As we are now two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it only stands to reason that the entertainment industries are beginning to react to it with films and television which occur, diegetically, during the pandemic. Kimi is not the first, of course. Rob Savage’s Host, the Zoom-call horror movie, received quite a bit of attention on its release for its ultra-low-budget pandemic conditions. A fine, if not thin, riff on the found footage setup.
I bring up that Kimi features an in-fiction COVID pandemic only because its existence has impacted the agoraphobic protagonist, Angela Childs (Zoe Kravitz), at a fundamental level. While most people around her have moved on with their lives, returning to office life, riding public transit, most not wearing masks, the thought of leaving her flat sends Angela into a panic attack.
Luckily, Angela works as a tech troubleshooter for the Kimi AI, an Alexa clone whose success is leading its company to a highly-anticipated IPO. Angela can work from home, sifting through recordings of “failed communications” between users and their Kimi units and altering the code to optimize the AI’s performance.
Unluckily, this work leads Angela down a nefarious rabbit hole. She stumbles upon a criminal cover-up which begins with a distorted Kimi recording of an assault and balloons out to a larger conspiracy. Fueled with the desire to bring justice to the victim, Angela must first overcome her crippling fear of the outside.
Steven Soderbergh has had a prolific last few years. Every 18 months, it seems, he is releasing a film on HBO Max. And I can’t help but feel that these films are released with inadequate marketing and dropped on streaming only to fall into obscurity. No Sudden Move, Let Them All Talk, and his two films for Netflix, High Flying Bird and The Laundromat, all kind of just happened. While these films are all tough sells for a mainstream theatrical audience, making streaming a perfect home for them, it is simply strange to see the man who helped jump-start the independent film revolution of the 1990s be relegated to a position where his films are disappearing acts.
Soderbergh’s latest, Kimi is a straightforward crime thriller that ponders our contemporary relationship with technology. As the pandemic sent us to our homes, increasing remote work and technology use, our dependency on technology was more pronounced than ever. Blockbuster screenwriter David Koepp writes an insular world for Angela. She looks out the window, examining other people’s lives as if watching a television screen. Her work centers on a user interface, a screen which takes up space in an otherwise spare apartment with few furnishings.
All the while, the outside world is an other space, an unknown which frightens Angela. When she has a toothache, she video chats with her dentist rather than go into the office. Technology becomes the crutch through which Angela is able to avoid facing her anxieties.
It is a simple yet clever way to look at contemporary technology. This said, the use of a proprietary AI device which records everything the user says to it (despite the PR which assures the public that Kimi only records the miscommunications which Angela is tasked with fixing) is less savvy. I don’t even want to quibble with the seemingly less-than-accurate technical dialogue in the film (at least it is trying harder than most to come off as realistic). The narrative device of Kimi on its own just feels superficial, a flat parody of an Alexa or Google Home rather than an incisive piece of the film’s larger rumination on our technological lives.
Private tech companies rendering devices as surveillance tools is not a novel concern, and it is used here merely as an impetus for standard thriller plotting. This is great when it comes to the tight pacing and claustrophobic character drama. But when the film asks us to think about our connection to technology, the Kimi issue comes off as a flimsy stand-in for larger real-world problems with which the film itself is not particularly concerned.
All of this is to say that Kimi works fine as a lean techno-thriller with a great central performance in Kravitz. And that is all it really works as. As the plot moves further and further into a vague shadow organization of criminals paid off to silence those who know too much, the commentary on our pandemic-era society slips into a vacuum of crime film cliches. Again, this is completely fine if we view Kimi as a thriller romp. But it is hard to escape the likelihood that Koepp and Soderbergh are going for something with more gravity, more real-world weight. I’m no bodybuilder, but I find it rather easy to lift these thematic weights without impediment.
As always, thanks for reading!