“When it feels like Kimi doesn’t reach as far as it’s intriguing, albeit familiar, setup might suggest, it’s still evident that the movie that’s here has been carefully and intelligently assembled.”
by Ken Bakely
If nothing else, Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi doesn’t waste any time: it’s a lean thriller that speeds along at a quick clip, layering its tangled conspiracy with action sequences – whether they be physical or virtual combat – in what soon builds to a rapidfire succession. It gives us a slice of time, unambiguously set during the COVID pandemic, and a slice of its world, with unencumbered but established details of its main character and her life doled out as necessary; David Koepp’s script delivers each with matter-of-fact precision. There’s very little breathing room here, and that plays both in its favor and against it. But in the lead role, Zoë Kravitz works unambiguously well with the material, carrying the story through each intense twist, all within the narrow margins she’s allotted: she plays Angela, a Seattle tech worker with agoraphobia for whom the pandemic has worsened her mental health. She works for the company that manufactures Kimi, a smart home assistant, and her job is to sift through audio files of failed cues (i.e. the device not understanding what a user has asked for) and program updates to its operations. One day, Angela encounters a harrowing soundbite from a Kimi that has recorded what sounds like a woman being brutally attacked. She desperately tries to report the emergency to her higher-ups, in the hopes that the device and thus its owner can be identified, but experiences stonewalling and runarounds at every turn. It soon becomes clear that the crime she has witnessed has a very powerful perpetrator who is instigating an extensive cover-up, and as she tries to pursue answers, people start chasing her down in turn.
Kimi is a conspiracy thriller in a very classic mold, and it’s in that straightforwardness where some of the admirable simplicities, and less admirable shortcomings, start to emerge – Soderbergh doesn’t waste any time, bouncing from event to event, but when it comes to the story’s climax, it’s so suddenly announced and ultimately brief that it can feel like we’re being shortchanged. A small set of supporting characters in her life come and go, sometimes presented more as plot contrivances than people (as an example, there is perhaps one arc that flows through the story, as we wonder if Angela and Terry (Byron Bowers) will go from being neighbors-with-benefits to something more, in an extra element of characterization that’s self-contained and fits neatly into the plotting, but doesn’t ever quite feel like it’s fully part of it). Yet every performance is sharply tuned for each role of varying size, and Soderbergh is good at directing his cast through the fast-moving developments, and when push comes to shove, he executes the action and the story beats alike with a taut economy. His guidance is sturdy but never oppressive, and for a film simultaneously as prudent and closely threaded as this one, that’s the best framework for him to make his choices here.
The movie, by extension, can’t try to be anything that isn’t on the page – Koepp’s script sets up a handful of proverbial bowling pins along a narrow alley, and then systematically knocks them down in even-handed payoffs. What is therefore perhaps the most surprising – and the most reassuring – about Kimi becomes more apparent the longer you’re watching it. The wispiness to the entire pursuit can sometimes feel underwhelming, but Soderbergh brings the best of it out front, never compromising on behalf of the slim pacing. His cinematography captures the beige hell of a bureaucratic office building with a vague nausea, and then Angela’s warm and familiar, screen-lit apartment, emphasizing the disorientation that she feels of navigating unfamiliar spaces that will indeed become very dangerous. His editing is agile but sturdy, particularly in the film’s buildup, as the conspiracy’s layers are peeled back. And he makes the most out of individual sequences, such as one where the goons chasing Angela are foiled by a street protest. He brings a smart resourcefulness to the production, and with Kravitz’s invaluable work in the lead role, shows us a protagonist who always feels palpably, humanly real as she takes on the myriad of challenges before her. When it feels like Kimi doesn’t reach as far as it’s intriguing, albeit familiar, setup might suggest, it’s still evident that the movie that’s here has been carefully and intelligently assembled, hinting at underlying themes along the terrifying intersections of technology, surveillance, isolation, and corruption as it navigates some impressively constructed thrills.