When Alexa and Siri entered into our lives, our virtual assistants made most things easier. Whether’s its turning out your lights, reheating your coffee or telling you a joke, the devices they inhabit have dominated our lives. The modern world’s technology has made it easier than ever to feel like you never even have to leave to your house. For an agoraphobic tech employee, that is a godsend. In Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, Kimi, one of the most prolific American filmmakers today explores the world of virtual assistants. The films title refers to the desktop virtual assistant seen and used in the film. Think of Kimi more as an Amazon Echo device, than a Siri type assistant however.
These voices in our phones, or on our kitchen counters are certainly not reminiscent of the Scarlett Johansson voiced AI in Spike Jonze’s 2013 masterpiece Her. Soderbergh isn’t interested in the technology that that film invents nor its time period which is in the near, but distant enough future. Most directors would set this far in the future, and in a far more dystopian setting. Soderbergh is smarter than that. He, and screenwriter David Koepp, imagine Kimi as a modern day (COVID-19 pandemic and all) techno-thriller that combines all the elements of some of Soderbergh’s best thrillers. It’s almost a cross between Contagion and Side Effects. Kimi tackles corporate misdeeds, consumer surveillance concerns and psychological thriller elements to craft a movie that manages to feel relevant, and also quite tense.
Zoë Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, the aforementioned agoraphobic tech employee who seems to thrive in her locked down existence. The COVID-19 pandemic exists in this world, and it has made it harder for Angela to even want to be outside. She works to help the Kimi device learn from its mistakes. With humans tracking errors in its ability to correctly understand the commands it is being given, the device can adapt and learn its owners quicker, and give more efficient feedback. These “Voicestream Interpreters” as they are called in the movie, listen to real peoples interactions and solve problems. But what happens when you hear something you weren’t supposed to? Angela hears what she believes to be a violent interaction on the other end of one her assignments. But, the corporate bureaucracy of the company doesn’t want to hear it.
Kravitz is really great as Angela, embodying her crippling fear and her constant nervous energy. A movie like Kimi, where Kravitz is virtually on screen the entire time, relies on a great performance to carry it. Kravitz is up the task here. Soderbergh always nails the paranoia aspect of his thrillers. In Contagion, the uncertainty and panic in the streets over a wildly deadly pandemic pushes its characters into a state of perpetual anxiety. He seems to have a natural touch for the way humans interact, and how we’d handle the high stakes situations he puts his characters in. Even when his stakes are heightened for dramatic effect like they are in Side Effects, it still always feels grounded. Kravitz’s work here only helps to further ground the film.
The conspiracy plot works really well and never feels over wrought. The movie also looks great. Soderbergh’s visual style is prevalent here. His camera work remains as inventive as it ever has. He seems to be working at a level of ambition that feels scaled back from the days of Che, the era of complicated thrillers like the ones mentioned above, or even the Oceans’ movies. All movies with a big scale and high stakes. With his last few movies, he’s working with high stakes, just with a smaller, more focused scope. Take No Sudden Move or High Flying Bird for example. The latter revolves around an event as high stakes as an NBA lockout. Still, the film is ultimately contained to just few characters working in one place, in one storyline. Contagion on the other hand, finds multiple characters in many story lines spanning the globe.
Soderbergh also uses the pandemic in a very smart way. Since COVID-19 has entered our world, entertainment has felt the need to address it more often than not in cartoonish ways. If there’s anything we do not need when sitting down to enjoy a movie or TV show, it’s to be reminded of the current bleakness of the world as we trudge through this together. Jesse Armstrong, creator of HBO’s brilliant TV series Succession, chose not to show the pandemic in the shows most recent season. Other television shows opted to embrace it fully, showing the effect the pandemic has had on our lives. In Kimi, Soderbergh acknowledges the pandemic exists in this world.
But smartly, that’s all he does. COVID’s biggest role in the movie is the heightened fear Angela has developed because of the virus. There’s no dramatic hospital bed scene where a woman cartoonishly cries that she doesn’t want the vaccine. No scenes showing adults throwing full on temper tantrums because they have to wear a mask in a grocery store. We don’t need to be reminded about the pandemic, when we are constantly reminded of it nearly everyday.
Alas, Kimi is not a movie about the pandemic. It’s a nerve tingling thriller about the carelessness of big tech companies. It’s about corporate greed and top level executives abusing their power, and doing anything to keep it. It’s about the on demand surveillance tech companies have over us. Kimi may not be among the top of the Soderbergh canon. If he’s going to crank out a movie a year for the rest of his career, let them all be as great as his last few. He’s truly one of the most consistent directors in terms of the quality of his films. Even if he never makes something as big as one of the Oceans’ movies ever again, he still knows how to make a great film. Frankly, it’s cool to be able to fire up HBO Max and see a new Soderbergh film gracing the front page every nine to twelve months. Almost all of them work well in the confines of your own home on your television. Maybe none better than the claustrophobic setting in Kimi, which is ultimately another rock solid movie from a great filmmaker.