KIMI is the new straight-to-HoBoMax Steven Soderbergh joint. This one is a tight little thriller written by David Koepp (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, SNAKE EYES, PANIC ROOM) with all the breeziness and smarts you expect from Soderbergh, plus that knack he has for style that simultaneously seems retro and more of-this-very-moment than anything anybody else is making. Like, it seems like it’s shot pretty run-and-gun with modern, lightweight digital cameras and natural lighting and stuff, but the staging, framing (and credits) sometimes remind you of how the ‘70s suspense classics were crafted.
We could call it a techno thriller because the titular “Kimi” is a Siri or Alexa type device through which our heroine, Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz, THE BRAVE ONE, ASSASSINATION OF A HIGH SCHOOL PRESIDENT), accidentally hears a murder. Her job is to listen to recordings of times Kimi didn’t understand what people were asking for, figure out what the miscommunication was (a regional term, a pop culture reference, a word used incorrectly) and add new information to improve the algorithm. When she hears something disturbing in the background of a recording she does some sleuthing, tries to navigate the company’s dense protocols for handling such a situation, and becomes a target.
One of the things that’s really smart about KIMI is that with this vaguely creepy device at the center you assume it’s gonna be a tech paranoia movie. Everybody now days is at least a little unsettled by how much we’ve come to accept violations of our privacy and commodification of our every electronic interaction, so it would make sense for the scary part of the movie to be that employees of Amygdala like Angela sit at home and listen to recordings of people who think they’re only talking to an inanimate object. But that’s not the threat here. In fact, most of the voyeurism in the movie is analog – some of the supporting characters are her neighbors who she sees in their windows across the street. She has a seemingly imbalanced relationship with one of them, Terry (Byron Bowers, HONEY BOY), and there’s a great scene where after he comes over and she’s kind of awful to him she stands on her balcony and watches him return to his apartment. She sees him throwing his jacket down, knocking over a lamp, and angrily closing the curtains, knowing she caused that.
What KIMI recognizes is that technology is neutral – the threat is the amorality of the companies that create it. If another employee besides Angela had been assigned this recording they likely would have just passed it on to the person they were supposed to and not gone the extra mile to make sure justice was done. Just following protocol instead of morals.
At Amygdala we see relatively small ethical lapses – Angela is told that there’s no way to trace a recording to a specific device because of privacy policies, but then her co-worker Darius (Alex Dobrenko, BLOODY HOMECOMING) shows her that you can do it with the right password; Angela is disturbed to learn that a retinal scan recognizes her because she inadvertently consented to letting them scan her during conference calls. But because it’s a thriller it goes higher than that – we get the drift very early on that the CEO, Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio, the guy from that IN & OF ITSELF thing everybody raved about a while ago) did something bad and has hired killers to cover it up.
The killers are good villains, but the HR department is almost as scary. Angela has a hell of time getting in contact with the higher up she was told to talk to, Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson, PSYCHO ), and is wisely suspicious of her when she finally does. I love the creepy way this movie uses insincere corporate P.R. language. Both the assistant on the phone (Jamie Baer) and Chowdhury in person keep repeating variations of “I assure you, we don’t take this lightly,” and the way they say it it’s pretty clear that’s the decided-upon phrasing and maybe this shit even comes up all the time. You can imagine these two drafting the apology statement after Hasling’s secret comes out. In contention for best moment in the movie is when Chowdhury looks Angela in the eye and tries to seem very sincere saying “You are a strong, brave woman” before leaving the office to get the assassins. Maybe she recognizes that this is true, that she herself wasn’t brave enough to endanger herself and her career to do the right thing. More likely she just knows that’s what you’re supposed to say now.
Angela has agoraphobia so bad she’ll only see her dentist over Zoom, so it’s a real challenge when she has to go out into the world to try to report this crime. Reportedly Koepp (I COME IN PEACE, TOY SOLDIERS, JURASSIC PARK, THE SHADOW, SPIDER-MAN, WAR OF THE WORLDS, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, THE MUMMY) pitched the premise to Soderbergh pre-Covid. So it’s a coincidence that having large sections of the movie contained to her apartment works well for a pandemic production, and having her afraid to leave home is extra understandable during these times, giving new life to a gimmick we’ve already seen in COPYCAT and other thrillers.
It’s the first movie I’ve seen that explicitly takes place during Covid, which I think is very Soderbergh. He gets down all the relatable details – loading up with masks, hand sanitizer and wipes before trying to leave the apartment, doing all your business remotely, dodging people in hallways – but he’s wise enough not to try to make it into some grand statement about the moment that might seem dumb or corny once we’ve had time to look back on it. I hope there’s a time when life isn’t like this anymore, and then when you watch it you can remember, “Oh yeah – that’s what it was like.”
Another good Covid moment is right at the beginning, when Hasling does a TV interview from home. When he’s done we see that he set up his nice bookshelf background in the garage, and off to the side there’s a stepladder and a bunch of other clutter stacked up. And of course he’s wearing a jacket and tie with offscreen jeans, shirt not tucked.
