MOVIE REVIEW – Most reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, Steven Soderbergh’s tech thriller in which Zoë Kravitz stumbles upon the clues to a murder while testing an artificial intelligence in this thriller set in the age of isolation due to COVID.
While pleasantly idiosyncratic, Steven Soderbergh’s relatively varied and fluctuating repertoire of films has failed to impress audiences. Some of his films are particularly good (such as Bubbles and Side Effects), some are pretty weak (such as In the Web of Sin), and one is excellent (Girlfriend to Directing), but none of them has made a big impression on the market. Still, you can feel the pulse of filmmaking enthusiasm in them. You could say that they are Soderbergh’s protest against the blockbuster industry, a way of reminding his audience, and perhaps himself, that a few simple elements – story, actors, camera angles – can still add up to what a film is. Except now, in a time of the film industry’s slow crisis (will audiences return to the cinemas?) and severely bloated budgets, Soderbergh’s latest short, the elegant and sinister cyber-age corporate thriller Kimi, serves as a lesson that shows us how to move on. A welcome reminder that less can sometimes be more in cinema.
The girl, COVID and the virtual assistant
It’s another artistic suspense pastiche that’s clever enough to hook you. More than half of the film takes place in a spacious, second-floor, renovated industrial loft apartment in Seattle, where Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a wavy, blue-haired, skinny, trendy girl, stares out the window and basks in the late-morning sunshine while watching her neighbours (some of whom look back) in the apartment building across the street. Then she turns to her computer screen, where she works as a voice-stream interpreter for The Amygdala Corporation, which markets a Siri-like virtual assistant named Kimi.
We know that today’s faceless tech giants – Google, Facebook – don’t just operate on algorithms, that behind the scenes, human intermediaries manipulate the action. Yet how it all works remains obscure (part of the monolithic structure). Angela, who used to work for Facebook, is now tasked with monitoring the command streams Kimi receives and guiding the app on how it performs. She can do this from home, and it is one of many factors that combine to make her agoraphobic. There is the epidemic. There is the fact that he is still recovering from a dark chapter in his past. And there’s the general hipster aloofness, which extends to the lawyer (Byron Bowers) across the hall, whom he texts when he wants to fuck her but is too aloof actually to hang out with her outside of sex. On the computer, she talks to her mother (Robin Givens), her psychiatrist (Emily Kuroda) and a vodka-drinking Romanian tech consultant (Alex Dobrenko). The latter insists on calling her “Hotness” (for “Bombshell”) (while explaining that #MeToo is still 50 years away in Romania). “Kimi” is, among other things, a kind of narrative of COVID’s isolation from the world.
A familiar story, but told in a sophisticated way
The lonely atmosphere is heightened because on this particular day, Angela hears a streamer that gives her the chills, the menacing noises (a fight, a struggle, perhaps a muffled scream) buried under the din of the thumping music. So she catches the other soundtracks to hear better the crime that might have been taking place. The Romanian guy gives him a fake administrator code to access the computer where the noises came from.
Original idea? Well, not really. We’ve seen this before. Not specifically in a Soderbergh film, but in The Conversation (where Gene Hackman played a lone surveillance sleuth who realises he may have recorded a murder), and a handful of other cinematic references that Soderbergh pays homage to with a wink: Magnification, Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock), or The Tattooed Girl. The Hitchcockian atmosphere is perhaps most pronounced, thanks to Cliff Martinez’s score, which recalls the best works of Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s usual composer.
Kravitz is great
Zoë Kravitz, recently seen as Catwoman in The Batman, carries the entire film with her coolly strict performance, her hard-kept coolness hinting at the severe anxieties that lurk beneath the impassive mask. When she discovers, through Angela Kimi, stream of those noises, it is disturbing in the extreme, as were the murders in Michael Clayton and Crimes and Misdemeanours. We see murder in movies almost every day, but rarely is a film connected enough to the real world to remind us ordinary people commit that murder. The increasingly terrified Angela finally agrees to leave her apartment only because she has to share her discovery with her workplace, who have promised to call the FBI. The Amygdala office evokes the setting of a real-life technocratic sci-fi, as does the entire city in which Angela must soon desperately flee.
“Kimi” marks the first time Soderbergh has collaborated with screenwriter David Koepp, long a rock-solid talent in the mainstream (“Jurassic Park,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Panic Room”), and the basic structure of Koepp’s script – in fact, everything about it – is built from pretty familiar panels. The heroine is an isolated hacker, her discovery of a crime linked to corporate malfeasance and corruption, her plan to evade the conspiracy, and it all culminates in a final act of action.
A credible, gripping thriller that we desperately need right now
Why did I say “Kimi” is showing us the way? Because the fun of the film lies in the modest-budget glamour and suggestive inventiveness of Soderbergh’s direction. He has become a true master of minimalist indie film. The joy of filmmaking comes through everywhere – in the way he frames each shot as a (non-accredited) cinematographer like a sentence in a story; in the hypnotically enigmatic dialogues between Amygdala’s CEO (Derek DelGaudio) and a colleague (Jaime Camil); in Rita Wilson’s mysterious little performance as the “reassuring” office manager; in the way, the camera rushes towards Angela like a lurking demon as she rushes for her life through the cold, deserted streets and embracing protesters of Seattle. In the way, a nail gun becomes a great weapon.
If we want to see anything other than Marvel tales in the cinemas, we need to return to this kind of filmmaking spirit. This film can take human stories and turn them into a gripping thriller in the sea of superhero movies.