I do not have an Echo or any number of voice-activated assistants, but I can agree with director Steven Soderbergh when explaining how these forms of technology are not evil because they can’t be. It doesn’t know that it’s technology, nor does it care. Kimi is a fictional form of one of these devices and the title of a techno-thriller with as much in common with today’s world as with 70s paranoia films. This is no hostile robotic takeover, though. The movie focuses on the nefarious forces in power that wield their technological abilities against an innocent employee who may be their match.
Zoë Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, a name not quite as memorable as Sawyer Valentini from Soderbergh’s iPhone-shot thriller, Unsane, but Angela’s blue hair certainly leaves an identifying impression. She is agoraphobic and living during the pandemic in Seattle. Angela works as a data stream reviewer, collecting and interpreting recorded user interactions with Kimi that were not easy to identify. One particular recording shows evidence of a violent crime, prompting Angela to get the higher-ups involved. When she’s met with resistance, the choice of going outside comes with its own consequences.
Developed by writer David Koepp several years earlier, only for the pandemic to add interesting and relevant new angles to incorporate into the story, I once again find it fascinating to see Soderbergh throw himself into a collaboration just because it interests him. One could perhaps find some throughlines between Kimi, No Sudden Move, Let Them All Talk, The Laundromat, and High Flying Bird, all produced within the last four years, but the switch up between genres seems more like the Oscar-winning director telling himself, “why not?”
For Kimi, it’s as though Koepp and Soderbergh saw various advances in technology and combined that with their love for thrillers such as The Conversation and Blow Out, not to mention the clear influence of Rear Window. The idea of using a setting that allows for a voyeuristic angle, only to double down on it by having Angela employed as a professional voyeur of sorts, is at the root of some of these 70s classics. With that said, there’s also the upgrade of the tech-related means to accomplish specific goals, let alone the type of person the audience is following.
While it’s diplomatic enough to say Kravitz was the right person for the role, placing a younger, black woman at the center of a cyberthriller carries its own sort of weight. A scenario where Angela is grabbed up off the street and shoved into a van while near protestors is not an accidental piece of visual juxtaposition. At the same time, the writing and Kravitz allow Angela to be a well-rounded figure. While there’s a justification for her agoraphobia, her intelligence and craftiness is balanced by a level of prickliness. She can be a jerk in the way she uses people, and while it’s never enough to offset the audience’s care for her not to come under harm, her human qualities make what she goes through all the more believable.
There is some support here. Rita Wilson steps in for a calm but creepy extended cameo. Devin Ratray (terrific in Soderbergh’s Mosaic series) does good work as another voyeur in the area. Comedian Byron Bowers follows up his appearance in Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move for a sympathetic role as a potential romantic partner for Angela. The rest of the cast comprises shady-looking characters, ranging in size but operating mainly in silence, as Angela attempts to figure a way out of an eventual dire situation.
Shot and edited by Soderbergh (credited under his frequent pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Marry Ann Bernard) and scored by Cliff Martinez, this would be a no-frills production were it not such a good-looking film. Yes, Kimi spends most of its runtime in Angela’s fairly spacious apartment before venturing outside, but there are many deliberate visual choices to make the scope feel as large and small as needed.
I mentioned the blue hair already. Along with Angela’s orange hoodie, there’s work being done to create a distinct figure. Not a superhero (though I’m sure Soderbergh’s take would be unique – and hated by almost everyone), but a standout figure balanced by the “men in black” coming after her. Shooting digitally, the effort to bring Angela into the real world is captured through a mixture of Steadicam and handheld shots to ramp up the intensity.
While the story fits any number of B-movies, much like Soderbergh’s Haywire, there’s a level of professionalism constantly on display that makes the material feel more worthwhile. The difference is that instead of surrounding an inexperienced lead with A-list talent, you have one terrific central performance amid character actors and lesser-knowns guiding the entire film. Aside from a bit of contextual padding to round out some of this story, the film rarely leaves Angela’s point of view. If anything, the film would benefit from never letting the audience know more than Angela does, but the suspense still plays out effectively.
Clearly, I’m enjoying what Soderbergh is doing with his series of streaming releases. Knocking out fairly streamlined stories that hit in entertaining ways is not a bad use of his efforts when considering a world that currently lacks mid-budget adult thrillers. Having a story like this, which effectively relies on the current state of reality and the uses of a form of technology as intriguing topical seasoning, does plenty to satisfy as well. I believe Soderbergh has a miniseries next on his plate. From the way he’s been operating, I can only hope for another killer execution.