Steven Soderbergh isn’t the type to typically make a sci-fi movie. Recently, he told The Daily Beast that he’s “just too earthbound to really release myself to a universe in which Newtonian physics doesn't exist.” He cites a “lack of imagination in that regard,” saying the “one foray I had into pure science-fiction [2002’s Solaris] was essentially a character drama that happened to be set on a spaceship.”
Soderbergh is selling himself short here. Several great sci-fi movies, like Alien, Arrival, and Gravity, could be described the same way, and their imagination is never in doubt. Sci-fi can be a hero’s journey like Star Wars, a dystopian noir like Blade Runner, or a mystery like Contact. If, as Isaac Asimov said, the genre is based around “the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology," then Soderbergh’s latest, Kimi, is undoubtedly sci-fi. It’s also terrific.
Soderbergh makes it clear from the start that a Kimi device, while functionally similar to an Alexa or Google Home, is different. It’s different because it’s better. And the improvements come from people, says CEO Bradley Haslings (Derek DelGaudio, a magician making his movie debut). Haslings’ minions find phrases that Kimi is struggling with and improve her algorithm by addressing her confusion.
It’s a job that sounds similar to, say, content moderation at Facebook, which is exactly the job Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) used to have. Angela lives a life of routine defined by her work at Kimi. She listens to one Kimi recording after another, clarifying that “kitchen paper” means “paper towels” and so on.
The plot doesn’t rely on Covid-19, but Soderbergh set it in the transitional period when the strictest lockdowns were over but everyone was still using Zoom for appointments. As a recent piece in Variety noted, Covid “hasn’t yet made its way into many series and movies” despite being a multi-year pandemic the whole planet is aware of. That could be credited to emotional exhaustion, just as moviegoers in the Great Depression often turned to feel-good musicals.
Covid is indeed exhausting, but Soderbergh’s trick is to not foreground the disease. Covid isn’t all-consuming for Angela, but the pandemic has heightened and intensified her long-standing agoraphobia, knocking back years of progress she’s made with her mother (Robin Givens), her therapist (Emily Kuroda), and even her dentist (David Wain).
The pandemic didn’t just create new problems. As Kimi shows, it made pre-existing ones a whole lot worse. In Angela’s case, there’s only one other person she can physically be around, her neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers). They have a sexual relationship, but Angela’s social life is almost entirely in stasis.
Angela notices a disturbing call on a Kimi device, at first just a scream covered up by noise. Soderbergh, a director who’s always known how to do a lot with a little, uses sound wonderfully as Angela fiddles around with the audio to determine what’s being said. Her noise-canceling headphones suddenly make the ambient noise of the street go quiet, and the viewer’s attention heightens.
As Angela goes against orders to ignore the Kimi recording, her discoveries get increasingly disturbing. She’s hearing a serious sexual assault, and it becomes clear that the attacker is Haslings, who has a hitman named Rivas (Jaime Camil) attempt a coverup.
Kimi is crammed full of topical themes, from #MeToo and Covid to content moderation and mental health. Reading about it makes it sound like it’s ripped from the headlines, but Kimi has a sense of timelessness. The movie starts to take the shape of a classic Hitchcock thriller like Rear Window or North by Northwest, where ordinary people suddenly find themselves caught up in a vast conspiracy. The score by Cliff Martinez accentuates this feeling with its dreamy, bubbly vibe.
Soderbergh’s never-ending quest to explore the zeitgeist has, ironically, led him to a piece of fascinating science fiction. Like another of his movies, Unsane, Kimi is about a person who has a problem and is trying to get better. But here, Soderbergh has found one of his most effective pairings: A paranoid movie for a paranoid age.
Kimi is streaming on HBO Max now.