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Zoë Kravitz Shines in 'Kimi', a Good, Not Great Soderbergh

By Petr Navovy | Film | February 25, 2022 |

By Petr Navovy | Film | February 25, 2022 |


Steven Soderbergh is a gift. Even when he’s not firing on all cylinders—and considering the fairly prodigious output rate he often operates at, this happens less than one would reasonably expect—his films are usually at the very least eminently watchable and frequently excellent. His latest, Kimi (stylised as KIMI), a tight 90-minute paranoid thriller in the vein of De Palma’s Blow Out and Coppola’s The Conversation, sits near the upper end of mid-tier Soderbergh, but it’s in this case that that old saying often applied to pizza can be tweaked slightly to neatly describe Kimi in relation to the rest of the director’s films: Even when it’s not the best, it’s still pretty damn good.

Sporting a visually striking blue mop of hair, Kimi features Zoë Kravitz in what must be a strong contender for the finest performance of her career so far. Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, an employee of Amygdala, a fictional version of one of those of all-knowing platform-capitalist tech behemoths, the likes of which have come to control every aspect of our world, from the systemic and legislative to the granular and individual. The film focuses in on an aspect of the latter: The titular ‘Kimi’ is the company’s Alexa-like ‘smart assistant’, always listening for the customer to invoke her by name in order to chime in with a reassuringly and pleasantly neutral, ‘I’m here!’ The question is implied: ‘What can I help you with?’ This is cinema, however, and so echoes of HAL 9000 and the connotations thereof cannot be escaped. And this is a Soderbegh film too, after all, so neither can skepticism for ‘gifts’ handed to us by the powerful.

One of Amygdala’s competition-beating innovations with its Kimi system is that it employs real people to correct its mistakes. When Kimi cannot translate one of the infinite complexities of human communication into the result desired by a customer, the recording gets pinged to people like Angela, who apply context and real-world knowledge to input the correction into the system, thus expanding Kimi’s familiarity with humanity one data point at a time. As the film begins, Amygdala is about to go public. Huge amounts of money are on the line. The company is under increased scrutiny, and its CEO—seen first conducting a remote, COVID-era interview from home with formal dress on top and less formal bottom half out of camera shot—is under a lot of pressure. Especially once you consider some of the shady sh*t we see him involved in at the outset. It’s not long before Angela, in the middle of working through a raft of audio streams from around the world, stumbles upon one that gives her pause. On the first hearing, it just sounds like a wall of loud music, but Angela’s trained ear picks up something else. Is there evidence of a violent crime buried deep in the mix? In order to get to the bottom of things, Angela will have to overcome not just technological and bureaucratic barriers, but also her own acute agoraphobia.

Kimi is very much a film of two halves, both in terms of structure and quality. The story is broken up into two distinct sections: The first sees us spending the vast majority with Angela in her very roomy, very expensive-looking Seattle apartment. Here Soderbergh’s camera makes full use of the surroundings, exploring the space from different angles and utilising so many of the moves that the director is known for. The effect is palpable: We feel Angela’s confinement, we become intimately familiar with her cell, and we empathise with her as a result. Naturally, considering the inevitable arc of Angela’s story, she will have to leave the apartment at some point if she wants to get to the bottom of the mystery that she has stumbled upon. When she does, Soderbergh switches things up, trading the deliberate and steady camera for a smorgasbord of techniques, again designed to bring us into Angela’s head space. Whereas inside she may have been trapped, she had things under control. Outside, it’s all canted angles, disorienting perspectives and movements, and nausea-inducing colours and sounds (not to any extreme, Irreversible-level degree, mind you—this is measured and moderate, yet effective, stuff).

The cleave in quality can be gleaned in the gap between the direction and the writing. Kimi’s script—by none other than ninth most successful screenwriter of all time, David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Angels & Demons, among many others)—is efficient in a bracing and welcome way, but it also has its share of shortcomings. Kravitz gives Angela more depth than the lean text grants her; some of the villains of the piece are a little bit ludicrous in their characterisation; and everything is wrapped up far too neatly—and in some ways counter-thematically—in the end. I’m not one to complain about ‘things not making sense’ and ‘plot holes’ in a story. As long as the emotional reality is coherent and dramatic structure well done, gaps in logic and weaknesses in the mechanics of the narrative can be easily overlooked. Here, however, there is some combination of the two, and it cannot be ignored. Bonus points should be given to the moments of humour throughout, however, which add a welcome (and quite Soderbergh-ian) touch to what could have otherwise been a too grim story.

Sorry that every article or review of mine has to keep bringing everything back to The State Of Things And The World, but considering the state of the film industry as it stands, a film like Kimi—for all its flaws—should be celebrated, and watched by many. As Soderbergh himself said not long ago: ‘Cinema is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.’ We should give our attention to films and filmmakers that fight back against this trend. By and large, Kimi is a clever and effective little thriller, an original, well-made film for grown-ups. In the parlance of our asinine times, this may not be the best of the Steven Soderbergh Cinematic Universe, but it’s well worthy of inclusion in it. Kimi ain’t no High Flying Bird in other words, but—in the parlance of earlier, simpler times—it is a solid rental.

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