Whether we like it or not, we live in an age rife with nonconsensual surveillance. Be it CCTV, unwanted airtags, tracking apps, third-party data buys, hacked webcams, or virtual assistants, there’s always the chance that someone has an eye or ear on you. Perhaps the scariest part of this is how complacent we’ve become about what not so long ago was a dystopian nightmare. Yet in Steven Soderbergh’s latest thriller, Kimi, the setup that someone’s listening is not just a frightening hook but also a strange ray of hope.
Kimi is named for the movie’s version of a Siri or Alexa-like device that listens in to aid users when called upon. Zoë Kravitz stars as Angela, a Seattle tech worker tasked with resolving confusion around requests that the app didn’t understand. Queen of her spacious and meticulously neat industrial-loft, Angela listens to flagged soundbites of people’s lives. Then, she explains to a computer about regional slang for paper towels, the request for a Taylor Swift song, or that a rambunctious kid was just slinging around a dirty word like a paddleball.
With our growing awareness of how often unseen forces are listening in on our day-to-day lives, it could be unnerving to see how bored our heroine is, plucking away at her keyboard, totally casual about this arguable eavesdropping. Notably in this setup, screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her, Stir of Echoes) steers clear of embarrassingly intimate audio that might make us twitch over invasion of privacy. Then, Angela hears something she wasn’t supposed to hear. Through blaring music, she can make out a woman’s screams, a clatter, presumed violence. Believing she’s just heard a crime, she’s dedicated to getting this stranger help — no matter what the cost.
Credit: HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures
Predictably, her corporate bosses try to brush away her concerns, either with red-faced frustration or smiling condescension. But as she falls down the rabbit hole, Angela soon realizes there’s more than her job on the line. Making matters more intense, she struggles with an anxiety disorder, which has only gotten worse during the COVID pandemic. Koepp agilely establishes this in the opening, with visual cues of rituals of control, prescription medication, and a notable dependency on having hand sanitizer handy. But when Angela tries to go out, Soderbergh’s style kicks in, throwing us for a loop.
Cinematography leaps to radically high or low angles, throwing off our sense of balance. The soundscape scrapes with buzzing sounds, reflecting the whirring panic that’s rushing through Angela’s mind. Once she makes it out into the world, she won’t be followed by the high-octane scores awarded to debonair action heroes. Instead, her possibly paranoid chase scenes will be accompanied either by silence or a lullaby that sounds like it’s being churned out by a music box on LSD. All of this powerfully plunges us into Angela’s perspective.
“Kimi” is “Rear Window” meets “The Net,” set during the COVID pandemic
Essentially, Kimi is Rear Window meets The Net, set during the COVID pandemic. Rather than the physical impediment of a broken leg, it’s Angela’s mental illness that keeps her inside. Like Hitchcock’s cooped-up Rear Window hero, Angela is isolated in her apartment, spurring a penchant for staring out the windows into the homes of others, giving herself a fragile sense of knowing her neighbors. Like The Net’s heroine (also named Angela), she is reclusive but not alone, interacting with the outside world through her computer, using video chat for calls, therapy sessions, and even a dental visit. Both Angelas’ extraordinary knowledge of the changing landscape of tech — and its dangers — pushed them out of their comfort zones to race toward saving the day. But 2022’s Angela is marred by the trauma of the pandemic, making her a less dashing but more relatable protagonist.
To sink into the bristling skin of this character, Kravitz has shed her cool girl grace. She moves with a stiffness and urgency that exude tension, as if every moment Angela is braced for a sneak attack. She doesn’t stride; she shuffles. She doesn’t quip or banter; she snarls in a flat tone that leans into anti-social. It’s a performance purposefully bled of charm, because we should not have to be wooed by Angela to see she’s onto something. As she collides with facile civility, red tape, open hostility, and much worse, Angela’s irritation and discomfort is meant to make us unnerved, and it works.
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From Logan Lucky, Ocean’s Eleven, and Out of Sight, Soderbergh has proved himself a master of mindful pacing. At under an hour and a half, Kimi is a lean thriller that doesn’t dally with a sprawling cast of characters, or show-stopping stunts, or razzle-dazzle editing. Instead, Koepp’s story keeps things focused and thrilling. Little cues establish a world all too familiar: face masks, Zoom conference calls with caterwauling kids in the background, work attire that’s business from the waist up and pajamas below. With these evocative visuals, Kimi probes our anxieties of this moment, whether it’s the added worry of fearing contagion or trying to rally to go out when it feels like you’re ready to cave in.
Yet through all this fear, tension, and paranoia, there’s something brilliantly humane thumping in Kimi, because of what its hero does with what she’s heard. The film gives Angela a string of excuses to delete the enigmatic audio and move on with her day. Not her circus, not her monkeys — right? Yet, Angela cannot turn away from a person in need, even if she doesn’t know who they are or what they need.
Credit: HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures
This generosity of spirit, this impulse toward community, is presented in several ways throughout Kimi. Strangers intercede where no one asked, doing whatever they could whatever the risk. In this way, Koepp and Soderbergh rebuke a simple condemnation of technology, offering a more nuanced consideration. Through centering their story on a hermitic but big-hearted heroine, they suggest it’s not the tech that’s nefarious, it’s what we choose to do about it.
In the end, Kimi is a nail-biting thrill ride — lean, sharp, and masterfully made. But beyond its cool exterior and prickly protagonists, it’s a gentle cry to our better angels. Kimi ultimately entreats us to use these incredible tools of modern tech to do more good than harm and to truly listen to each other. That is, if we dare.
Kimi is now streaming on HBO Max.