at the altar of corporate greed and overreach becomes an unremarkable, everyday occurrence.
Kimi is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.