Full disclosure — nothing makes me dread a review assignment right now like the knowledge that a film shot during the pandemic also uses it as a plot point. But what in lesser hands might have been just another tiresome COVID-19 quickie, locking us into a reality we’re all desperate to escape, becomes a tautly suspenseful nail-biter in Kimi, thanks to tirelessly eclectic director Steven Soderbergh and seasoned screenwriter David Koepp. Lean, mean and enlivened by the filmmakers’ love letter to both Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, this HBO Max premiere riffs knowingly on Rear Window and Blow Out in the age of virtual assistants, all-seeing algorithms, invasive surveillance and snaky tech magnates.
At a time when Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg’s ambivalence about privacy issues and his ambitious Metaverse plans have cast him in a dubious light, it feels appropriate to make a villain out of a tech conglomerate CEO eyeing a squillion-dollar personal profit from an IPO. And it’s a sly inside joke to cast neo-illusionist Derek DelGaudio in the role of Amygdala Corporation chief Bradley Hasling, taking his company public on the strength of a virtual assistant called Kimi.
A pithy, punchy thriller from a pro team.
In a TV news interview that opens the film — and exemplifies Koepp’s tidy way of dispensing with exposition — we learn that Kimi has the edge over competitors like Siri and Alexa because the AI brain relies on human excellence to resolve issues on data miscommunications. Kimi’s capabilities are always growing.
A tech analyst working for the company, Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) lives alone in a converted Seattle industrial loft. She receives occasional role-play booty calls from Terry (Byron Bowers), a neighbor from across the street, but never leaves her apartment. Angela is agoraphobic, and like Terry, both her mother (Robin Givens) and therapist (Emily Kuroda) — seen only in Zoom calls — are growing impatient with her lack of progress. She acknowledges that while she was improving, COVID has been a setback. The trauma that sparked Angela’s condition is hinted at, though withheld until relatively late in the action.
Terry is not the only neighbor Angela observes across the way. There’s also a creepy-looking guy with a set of binoculars, who appears never to leave his apartment either, and seems far too interested in what’s going on in the surrounding buildings and on the street below. Later revealed to be named Kevin (Devin Ratray), he will play an unexpected role when Angela finds herself in extreme danger.
While reviewing flagged data streams, Angela hears the sounds of someone screaming in distress beneath blaring techno music. Like John Travolta in Blow Out, she breaks down the audio elements and forms a vivid mental picture of a woman (Erika Christensen) experiencing sexual assault. With the help of a flirtatious tech problem-solver in Romania, Darius (Alex Dobrenko), Angela traces the stream to a user and accesses her entire Kimi history, exposing the full extent of nefarious crimes that possibly include premeditated murder and go right to the top of Amygdala.
There’s little sustained mystery in Koepp’s screenplay but considerable ingenuity in the resourcefulness of Angela once she lands in a life-threatening situation and paradoxically turns to Kimi for a way out. Clever touches include making Chekhov’s gun a construction-site nail gun.
Editing under his regular Mary Ann Bernard pseudonym, Soderbergh always excels at pacing, eliminating any flab in a tight feature that runs just a brisk 89 minutes. Likewise his camerawork, as usual signed under the alias Peter Andrews, which maintains visual interest and propels the story with its probing surveillance angles, then nervously tracks Angela once she overcomes her fear enough to step outside her apartment.
That occurs after her attempt to report the data stream discovery to Amygdala’s “organic interpolations” officer, Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson), who insists on a face-to-face meeting to listen to the recordings before involving the FBI. Casting Mrs. Nice Guy Wilson in what’s basically a cameo was an inspired stroke, her naturally reassuring warmth contrasting effectively with the ice in the bureaucrat’s veins.
In short order, Darius informs Angela that the original Kimi recordings have been deleted, and two menacing security thugs (Charles Halford, Jacob Vargas) are hunting her through the labyrinthine hallways and stairwells of the fortress-like office building. But that threat is nothing next to their cold-blooded boss, Rivas (Jaime Cavil), who has a massive cryptocurrency fee to collect.
Kravitz doesn’t find a great deal of tonal variation in her character, though that’s perhaps intentional for a woman consumed by crippling PTSD, a state further heightened by COVID angst, security paranoia and the unrest on the Seattle streets over city ordinances to relocate the homeless population. It’s also significant that Angela is part of the new tech generation more at ease dealing with machines than humans.
This is not major Soderbergh, but it works to the extent it does due to his firm hand at the wheel, persuasively hitching traditional genre tropes to a chillingly contemporary world of insidious technology — which in this case proves helpful. The director’s greatest asset in all this is a dynamite score by Cliff Martinez, its unsettling chordal progressions and jittery flights adding a modern edge to throwback suspense accompaniment.