It’s a great touch because it’s funny and humanizing for this CEO character, so he seems more like a real guy than a typical movie villain. It’s also great casting – I didn’t know it was that magician guy but he just seems more like a real tech dork than if they hired, like, Cole Hauser or whoever to be the bad guy. (Nothing against Cole Hauser.)
Soderbergh’s always been great at casting like that. The hired killers here are also really effective characters, particularly Jaime Camil as one of those guys who seems kind of likable as he’s threatening your life and that makes him even scarier. I like that Robin Givens (A RAGE IN HARLEM) plays Angela’s mom, being that she’s a sitcom star peer of Kravitz’s real life mother. And that guy Devin Ratray (BLUE RUIN) is one of the neighbors – I never remember that he’s Buzz from HOME ALONE, so it didn’t occur to me that it’s kind of funny for him to be around when Angela goes Kevin MacCallister on some motherfuckers.
Of course this is largely on the shoulders of Kravitz, who is outstanding, and I will gratuitously mention that she looks spectacular with blue hair. There’s been alot of high quality blue hair on screen recently, and I’m for it. Kravitz is a legend just for being in FURY ROAD, but I think she’s really come into her own in the years since in stuff like GEMINI and her great High Fidelity show. I’m glad this character also collects vinyl, especially since she probly has access to some streaming music service or other over her Kimi. She still understands the power of physical media. Another thing Angela shares with Rob from High Fidelity is being easy to root for while being a total mess in relationships.
Man, Koepp and Soderbergh are a good team. The director adds his style and texture to the screenwriter’s sturdy, economical suspense skeleton. I love stories like this where there are lots of little details at the beginning that make you think, “I wonder what’s up with that?” and then you forget about it until some shit is going down and you realize it established some geography or a potential weapon or escape route or something. That seems to be important to them – they even pre-establish a protest against homeless sweeps that she runs into downtown, even though in real life you can encounter that stuff all the time without warning.
There’s a thrilling moment (THRILLING MOMENT SPOILER) where she gets dragged into a van but is able to fight her way out because protesters see it happen, block the van from moving and prevent her abductors from closing the doors completely. I love it so much because number one, it’s terrifying, and number two you almost never see left wing protesters portrayed this way in movies. They’re usually there as dystopian texture or as a punchline. But having been to protests (including right where this was filmed!) I’m positive this is what they would really do. It would seem like she was one of them and being persecuted, but even if they knew it was unrelated I believe they’d intervene like this.
And yes, I know the spot because this takes place in Seattle. The main location, her apartment and the street in front of it, were actually filmed in L.A., but once she ventures into the city they actually did us the solid of using real, on-location Seattle. So now I will discuss Seattle shit.
I was aware that Soderbergh and Kravitz were in town filming this. Word got out when they were looking for extras for the protest scene. If I hadn’t been holing up to hide from Covid I would’ve made an effort to find out where they were filming and try to watch. So it’s killing me to realize that several scenes were filmed really close to me. I’m pretty sure the exterior of the Amygdala building is in my neighborhood, and when she escapes and looks up directions to the FBI office she’s on a pedestrian bridge right down the street from me. If I had gone jogging that day I would’ve ran into them! They crowded it with extras looking like they’re going to work, but it really leads to a waterfront park, so you’ll usually just see a few people going for walks. Also you gotta look out for dog shit. I’m sure some poor P.A. had to deal with that.
I was thinking that like THE PAPER TIGERS this was gonna be the rare movie to take place in Seattle but not show the Space Needle – however, they do show it out of focus in the background when she’s on the bridge. That’s cool. I’m only against showing it in second unit drone shots and then shooting everything else in Vancouver.
Geographically, of course, it doesn’t all make sense, but that’s the magic of cinema. It’s so cool to see Kravitz in a spot I’ve been a million times, taking the light rail I take to work, even using stops I’m familiar with. Here she is at the International District station:
And there’s one regional detail that impressed me. When her therapist mentions “Evergreen” (unfortunately in the context of a place where something traumatic happened to her), it means she went to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, known as the hippie college where they don’t have grades, the school Matt Groening went to, and the one Courtney Love was dissing in the Hole song “Olympia.” I may or may not have some connections to that place and I’ve never heard it mentioned in a movie before, so I appreciate somebody doing their research. If they had used the term “Greener” (which is what people who go/went to Evergreen call themselves) I would’ve fainted.
Angela’s apartment/condo is huge and beautiful and would cost an absolute fortune if it was in Seattle. (Might be even worse in L.A.) But it seems like her skills are pretty elite, so I buy that they pay her well. I think I saw some Sub Pop thing on the wall, I guess that’s believable local flavor. I believe less in the photo of the Space Needle in the building lobby, but you never know.
The next frontier I would like to see for Seattle representation in a movie is having somebody get a hot dog with cream cheese on it. I know it sounds weird and I thought it was a joke when I first heard that called “Seattle style,” but a stand called Dog in the Park sold me on it by using the cream cheese to balance spicy chipotle Field Roast. Now I do it all the time. So look for that in KIMI 2.
I’m not sure if they’ll ever give KIMI a physical media release, but if you have Home Box Office Maximum I highly recommend checking it out. And while you’re there, they also have Soderbergh’s great crime movie NO SUDDEN MOVE, which was one of my favorites last year.