Kimi is now streaming on HBO Max.
By Palmer Rubin
I’m really surprised to say this, but Steven Soderbergh’s two most recent outputs are two of his strongest. No Sudden Move was a wickedly nihilstic anti-noir that hurt to watch but was masterfully put together. What he’s done to the post-war noir era, he’s now done to the era of the 1970s paranoia thriller. If No Sudden Move was his Carol Reed, this is his Alan J. Pakula.
Angela works for an Alexa ripoff called KIMI (hence the name), but with a twist: unlike the real-life surveillance nightmare, KIMI has human IT support behind it to help guide the development of its artificial intelligence. So these paid guinea pigs log every time it makes a mistake and code it into acting more and more human to serve the needs of its clients while it also spies on them. This isn’t even a spoiler, since exposition is delivered so casually it’s as close as the film gets to very dry humor. Angela, played by Zoe Kravitz, avoids all human contact other than the FWB she sometimes has over, and video calls so terse that every potential connection she might have with the world is briskly slapped away. Angela doesn’t just dislike people, she’s deeply afraid of them. If this were retitled Agoraphobia, it would still fit. She’s not just terrified of COVID, of course, there’s other unspecified things that has led to her current routine.
What’s distinctive, of course, is that Soderbergh has done something thought to be impossible this late in his career: he has created the first good COVID movie. No caveats, no surprises, it’s fully there. So much of her anxious routine are things I recognized in myself and maybe you will too: the copious amounts of hand sanitizer, the mask wherever she goes (albeit an almost useless cloth one, as this was filmed before Omicron swept our shores), her instant avoidance of close proximity to other people. These don’t feel like things thrust in for relevancy but rather a series of behaviors stacked on each other to form a character. Wild, right? It helps that Kravitz is at her very best here, less than a month to go before she becomes our newest Catwoman and truly hits the bigtime.
Of course, to really hit home the sweet spot, she overhears what is potentially a violent crime through a KIMI in a modern day fusion of The Conversation or Blow Out. Why is she suddenly so fixated on trying to become a part of another person’s life after what we know about her? What is driving her so much? I think audience response will vary, but I found myself resonating with it. None of these choices made with her seem to be dismissive or for shock value, and Kravitz treats the dark places the film goes to with a lot of sensitivity. What also really works is how Soderbergh has finally found his mark at the intersection between old-school blocking and new-school digital sharpness and mobility. The camera can both go in with long masters and zip around like a madman possessed as Angela ventures further and further into her own personal nightmare. All of the awkwardness and inconsistency of Unsane feels completely reversed here. That film too dealt with surveillance and its relationship to mental health, but this feels like a complete evolution of what he was trying to do there. As Soderbergh lensed the film under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, you can see him trying to find more and more inventive ways to compensate for today’s technology. It’s not perfected by any means, but vastly vastly improved from where he started. If No Sudden Move was the old master still proving he could make a traditional Capital-F Film if he felt like it, KIMI feels like him firing on all cylinders, maybe not his overall best but directing like he’s just started all over again. I mean that in the best possible way.
And that’s what’s really admirable about Soderbergh, even when the results don’t quite click: he’s taking the clout he has as one of the few human beings to get basically anything greenlit, and then tries to pave the way for newer filmmakers at every twist and turn. He’s basically writing the playbook for whoever comes after him. He’s not even remotely interested in the tactic most media has taken in pretending the pandemic didn’t happen: it’s not even taking place in a post-pandemic world but a world where it’s still going on. This isn’t really more than extras wearing masks and Angela’s insistence on perpetual distance, but it can manifest in a tense scene where her fuck buddy tries to pressure her into breaking COVID safety to go on a proper date with him. It’s the ways in which everyone in her life has willingly dropped all caution and she has not. It’s not overwhelming and it never has her on a soapbox, nor is this really spoiling anything. But this seems designed to say “yes, you can do a wild, crazy thriller in the time we’re in now, in the new normal, in the world we have no choice but to adapt to.” With its overall positive coverage and its prominent placement on a streaming service, hopefully this means KIMI is the beginning of a trend that brings even better films to us.
If I’ve got one little quibble, it’s that the bows are tied at the end a bit too conveniently for mine and probably your liking. I won’t say exactly how, but the resolution does not quite fit what comes before it. Even so, for a ninety minute thriller that goes as hard as it does for this long, never wasting a single moment? It’s not unforgivable. There’s not a speck of bloat, every little thing feels like a transfusion of fresh Cinema into the veins when it’s most needed. I will say this, as a filmmaker myself: this may not be the best film, but it’s a film we need to use as inspiration for our future work, regardless of the scale. Old can be made new, and if cinema is going to die the way some says it had, it’s got a few more kicks left before it’s left in a shallow grave. Good shit.
I give Kimi an A-.