Released on HBO Max, Steven Soderbergh’s “KIMI” shows the auteur’s unfailing mastery. Despite its small screen release, “KIMI” tells a pulse-pounding tale of survival in a kinetic era in which fears of tech surveillance, privacy invasion and artificial intelligence inventions outwitting their creators increasingly prevails.
The setting is cleverly contemporaneous. The film is set in Seattle during the COVID-19 lockdown. People who must leave their apartments are masked, and everyone loiters by windows, as they spend most of their time indoors.
Despite the manifold inconveniences of a lockdown setting, the protagonist Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) remains largely unaffected — she certainly doesn’t need to leave her expansive loft. Her job as a tech worker involves streamlining the services of a virtual assistant — the eponymous “KIMI”. From its shape to lighting up on voice command, the device is eerily similar to Amazon’s Alexa.
All Angela needs is a desktop computer and she can do her job all day, listening to recordings of communication mishaps in order to resolve glitches in KIMI’s software.
Perhaps more idiosyncratic is Angela’s reluctance to leave her apartment anyway. Early on, we see Angela hesitate by the entrance to her loft while attempting to leave for a spontaneous rendezvous with a food truck across the street — only to suffer a panic attack.
The film reveals how Angela likely suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sheets, blankets and pillowcases are methodically removed and washed after sex, and her hands are constantly covered in Purell. There is an insistence on staying clean, staying in control and staying away from too many people at once.
At the film’s halfway point, things start to go awry. After hearing something terribly wrong with KIMI in an audio recording, Angela decides to leave her apartment to begin a futile investigation into what actually happened.
The camera swoops and slants, revealing to viewers Angela’s agoraphobic fears, warping reality through odd-angled shots, tilting one way or another, never quite aligning with the ground. In short, Angela’s psyche is illuminated through the film’s perspective, and the audience can only squirm in discomfort anticipating what’s to come.
The product tagline of KIMI — “Your life, simplified” — haunts the film’s entire runtime, from street signs and billboards to the ever-present, seemingly omniscient device that sits inconspicuously in the corner of one’s office, living room or office desk. The viewer is confronted with the question: at what cost? Yes, you now can turn on and off your apartment lights, set an alarm and play Billie Eilish’s newest track using a mere command beginning with “KIMI.” But, your data as a consumer of the product — the routine of your daily life, your search history, everything — is within the grasp of onlookers, stalkers and anyone who is curious enough to dig into dangerously accessible data records.
The film doesn’t take a prosaic turn towards AI domination, but it does reveal a nuanced take on how technology has crept into every aspect of our lives. One scene shows a tracker effortlessly downloading everything about Angela’s identity from the web — it takes mere seconds.
Reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Rear Window” and David Fincher’s exhilarating “Panic Room,” Soderbergh brings to the table an original spin on the thriller subgenre of the house-bound heroine, caught all too alone as terror unfolds. This time, technology is brought to the forefront.
Soderbergh snidely juxtaposes the professionalism projected on peoples’ cameras — a framed facade on a laptop screen — with the world beyond. The camera often slyly pans away from the figure sitting before a camera to illuminate his or her honest surroundings. For the suited corporate fellow, it’s the unclad legs sticking out without suit pants. For the seasoned hacker charging intimidatingly high fees for tracking down and eliminating targets who know too much about illicit affairs, it’s the homey living room and aged mother knitting on a worn couch.
“KIMI” isn’t anything brand new by any means. It follows a well-trodden path of generic heroines entangled in a treacherous web of violence and illicit matters. Still, there are suspenseful moments. Particularly for a female viewer, the wariness of being stalked and followed digitally, physically and mentally is discomforting and visceral. It’s a film that doesn’t quite fall into hackneyed territory, but is sleekly executed, movingly acted and willing to challenge the thriller genre with a 2022 take that exposes, all too familiarly, our generation’s reliance on technology.