In Kimi, the new film from director Steven Soderbergh, Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs, a quality control worker for a fledging tech company. Her employer’s main product is a virtual personal assistant device called Kimi, and its distinctive attribute is that it incorporates human assessment into the machine learning to address shortcoming in the AI. Angela clicks through recordings of instances where the device responded incorrectly to a user’s request, writing fragments of code that, for example, help the system in the future identify “kitchen paper” as regional slang for paper towels. The tedious work is suited to Angela, whose trauma-induced agoraphobia makes her most comfortable staying ensconced in her own apartment, plodding through a ceaseless stream of audio snippets. The inevitable complication arrives when one of the tech errors in his queue isn’t a faulty response to a playlist prompt or some other innocuous computer slip-up, but is instead the disturbing sounds of apparent assault.
Soderbergh’s film owes a little something to Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window and a whole lot to Brian De Palma’s Blowout (which of course owed almost everything to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup). There’s a little bit of The Conversation to its welling — and justified — paranoia, and it echoes any number of modern tech-thrillers that build tension through the rapid-paced clacking of plastic keyboards. Kimi also has a director with a slam-bang command of craft and a gift for making the mechanics of narrative hum with melodic certainty. Soderbergh clearly revels in the challenges of keeping the film visually dynamic with a minimum of distracting fussiness when the action is confined to Angela’s enviably spacious apartment. Outside of that situation, he has the opportunity to get yet more creative, essentially delivering a master class in effective use of the basics of camera placement and astute editing.
Soderbergh’s longstanding gift with actors — much of it predicated on the very basic principle of giving them to time and space to properly dig into their characterizations — is evident in the performance of Kravitz. She’s never been better than she is here, smartly conveying both the wounded vulnerability and the defensively developed protective armor of Angela. There’s a scalding intelligence to the portrayal, which provides the welcome sense that Angela isn’t blundering into trouble because of poor decisions, too often the necessary plot driver of thrillers, but because she doggedly insists on following an admirable moral code. Kravitz makes the character’s strengths and weaknesses equally believable and equally compelling.
David Koepp’s screenplay, and Soderbergh’s shepherding of it, hit on very current concerns of privacy in a sneakily interconnected world. That subtext (well, it’s probably overt enough to simply consider it text) provides some added heft to Kimi. Welcome as it is, the commentary on how we live now is a pleasant bonus rather than a necessary component of the film’s success. As a snappy entertainment and a demonstration of filmmaking technique, Kimi is splendid.