Paranoia in the digital age seems so aggressively unlike anything that came before. In analog-centric movies like The Conversation, we witnessed Gene Hackman slowly unravel himself and his apartment all with the fear that a bug was listening in on him. In our contemporary age, we willingly and openly purchase the listening and tracking devices ourselves, entirely in the form of virtual assistants and GPS-equipped smartphones. It’s quite clear that most of us have made our peace with trading some degree of privacy for convenience, but Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi takes such aspects and creates the worst-case scenario.
Such a quandary falls right on someone who understands entirely how much information these devices vacuum up; her name is Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a former Facebook content moderator who now works as a “voicestream interpreter” for fictional Amygdala (cleverly named after the part of the brain responsible for threat assessment), responding to issues with commands given to an Alexa-style assistant called Kimi. “I’m here!” chirps Kimi (who’s voiced by Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s ex-wife) when summoned, and there’s a very commonplace running joke throughout in which it constantly responds, unwanted, to casual mentions of its name during FaceTime conversations. Things get considerably less amusing, however, when one of the streams sent to Angela for analysis turns out to be a snatch of loud music with a woman’s scream faintly heard beneath it.
Apart from a quick prologue, Kimi’s entire first half is set inside Angela’s cavernous fourth-floor Seattle apartment, from which she’s been working for some time — partly due to the pandemic, perhaps, but mostly because she’s become agoraphobic after having been sexually assaulted. During the initial lockdown, she developed a flirtation with an across-the-street neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers), but can’t even bring herself to meet him at the taco truck a few feet below. Soderbergh responds to this challenge with cinema’s umpteenth homage to Rear Window, observing Angela monitor Terry from a distance even as another neighbor (Devin Ratray) constantly watches her. The sensation of déjà vu is compounded by Angela’s efforts to extract clearer audio from the recording and determine whether she’s hearing what she thinks she’s hearing, much in the vein of John Travolta in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (which in and of itself was already a riff on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up). And much of Kimi’s pleasures come from its riffing and repurposing of its old-school genre template. You may giggle a little as screenwriter David Koepp plants his narrative seeds at the beginning — a rotting tooth, an upstairs construction job, a news bulletin about protests downtown — knowing full well that by the end they’ll come to fruition.
Compacting a lot of information and ideas into a brisk eighty-nine minute runtime, circumstances eventually force Angela to venture outside, at which point Kimi finally kicks into high gear. Soderbergh suggests her off-the-charts anxiety with deliberately jarring formal choices; disorienting angles, harsh lighting (which sometimes renders the film into a cheap look), and cacophonous sound design as Angela gets deeper and deeper. The evil corporate conspiracy she’s inadvertently uncovered — thereby making her the target of paid assassins (who at one point attempt to abduct her on the street in broad daylight, right beside a huge crowd of protesters) — is relatively over the top. But Koepp finds both satire in the corporate mundanity and some chilling notes in the margins. “We take this very seriously,” Amygdala employees keep telling Angela as she reports her concern; the more they repeat it, unprompted, the less reassuring it sounds. Yet even as Angela’s situation may get scarier and freakier, Soderbergh never lets his movie get too heavy. Even as the mood shifts and the atmosphere grows more ominous, he maintains a lightness of touch and playfulness that keeps the movie more like a snack than a full meal.
Soderbergh also keeps Kimi away from entirely being a dystopian cautionary tale. Part of what makes the film’s first half comparatively bland-ish is actually because of the aforementioned planting of set-ups that will inevitably pay off in the finale. (Without revealing too much, let’s just note that there are circumstances in which it might be quite useful to perform certain actions via voice commands.) So instead of dystopian cautiousness, Soderbergh almost makes his film a kind of cautionary tale for the COVID-cautious: The world, his film suggests, might be a big and scary place, but it’s a world that we, like Angela, must reconnect with in our own time. After all, it may be no more perilous a place than our own digitally booby-trapped houses and offices, as the movie makes clear with an unduly satisfying finale and perhaps its slyest reference: When someone is always watching or listening, you’re never truly home alone. Coming across effortlessly constructed, Kimi is a film of casual precision; an effective simplicity that provides chills and thrills within its tightly plotted paranoia.
Kimi is available to stream on HBO Max