Most of us have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic either in isolation, working behind screens, trapped with family members for prolonged periods of time, or some combination of the three.
The cynic in me thinks this is right where the greedy tech moguls have always wanted us; distracted, fearful, and cut off from consistent human interaction, capitalizing on our collective exile while their stock options infinitely appreciate. Connecting with the world via social media and retaining control over the living spaces we inhabit through technology has become more important (and realistic) than taking a walk in the park or going on a date.
The excellent new Steven Soderbergh film Kimi shows what happens when these two vantage points collide. Pared down and taut, this Hitchcokian thriller pits a traumatized female protagonist against the mechanisms of violence and greed that keep powerful men powerful. Zoë Kravitz’s voice analyst Angela Childs telecommutes for an Apple-like conglomerate listening to error interactions between the company’s virtual assistant (Kimi) and various customers around the county. Ever since lockdown began she’s barely left her swanky Seattle apartment, which has only exacerbated the trauma brought upon by a previous workplace sexual assault.
Initially, David Koepp’s script firmly roots the film inside Angela’s living space, with Soderbergh surgically covering every nook and cranny to give us a sense of the character’s personality and psychological state. If Angela isn’t looking at a computer screen, she’s gazing out the window at various other windows across the street, essentially her one lifeline to emotional fulfillment. It is only when Angela hears what sounds like a crime being committed during a voice stream that this perfectly calibrated cocoon begins to crack open. Hello, Blow-Up/Blow Out.
Kimi not only acknowledges the singular havoc COVID has wreaked on our psyches, but also the iconic symbols that have defined this terrible new reality (masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing). Angela so badly wants to have a normal life, even trying to set up breakfast date with her man crush Terry (Byron Bowers). But the mere thought of leaving the apartment for personal reasons induces debilitating panic attacks.
What’s fascinating about Kimi is how quickly things change when Angela’s concerns are no longer personal. Her sleuthing eventually necessitates leaving the apartment, and she does just that with only a slight pause at the front door. A critical theme of Soderbergh’s that has largely gone undiscussed is selflessness, and how his vast array of specialist protagonists deviate from their lone wolf tendencies to help someone in need. This motif shows up in everything from Haywire to High Flying Bird, and many others. It’s even more pronounced in Kimi, as Angela’s pursuit of the truth leads her on a collision path with truly sinister forces.
The result is a rollicking good time that harkens back to best of Classical Hollywood genre filmmaking. Soderbergh’s mastery of shot construction, camera placement, and tonal shifts are unmatched, and I’m always shocked by how easy he makes it all look. But the film’s emotional stakes wouldn’t amount to very much if it weren’t for Kravitz’s stellar performance. She instils a rare combination of strength, endurance, anguish, and panic in Angela, an obviously talented and dynamic person who’s been broken by the economic systems and social institutions built to favor men.
Which makes the film’s crackerjack climax all the more rewarding. It is here, that all the collaborators of Kimi (including Soderbergh stalwart composer Cliff Martinez), infuse the pinpoint action with a shared sense of urgency and controlled anger. Technology plays a key role in guaranteeing both destruction and salvation in this great sequence, but more importantly it gives the less powerful a chance to level the playing field against willfully corrupt virtual power brokers who could care less as long as we’re held captive.