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Interview: How Kimi became the perfect pandemic thriller

Sometimes a film is released at just the right time. Whether due to careful planning or coincidence, it premieres at a point when its themes resonate in a way that makes the old adage about art imitating life ring particularly true.

Such is the case for Kimi, Steven Soderbergh’s Rear Window-style thriller about a woman who believes she has uncovered evidence of a brutal crime, but can’t seem to make anyone believe her.

The film casts Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs, an agoraphobic employee of a tech firm specializing in A.I.-driven “smart” assistants akin to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri systems, who spends her days listening to snippets of anonymous audio the “Kimi” assistants’ algorithms were unable to make sense of. When she encounters a recording of what seems to be an assault, she’s forced to confront past trauma and her fear of what lurks outside her apartment door in order to bring the evidence to authorities’ attention — and that’s only the start of her ordeal.

Steven Soderbergh directs Zoe Kravitz in a scene from Kimi.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Art meets pandemic life

At a time when digital privacy protections are being challenged by the ubiquity of “always-on” technology and a pandemic has forced us all to confront the effects of prolonged isolation, the story that unfolds in Kimi often feels uncomfortably familiar.

“Had the script come across my path a couple of years ago, I would have had to use a lot more imagination,” Kravitz told Digital Trends of her experience getting into character as a woman whose world has shrunk to the size of her Seattle apartment. “[I had just spent six months] alone with the computer in my house. And like all of us, it made me weird. I got weird, you know? So it was a really interesting thing to explore, and even more so because of the unfortunate state of the world.”

And yet, according to Soderbergh, audiences’ ability to relate with the sense of isolation experienced by the film’s characters to such an extent wasn’t part of the initial plan for Kimi, which was conceived by screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) well before the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped our way of interacting with the world around us.

“The premise that David pitched me was pre-COVID and the story works without it, but it works even better with it,” explained Soderbergh. “We kind of inherited that without asking.”

Kimi (2022)

Zoë Kravitz, Byron Bowers, Jaime Camil
Directed by
Steven Soderbergh
Watch on HBO Max
KIMI | Official Trailer | HBO Max

And much like we’ve seen time and time again in the real world, everyone finds different ways to cope with isolation in Kimi, too. While some attempt to live life as usual, going out to dinner and going about their lives as if the pandemic doesn’t exist, others — like Angela, for example — find comfort in the validation of their reclusive nature that pandemic restrictions provide.

“For most of us, lockdown was a real psychological struggle,” said Soderbergh. “But for Angela, she couldn’t ask for a better excuse to not leave the house. She’s one of the few people in that city that’s totally fine with never leaving her apartment. So it turned out just to be this weird collision of the idea and the real world. And it enhanced [the story], fortunately.”

Still, not knowing where things were headed in the world between the time when Kimi was filmed and the movie’s eventual release date did create some additional questions, he admitted.

If the pandemic was waning by the time Kimi was available to audiences, would they want to be reminded of the restrictions and isolation? Would relying too heavily on the pandemic-inspired elements of the story prevent the film from connecting with audiences post-COVID? That was the “tricky part,” according to Soderbergh, who indicated that there was no shortage of deliberation and discussion when it came to establishing how the various elements conspiring to keep people indoors in the film — including both the pandemic and citywide protests — would balance out in the end.

Zoe Kravitz walks down a street while masked in a scene from Kimi.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Tech gone wrong

One theme Soderbergh didn’t refrain from emphasizing in Kimi, however, is the rapidly blurring line between our personal privacy and the technology we’re growing increasingly reliant on in our daily lives.

Throughout the film, Angela relies on her “Kimi” assistant to turn on the lights, make calls, and do many of the things many of us use our Siri or Alexa devices to handle. That the same technology is used in an emergency to record a crime, then put to more sinister use in potentially hiding evidence of that crime, offers a reminder of both the benefits and dangers posed by the technology.

Given all of the ongoing conversations at various levels of government and in the media about the way Amazon, Apple, Google, and other creators of A.I.-driven, “always-on” assistants handle the audio (and even video) content they record both actively and passively, these particular plot points in Kimi resonate now in ways that might have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago.

“I’ve always been a bit wary of technology,” said Kravitz when asked if her own relationship with technology has changed since filming Kimi. “I’m the person that has a Band-Aid over my computer’s camera, and I don’t use Siri. I don’t have an Alexa. […But] I think that’s why I was so intrigued by this story, because we really are living in this kind of Big Brother age, and it’s become so normal. [This story] is like what Jaws did with the water: It turns something we all know and love and experience into something scary. Those are the scariest kinds of thrillers. It can happen to any of us. It’s not the zombie apocalypse. This is a very real-world thing, and I think that’s why it’s so unsettling.”

Zoe Kravitz works at a computer in a scene from Kimi.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Soderbergh says he hopes the film will inspire conversations about how much access we give the technology in our lives, as well as the best ways to use the technology and software we already have, for that matter,

“I do wonder how far it’ll go,” he explained. “What’s the next step? You have a listening device that can tell from the timbre of somebody’s voice that there’s about to be an assault, or it’s an abusive situation based on the signature of a speech pattern. You can do that now. The question is, will somebody do it? If that was a setting on your own version of Kimi — that ‘Assault mode’ where, if it hears a certain escalation in the tone of a voice, like a smoke detector, it calls someone or sends out a ping — should that happen? Because you can do that now.”

“That’s getting very Minority Report,” said Kravitz, adding that all of the sinister events transpiring around her character actually made her feel better about some of the decisions she was already making in the real world.

“It was comforting to me because I [initially] felt like I was being paranoid for turning my phone off or putting the Band-Aid on my camera and things like that,” she told Digital Trends. “[But] I realized, ‘No, that’s what I should be doing and I’m not a crazy person for doing it.'”

Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi is available now on the HBO Max streaming service.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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