The question of what someone would do — and how far they would go — if they believed they witnessed a terrible crime has been popular fodder for filmmakers over the years, resulting in everything from critically acclaimed masterpieces like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window to surreal parodies like the recent Netflix series The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window. While the premise endures, the plot points have evolved over time to account for the changing way people interact with the world around them.
Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi is one of the latest projects to explore that premise, but thanks to a powerful performance from lead actress Zoë Kravitz and a timely story that blends our increasingly online existence with the isolation of the pandemic, it stands out in a crowded genre.
Directed by Soderbergh (Traffic, Contagion) from a script penned by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Panic Room), Kimi casts Kravitz as an agoraphobic employee of a tech firm specializing in the sort of A.I.-driven “smart” assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri that have become ubiquitous in our lives. While researching anonymous audio streams the system wasn’t able to decipher, Angela Childs (Kravitz) comes across a file that seemingly contains evidence of a violent assault — and possibly murder — and must overcome her fear of leaving her Seattle apartment and facing both a still-present pandemic and streets filled with protestors in order to bring it to authorities’ attention. As if that wasn’t enough working against her, she finds herself struggling to find anyone willing to believe her.
Soderbergh has always had a fascinating relationship with technology, whether it’s been behind-the-camera techniques for projects like Unsane (filmed with an iPhone) or Mosaic (released as an interactive app), or in the themes he explores in his films. Kimi is his most direct exploration of our connection to the digital world so far, and offers a chilling perspective on just how much power technology — and the people who control it — wield over our lives.
It’s easy to ignore the range of sinister possibilities at play when nearly every home has at least one “always-on” A.I. assistant listening to everything spoken within its walls, and doubly so when you add the possibility of human agents somewhere in that network architecture, ostensibly tasked with nurturing the AI’s performance, but also catching millions of stray words here and there from homes, phones, and even cars. Kravitz’s character in the film is one such agent, paid to spend her days clarifying slang for rapidly evolving AI databases and connecting our social shorthand to the objects we’re referencing informally to each other.
Not only does the scenario seem plausible, but the surrounding financial and political elements that come into play when Angela pushes her discovery up the corporate ladder feel uncomfortably familiar at a time when tech leaders and social media CEOs rank among the most powerful people in the world, shaping the global marketplace and international policy on a regular basis. Soderbergh is a master at making every sinister threat feel personal, though, and Angela’s ordeal is never overshadowed by the film’s messaging about the trust we place in the tech around us and the companies behind it.
In what is essentially her first solo feature, Kravitz portrays Angela with the presence of a veteran actress accustomed to carrying films and making every scene count.
Angela is a character filled with very real human quirks and flaws, carrying a tremendous amount of psychological and experiential baggage she’s processing in her own time. Kravitz makes all of those layers evident in ways both subtle and more overt — much like we all do in our daily lives — and it results in a character that feels textured and real throughout Kimi. That emotional connection becomes particularly important as the story unfolds and things get progressively crazier around Angela, who’s pulled deeper and deeper into the events surrounding the audio file.
To her credit, Kravitz’s portrayal of Angela never feels defined by a list of quirks and a character description, which is the pitfall a lot of actors tend to fall into with their early leading roles. Watching Kravitz in Kimi is seeing a fully formed person — fictional as she may be — deal with trauma and find a way to turn that into something that propels her forward instead of holding her back. Even when the story eventually starts to feel more like an action movie than a psychological thriller, Kravitz keeps it grounded due to how much she invests in the character early on.
There’s a lot to unpack in Kimi, which manages to blend a personal, character-based exploration of trauma, isolation, and trust with a terrifying indictment of digital security, the illusion of privacy, and the power wielded by massive technology firms in the modern, online era. That it does so without feeling too crowded thematically is a testament to both Soderbergh’s thoughtful approach to the subject matter and the tremendous talents of its lead actress.
Kimi could have easily slipped into a preachy argument against “Big Tech” and the threat it poses to both our democracy and our privacy, but Soderbergh and Kravitz never let the focus pull away from Angela’s experience, and it serves the film well. A thriller that feels bigger than its small cast, Kimi is a riveting story about the dangers we face both outside our doors and inside our homes.
Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi is available now on HBO Max streaming service.
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