Kimi Review

Kimi Review
On Steven Soderbergh's Kimi

Angela (Zoë Kravitz) monitors audio logs from the movie’s equivalent of an Alexa or Google Home called a Kimi, checking for errors in its voice recognition. It’s hard to imagine this pays enough for her to live in as huge an apartment she does, often this kind of job with such potential to run into traumatising material, as Angela soon does, is thrown abroad to cheaper and less valued people. Despite this political blindspot, it is a crisp and effective enough a genre premise to put that aside; a paranoid thriller in the Alexa-era is such an intuitive fit.

Kimi (2022) is another of Stephen Soderbergh’s fiddly low stakes post-retirement experiments. Refreshingly and self-reflexively minor, it’s a genre film at heart—a film of pleasures and form first—but it’s not as backwards looking as the score might suggest. It’s not just The Conversation (1974) with iPhones, Soderbergh takes seriously the differences, he understand what is and is not cinematic about digital life. He knows that it doesn’t feel right to see two character looking at each other from opposite buildings and texting—even though in real life it’s the most natural and reasonable thing—and emphasises it by connecting them in a big pan across.

It’s kind of a Covid film and kind of not in a way that feels very true; Covid has enhanced as much as it has transformed, as is literally the case with Angela whose extreme anxiety and fear of the outside world has worsened in the pandemic. As we feel when she puts on her headphones and all the sound cuts out, total silence, the internet creates that fear maybe even more. Much emphasis is put on Angela’s routines, the hyper-specific placement of the cushion on top of the pillow on her bed, her room and her computer are her domain, her comfort zone; even uncovering conspiracies, real or otherwise, has a kind of re-assurance in these spaces, QAnon is an attempt to escape reality in the same way as gaming.

Even when Angela hears the audio of a woman being abused, maybe even murdered, Soderbergh keeps the camera steady, compared to when she eventually realises she has to go outside, and it kicks into overdrive. As she steps outside her door, the handheld camera runs right down the hallways to her, canting as it does, and it doesn’t calm much from there. At first the choice of a distant, moody soundtrack points to these choices as a primarily formalist exercise, but actually, Soderbergh shows an awareness of both the melodrama of anxiety and it’s ambience; the way it becomes a droning presence, any feeling, no matter how sharp, at a point becomes a twisted kind of normal.

But then, in the middle of Angela’s first excursion out, before she’s even reached the Kimi offices to report the audio to the FBI, we cut away to what the villains, to what they are planning. It’s not all coloured in exactly, but more than enough to eliminate any element of paranoia. These mostly function scenes (with the exception of seeing a master hacker working in the warmly lit living room of his parents house), give the drama a more concrete direction at the expense of texture; it simplifies rather than deepens.

Outside of those scene, the film does have a very good sense of corporate culture, the way the Kimi Executive (Rita Wilson) lightly dismisses Angela’s concerns, first with a patronising, calculated sympathy, and then more viciously by bringing up her trauma, ever so gently suggesting that that’s painting her perception. She never openly turns Angela away, she calls her a “very strong, brave woman” whilst subverting her at every step.

In the climax, Angela’s been chased back to her apartment by these men in black, and when it seems like she’s cornered, she uses the Kimi to save herself: turning the light out, calling someone on her laptop to get the men on camera and so on. It might have felt cool on action level if it wasn’t such a thematic betrayal, if it didn’t throw so much of the film’s best insights away. If Soderbergh wanted to make a case for the technology as malleable, and that it’s just in the wrong hands, he needed to build more and stronger reverse examples—if not some concrete ideological defence—before this.

And it is truly absurd that Angela gets away with this, she literally kills the men in black and still the Kimi executives are arrested; those bodies are more than enough to pin this on her, to paint her as some bizarre introverted woman who lost her mind to paranoia and began seeing her own abuse everywhere. We all innately know that’s what would happen, the movie even suggests it. Instead the film chooses to make this a purely personal story, after Angela wins the day she gets a new haircut and starts going outside, she gets to keep on living in that huge impersonal apartment as if nothing ever happened, as if it really was all in her head.


Notes

1 — The film very carefully shows Angela still sanitising her hands so it doesn’t too closely tie a loosening of following Covid rules with personal growth.


Originally posted on Substack on Feburary 18th 2022