For a couple of decades now, Steven Soderbergh’s “little” movies — the lo-fi dramas, often quirky thrillers, that he makes as palate cleansers in between his higher profile projects — have been a pleasurably idiosyncratic, off-on-his-own-cloud thing. Some of them are good (like “Bubble” and “Side Effects”), some are meh (like “Haywire”), and one is great (“The Girlfriend Experience”); none of them make much of an impact in the marketplace. Yet you feel the pulse of filmmaking fervor in them. You could say they’re Soderbergh’s protest against blockbusterization, a way of reminding his audience, and maybe himself, that a few simple elements — story, actors, camera angles — can still add up to what a movie is. Only now, at a time of slow-motion crisis in the industry (will audiences come back to theaters?) and seriously over-inflated budgets, Soderbergh’s latest little movie, the nimble and sinister cyber-age corporate thriller “Kimi,” plays as an object lesson in showing us a way forward. It’s a welcome reminder that less, in the movies, can sometimes be more.
It’s also an art-suspense pastiche that’s clever enough to hook you. More than half the film is set in a spacious, second-floor renovated industrial loft condo in Seattle, where Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a waifish millennial in a wavy bob of blue hair, stares out her window, taking in the late-morning sun as she checks out the neighbors in the apartment building across the street (a couple of them look back). She then turns to her computer screen, where she works as a voice-stream interpreter for The Amygdala Corporation, which markets a Siri-like virtual assistant called Kimi.
We know that today’s faceless tech giants — Google, Facebook — don’t just run on algorithms, that there are human intermediaries manipulating the action behind the scenes. Yet how all that operates remains vague (which is part of its monolithic design). Angela, who one worked for Facebook, now has a job that entails listening in on the streams of commands that Kimi receives and steering the app in how it performs. It’s a task she can do from home, and that’s one of several factors that combine to give her an air of agoraphobia. There’s the pandemic. There’s the fact that she’s still recovering from a dark chapter in her past. And there’s her general vibe of hipster standoffishness, which extends to the lawyer in the apartment across the street (Byron Bowers), who she summons on texts for booty calls but is too distant to actually hang out with. On the computer, she talks to her mother (Robin Givens), her shrink (Emily Kuroda), and a vodka-guzzling Romanian tech consultant (Alex Dobrenko) who insists on calling her “Hotness” (explaining that #MeToo is still 50 years away in Romania). “Kimi,” among other things, is a projection of the world-mediated-through-a-screen Covid isolation blues.
Adding to the solitary vibe is that on this particular day, Angela hears a stream that gives her the chills, with threatening noises (a fight, a struggle, maybe a squelched scream) buried under a din of pulsating music. So she scrapes away the other sonic tracks, the better to hear the crime that may have taken place. The dude from Romania provides her with a dummy admin code to tap into the computer the noises came from.
In case you were wondering, yes, we have been here before. Not specifically in a Soderbergh film, but in “The Conversation” (where Gene Hackman played a solitary surveillance snoop who realizes he may have recorded a murder), and in a handful of other cinematic references that Soderbergh does winking homage to: “Blow-Up,” “Rear Window,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — and, in a funny way, the recycling spirit of Brian De Palma, who’s evoked through the film’s voluptuous old-fashioned musical score, by Cliff Martinez, which sounds like an homage to the Hitchcock/Herrmann homages of Pino Donaggio.
Zoë Kravitz holds the screen with her cool austerity, her impassive façade hinting at heavy anxieties just beneath. When Angela uncovers video footage, through Kimi, of what those noises were, it’s disturbing in the extreme, the way that the homicides in “Michael Clayton” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” were. We see murder in the movies almost every day, but it’s the rare film that’s grounded in the real world enough to remind us that murder is something ordinary people commit. Strung out with fear, Angela is, at long last, driven out of her apartment by the order to share her discovery with the authorities at work, who have promised to call the FBI. The lobby floor of the Amygdala office is out of a technocratic sci-fi movie (the future is here! At least in elevator banks), but it may be less scary than the people she’s reporting to.
“Kimi” marks the first time that Soderbergh has collaborated with the screenwriter David Koepp, who has long been a rock-solid mainstream talent (“Jurassic Park,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Panic Room”), and the essential design of Koepp’s script — everything about it, really — is standard issue: the isolated hacker heroine, the discovery of a crime linked in shadowy ways to corporate malfeasance, her scheme to do an end run around the conspiracy, the whole thing culminating in a last-act action face-off.
So why did I say that “Kimi” shows us a way forward? Because the fun of the movie lies in the modestly budgeted sparkle and foreboding ingenuity of Soderbergh’s direction. He’s become the Samuel Fuller of minimalist indie kicks. His filmmaking joy comes through everywhere — in the way that as the (uncredited) cinematographer, he frames each shot like a sentence in a story; in the hypnotically cryptic exchanges between The Amygdala’s CEO (Derek DelGaudio) and a black-op associate (Jaime Camil); in Rita Wilson’s insinuating small performance as a “reassuring” office manager; in the way that the camera rushes up to Angela like a stalking demon during her existential dash through a Seattle of alienating streets and embracing protesters; and in how a nail gun becomes an immensely satisfying weapon. If we’re going to wind up watching anything in our movie theaters besides Marvel fantasies, we need a return to the spirit of this kind of filmmaking. The kind that can coax thrills out of something human.