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‘KIMI’ Film Review: Zoë Kravitz Uncovers a Secret in Steven Soderbergh’s Brisk, Familiar Thriller

Both the COVID pandemic and our lack of digital privacy make a compelling backdrop for some Hitchcockian plotting

While practically every other filmmaker seems to be pretending that the pandemic never happened, setting their films either before the plague or so far afterward that nobody talks about it anymore, Steven Soderbergh is out there mining the, shall we say, unique circumstances of the last few years for Hitchcockian thrills in “KIMI.”

It’s a low-budget, high-concept thriller that’s refreshingly contemporary on the surface, even though it’s pretty conventional at its core.

Zoë Kravitz stars as Angela Childs, who works for a tech company selling an Alexa-like device called “KIMI.” It works basically the same way all the real voice-activated technology you use does, except whenever it fails to understand a voice command, an actual human being listens to the recording to determine where the mistake was made, and correct KIMI’s programming to prevent future borks.

And if that sounds like a really terrible idea, if only because it’s more of an invasion of privacy than usual (which is already a lot), “KIMI” agrees with you. The plot kicks off when Angela, who’s responsible for correcting that code, overhears what sounds like a violent crime. After some audio scrubbing and not-entirely-legal digital digging, she’s convinced that it’s up to her bosses at the Amygdala Corporation to do the right thing and give all this evidence to the authorities, and definitely not to engage in a deadly corporate cover-up that makes Angela the target.

Yup, that last part sure would be bad. Of course that’s exactly what happens. Making matters worse, Angela is agoraphobic and refuses to leave her apartment, a condition only exacerbated by the recent COVID lockdown, which severely limits her options and makes going to the home office to file a report about as relaxing as an orbital spacewalk in a leaky helmet.

The screenplay by David Koepp (“You Should Have Left”) is a hearty melange of classic and not-so-classic thrillers, with a little bit of “Rear Window,” quite a bit of “Hackers,” and a whole lot of “Blow Up,” “Blow Out,” and “The Conversation.” Angela even has a toothache, just in case you were worried Koepp hadn’t seen “Marathon Man” recently.

But all these clockwork pieces fit reasonably well together, except for the misaligned main cog. The whole plot revolves around the fact that KIMI is easily hackable and not at all secure, and yet the main plot point is that someone knew all that and collected and stored all the evidence on KIMI anyway. That doesn’t just strain credulity; it kinda breaks it. (Never mind the fantasy that simply exposing all this wrongdoing would result in meaningful consequences for the wealthy criminals involved, a familiar storytelling resolution that seems increasingly less plausible with every passing year.)

Fortunately, the rest of “KIMI” has credulity out the gills, and that mostly makes up for any missteps. Using the pandemic as an incidental source of anxiety in a paranoiac thriller adds plausibility to the film. A clever set piece at a police protest is both topical and unexpectedly empowering. Perhaps best and certainly scariest of all, “KIMI” repeatedly explodes the online security theater we so often take for granted, reminding us that Angela — like everyone watching at home — has already voluntarily waived our rights to privacy, and any tech company worth its salt wouldn’t be stymied by our laptop passwords. They already have those. And our personal records. And probably our retinal scans.

The worst one can probably say about “KIMI” is that it’s a formulaic thriller, with few (if any) surprises for the film’s target audience of thriller enthusiasts. But Soderbergh and Koepp strive and mostly succeed at making this old-fashioned potboiler feel modern and relevant. Zoë Kravitz carries the whole movie on capable shoulders, and the brisk 89-minute run time prevents any part of “KIMI” from wearing out its welcome.

It’s a snack of a movie, not so much a full meal, and that’s OK. There’s a lot of energy in this film; more than enough to get you through your afternoon.

“Kimi” premieres Thursday on HBO Max.

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