I wonder what reviews of the HBO Max thriller Kimi would look like if the prestigious name of director Steven Soderbergh were removed and any random name substituted. I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t be half so glowing. When less celebrated filmmakers do conventional genre movies, they’re likely to get ignored or kicked all over the place by critics, but when the revered auteur Soderbergh makes them, critics tie themselves in lyrical knots praising him:
Of all current Hollywood filmmakers, Soderbergh is the most physical, the one who comes the closest to the painterly ideal of touching the image. He has long been doing his own camera work (under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews) and also his own editing (as Mary Ann Bernard), and the way that he engages with his subject evokes a bodily music, something like dance — a cinematic swing. His new film, “Kimi” . . . has it. This comes as something of a pleasant surprise, because the movie’s substance isn’t apparent in its foreground — it’s built as an ordinary genre piece.
It certainly is built as an ordinary genre piece — so ordinary you’ll be reminded of other paranoid suspense films during the whole eighty-nine-minute running time, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and carrying on through countless descendants to 2021’s The Woman in the Window. It’s a movie written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man) about an agoraphobic computer tech named Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) who works as a “voice stream interpreter.” Her job consists of listening to anonymous interactions with the Kimi smart speaker owners in order to eradicate errors in Kimi’s software. In the course of her work, she overhears what sounds like a violent assault on a woman, almost buried under a wall of sound. Stonewalled by the corporate officials she contacts, Angela is finally forced to leave her apartment to report the crime, with predictably harrowing results.
The insistent topicality of the film stresses how even an agoraphobic person can’t get any privacy in the surveillance state, because she’s so constantly interacting with others on the phone or computer and so relentlessly tracked and spied upon via the same technology that dominates her spacious Seattle loft dwelling. With a clever use of lenses, Soderbergh achieves the effect of a seemingly vast expanse in the apartment where Angela roams freely — which is ironically contrasted with a sudden sense of constricting space when she eventually goes outside. Everything seems to press in on her in the open air, as Angela walks with tense, rapid steps, practically rubbing against the sides of buildings she passes, hunched defensively in her orange hoodie.
In a further gesture toward topicality, the film also evokes the pandemic. When Angela finally ventures outside, she’s the only one who wears a mask and constantly uses hand sanitizer, a predicament that may feel sadly familiar to viewers. And Angela isn’t the only character in the film who tries to never leave her home — there’s an equally agoraphobic man across the way (Devin Ratray) who’s almost always looking out his window at Angela when she looks out, in a way that could represent either wistful longing for connection or threatening voyeurism.
Actor-singer-model Zoë Kravitz holds the screen well in a role that requires her to carry an entire movie. She is alone in most scenes, with other actors playing only minor roles: Byron Bowers as her patient lawyer boyfriend who lives across the street and can only see her at her place, Alex Dobrenko as her bracing Eastern European coworker, Rita Wilson as the officious company executive pretending to help her report the crime she’s witnessed, and an assortment of energetic actors playing the bad guys.
Soderbergh is a slick technician, and he does some fancy shooting and editing, there’s no doubt about it. He’s capable of great filmmaking, as everyone knows — I’m a big fan of The Limey (1999), The Informant! (2009), and a few others. I’m grateful that he continues to experiment and take huge chances in films and television work, alternating the riskier bets with commercially safer ones.
But I have to say that, in general, he’s lost me over the years. I’m not sure if something happened to Soderbergh or something happened to me, but at a certain point, right around the time of Contagion (2011), my interest in his film “authorship” started to wane. I’m reminded of Contagion because, like Kimi, it’s another topical thriller, though it’s fully focused on the disastrous spread of a hyper-contagious virus. It was highly praised when it came out and ballyhooed some more when COVID-19 hit, but it struck me as Soderbergh at his weakest. There was a lot of plot and hectic formal flourishes, but the film somehow remained remote and oddly hypothetical, not really connecting at a visceral level, though that seems to be exactly what Soderbergh is aiming for in both Contagion and Kimi — and exactly what a good topical thriller ought to do.
In short, I’m glad Soderbergh is still making films, but I don’t particularly care about watching them.