Steven Soderbergh is a director who loves his convoluted stories, from the elaborate heists of the Ocean’s trilogy, the ensemble drama of Traffic, to last year’s No Sudden Move, which featured a tad too many twists in the film’s final act. Yet some of Soderbergh’s most fascinating work, especially in recent years, has been through more insular, straightforward stories, like 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, and his iPhone-shot films like 2018’s Unsane, and 2019’s High Flying Bird. The latest – and one of Soderbergh’s best of these smaller stories – is KIMI, a film that owes quite a bit to The Conversation, Rear Window, and believe it or not, Home Alone, a tight, small-scale thriller that is one of Soderbergh’s most captivating stories in some time.
Zoë Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, who works as a voice stream interpreter for The Amygdala Corporation, a company whose claim to fame is a Siri-like virtual assistant known as KIMI. The KIMI device is continuously improving, as workers like Angela listen to failed prompts and try to make the KIMI better each day. It’s the perfect job for Angela, who suffers from agoraphobia that has only gotten worse thanks to the pandemic. But when Angela hears what she believes to be a violent crime, she has to face the outside world, and the pushback from Amygdala Corporation, to make sure justice is served.
KIMI is largely told in isolation, not just because of Angela’s story, but because of COVID restrictions, and yet, Soderbergh’s latest doesn’t feel restrained by this. KIMI is constantly evolving in ways that make this story exciting and fresh as it goes along. At first, it seems like Soderbergh might be setting up a Hitchcock-esque thriller with a tech twist, as Angela snoops on her neighbors across the street. But then, Soderbergh shifts KIMI into a more straightforward suspense story, followed by a conclusion that feels very much like an homage to Home Alone, with its reliance on power tools and an appearance by Devin Ratray.
Writer David Koepp is no stranger to this type of psychological tale (Panic Room, Secret Window) or to elongated tension (Mission: Impossible), and KIMI shows how effective this type of isolated suspense can be. But this is all bolstered by a wonderful and engrossing performance by Kravitz, despite the film’s slow trickle of information about who Angela is and what made her so closed off from the world around her. Again, Soderbergh is fantastic at telling sprawling stories with multiple leads, yet there’s something special about his films that focus on one character that lets the performance shine and makes the story alluring. Kravitz is certainly one of Soderbergh’s best solo leads, a character who doesn’t trust the outside world, yet must go into this nightmare and rely on others in order to do the right thing.
Yet even though KIMI is narratively simple compared to many of Soderbergh’s bigger works, the ideas in Koepp’s script are expansive and impressive, despite the limitations. KIMI is a story of terrifying power of tech companies and social media, the shocking ability to find anything and anyone on the internet, the possibility of making an entirely false identity for the public through said social media, and the difficulties of coming against those in power. And despite all this, KIMI is arguably one of Soderbergh’s most optimistic films, and while the technology might be something to fear and can create powerful monsters, it’s the inherent goodness of people that again and again becomes a light in this film’s darkness.
KIMI is also particularly excellent in terms of its sound design, as Soderbergh plays up the isolation that Kravitz has imposed on herself. Some of KIMI’s most gripping moments come from Angela’s manipulation of sound files to try and figure out what is happening on the other end. The film’s use of silence is particularly effective, and when Angela finally does leave her apartment, the sharp, stinging sound played over Angela’s escape puts the audience in her shoes, presenting the discomfort and pain that this character is clearly dealing with through her liberation.
Soderbergh has always kept an even balance of bigger stories with smaller experiments. Soderbergh got his start with the indie hit sex, lies, and videotape, and followed that with even smaller eccentricities like The Underneath and Schizopolis. Even in later years, he’d follow something like Ocean’s Twelve with something as odd as Bubble. But KIMI is one of the few films that allows both of these sides of Soderbergh to shine. Not only is it an opportunity for Soderbergh to attempt a lot with very little, but Soderbergh also injects this story with enough excitement and tension to make it feel like one of his larger, twisty big-budget films.
As Soderbergh has shifted to Netflix and HBO Max to release his films, there have been gems (High Flying Bird, No Sudden Move), and there have been a fair share of disappointments (The Laundromat, Let Them All Talk). But KIMI is possibly the best of Soderbergh’s films since he has moved to streaming, a film that combines his love of telling smaller stories, with an edge-of-your-seat thriller that hits just the right notes for whatever Soderbergh style you prefer. With a great lead performance by Kravitz, a plot that—like the KIMI device itself—is persistently upgrading and shifting, and a shockingly optimistic story despite the fear of the technological world, KIMI is a shining example that Soderbergh is one of the best directors working today.
KIMI is now streaming on HBO Max.