It tracks that Steven Soderbergh, a film-maker who’s spent his retirement from making films mostly making more films, would try his very best to maximise time during the pandemic. Not only do his intimidatingly extensive lists of everything he’s been watching and reading show that he’s obsessively consuming, but he’s also been frantically creating, finishing one movie and then making two others in full. His new deal with HBO Max has seen him take Meryl Streep out on a boat in the elegant, semi-improvised comedy Let Them All Talk before sticking to the Michigan mainland in the tense crime drama No Sudden Move. His latest is a far simpler, yet no less enjoyable, achievement, a tight, mostly one-location thriller riffing on Alfred Hitchcock as well as OG Hitchcock riffer Brian De Palma.
Kimi is the name of an Alexa-style device with a key USP: people. A large scattered team of operatives sift through the many interactions between users and machines to perfect the dynamic, ensuring that miscommunication is kept to a minimum. Zoë Kravitz’s agoraphobic Angela (perhaps a reference to The Net’s similarly named hacker) spends her days listening to such audio, quarantining herself from the world as Covid rumbles on. The pandemic has set her anxieties back and she refuses to go outside despite an over-the-road neighbour (comedian Byron Bowers) trying to tempt her on a date. But when Angela hears something sinister on a flagged Kimi stream, her safe, insulated world is suddenly in disarray.
In a sleek 89 minutes, writer David Koepp (whose similarly contained thriller Panic Room was notably watched by Soderbergh twice last year) keeps things refreshingly simple and stringently devoid of any extraneous padding. It’s no surprise, after an opening tease concerning the financial specifics of the company behind Kimi, that there’s a conspiracy to unravel but it unravels with a quick ease, an age-old tale of the hero who saw too much and the villain who wants to keep them quiet. We know where films like this tend to go, and Kimi is light on genuine surprise, but Koepp and Soderbergh keep most of it grounded, avoiding the clumsy narrative leaps these films often resort to, making so much of it feel awfully credible.
Like Soderbergh’s other late-stage thrillers, from Contagion to Side Effects to Unsane to the miniseries Mosaic, Kimi firmly exists in a real-world setting with real-world rules, and although lightly etched, it’s a rare tech thriller that doesn’t unintentionally slip into science-fiction. The inclusion of a more evolved Amazon Echo is handled with a deftness that’s been missing from other recent-ish examples of voice AI movies, from the schlocky Netflix thriller Tau to the comedy disasters Jexi and Superintelligence, its role here rising far above mere gimmickry. Koepp isn’t trying to make larger Ted Talk points about big tech – there’s really no time for that – but with light jabs, he provides a rather bleak state of the union with regards to issues of privacy and corporate morality. This crescendoes rather brilliantly in a standout scene involving Angela leaving her enviable apartment (the size of which is perhaps one of the film’s more hard-to-stomach elements) for an uncomfortable meeting with her employers, personified by an ingeniously cast Rita Wilson, subverting her wide-smiled cheeriness to chilling effect.
It’s the moment that then launches Kimi into an inevitable chase (for what is a film such as this without a chase?), anxiety edged up a few notches by Kravitz’s believable unease with being back in the wide world. She’s an actor whose soft-spoken minimalism often makes her a little too aloof, but that’s well utilised here, and there’s a great deal of fun in watching her cathartically and violently snatch back her agency in the rousing finale. After watching so many pandemic-shot films that felt shoddily thrown together, it’s such a pleasure to be in the confident hands of a film-maker like Soderbergh, whose crisp and stylish cinematography (he uses his pseudonym Peter Andrews to shoot once again) turns a modest direct-to-streaming film into something utterly cinematic, assisted by Cliff Martinez’s wonderfully grand, old-school score. Koepp’s script also uses the background of Covid as a quietly accepted part of life in the early 2020s, rather like Rob Savage’s jolting Zoom horror Host, instead of relying on tired banana-bread jokes and/or involving it in the thrust of the main plot, one of the few films to modulate its presence effectively.
Kimi is in some ways a minor Soderbergh entry, an exercise in style rather than something of great substance, but it’s a thrill to watch him at play, even when he’s taking it easy, he’s still working harder than most of his peers.