“Kimi” isn’t the first film to warn of the dangers of at-home surveillance – Hitchcock got that micro-genre started with “Rear Window” – but it’s been a long time since one has been this much fun. Director Steven Sodenbergh has been tinkering with genre filmmaking for a while now; last year’s “No Sudden Move” blended a heist movie with film noir, but it never felt like more than an exercise. “Kimi” finds the right balance. It’s a conspiracy thriller with much to say about our moment, but it entertains more than it edifies, and it never forgets to have fun. The heroes are easy to root for, and the villains are dastardly.
What first impresses about “Kimi” is how seamlessly it weaves together so many hallmarks of our strange, memorable times. When we meet Angela (Zoe Kravitz), she is perpetually afraid of leaving her Seattle apartment. Agoraphobic? Maybe. But it’s also the Covid Effect. Or maybe it’s lingering trauma from her recent assault. It could also just be a symptom of the way technology has coaxed us all towards antisocial behavior. The film wisely resists the urge to pin her condition on one cause, allowing her to serve as a proxy for those viewers who are all too familiar with the powerful urge to stay home.
The screenplay by David Koepp, whose accomplished resume includes “Jurassic Park” and “Carlito’s Way,” is also smart about the ways a mental health condition can elevate minor anxieties into major problems. Angela is pathologically lonely, but even when she invites a neighbor over for a romantic evening, she is quick to push him out the door once her needs are met. Then there’s the matter of her aching tooth, which requires a dentist’s visit she can’t bring herself to make. Instead, she lets it fester, leaving her physically vulnerable at a moment in her life when, as it turns out, she’s going to need all her strength.
The set-up alone is rich and involving, and I haven’t even gotten to Kimi yet. Angela works remotely for a company that makes the titular device (a virtual assistant like Amazon’s Alexa), listening to recordings of all the user requests Kimi didn’t understand. Her job is to improve Kimi’s functionality by resolving the errors with new code, but when Angela hears what she thinks is a violent assault on a woman, she alerts her superiors, who don’t respond with the sense of urgency she hoped for. To get justice, she chooses to flee her sanctuary.
If you’re familiar with the contours of the conspiracy thriller, you can predict much of the cat-and-mouse game that follows, but predictability matters less when the craft is so thoughtful and solid. Soderbergh’s camera is in near-constant motion, alternately trailing Angela and anticipating her movements, contributing to a state of disorientation that reflects her anxiety-ridden experience. Soderbergh also creates mood through lighting; the metallic blues of Angela’s apartment – as well as her hair – mimic the unnerving coldness of our technology. Meanwhile, Cliff Martinez’s Hitchockian score throbs in agonizing anticipation of something, anything, to puncture the icy surface.
In a legitimate movie star performance, Kravitz is the steady, stoic center of the film, but Soderbergh surrounds her with an unusual cast of able performers. Improv comic Andy Daly makes an appearance as Angela’s boss, bringing a dash of levity to the film’s critique of corporate America. Soderbergh has long favored using comedians – the Smothers Brothers made an appearance in “The Informant!” – but here he adds a magician to his stable. Derek Delgaudio, who created the brilliant show “In and Of Itself,” shows up as a craven corporate honcho who is behind the pursuit of Angela. The casting is delicious: he’s a guy trying to make his biggest problem disappear.
It’s a theme Soderbergh has been poking for years now. He has examined corruption in chemical conglomerates (“Erin Brockovich”), the pharmaceutical industry (“Side Effects”), the mental health care system (“Unsane”), the NBA (“High Flying Bird”), and the auto industry (“No Sudden Move”). The surveillance industry may have been an inevitable subject, but nobody would have done it like he did. “Kimi” is a glorious piece of entertainment whose most cutting comment on our techno-dependent lives occurs before the film even starts:
“Hey Alexa, play ‘Kimi’.”
“Kimi” premieres on HBO Max on Friday, February 11.