In theory, a “plague-era surveillance capitalism thriller” doesn’t sound particularly sexy, but it’s a term one might coin to describe Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “Kimi.” There are moments where “Kimi” certainly feels like a pandemic movie: decrepit jokes about work-from-home life or the individually wrapped Purell wipes in the protagonist’s Seattle loft. Yet in its brightest moments, COVID-19 is merely a prop, catalyzing the corrupt and sinister wielding of technology by power structures — something that will be around long after the pandemic fizzles.
Soderbergh’s highly specific, topical concept for “Kimi” is commendable — a thriller centered on the voice interpreter of the eponymous AI speaker — but malfunctions in its transition to become a fully realized product. It’s no secret that we’re living in a surveillance state, and Soderbergh navigates this disarming feature of late capitalism with varying ease and acerbity. Like the film’s Alexa stand-in, “Kimi” can’t quite figure out how to get rid of its bugs.
The human face behind Kimi is disgruntled agoraphobic millennial Angela Childs, played by a sulky and blue-bobbed Zoe Kravitz. Angela works for the Amygdala corporation as one of the workers diagnosing malfunctions and shortcomings in Kimi’s software.
In pandemic times, Angela’s agoraphobia doesn’t hamper her ability to function all that much. Everything comes to her, whether it’s her frequent hook up Terry (Byron Bowers) from across the street or her therapist via Zoom.
“Kimi” has a distinctly “Rear Window” mood to it, albeit with 21st-century modifications. Much of Angela’s relationship with Terry takes place behind glass, through window panes or iPhone screens. The quad-like mapping of her apartment complex (and its convenient lack of blinds) enables a benevolent stalker to observe her every move.
While the film’s first act stagnates and struggles to gain momentum, Angela retrieves a kombucha bottle from her fridge — the Kevita brand, immediately recognizable and shameless product placement — and she sets it precariously down on the very edge of the countertop. This strange, probiotic Chekov’s gun goes off just minutes later when she’s met with an unnerving discovery: a Kimi recording that seemingly depicts a violent rape and murder.
This realization finally kicks “Kimi” into gear, bringing it into sharper focus. The disaffected Angela, spurred on by both her own history of sexual violence and the bureaucratic snags she runs into, ventures outside. A shaky handheld camera follows her comically robotic, mini Ugg-boot trek through the streets of Seattle — an ineffective and inexplicable acting choice.
Kravitz is lackluster in “Kimi.” Angela doesn’t quite feel like a real person. Her callousness and frigidity toward her loved ones feel egregious, even when examined in the context of her past traumas. Angela’s shortcomings, however, cannot be solely chalked up to bad writing; some of it is undoubtedly a product of Kravitz’s performance, which remains one-note and drab, at times only a slight permutation of her similarly shut-in character on “High Fidelity.”
The second half of “Kimi” may be sanded-down and sleeker, but it remains contrived, sorely unmoored from the realm of plausibility and uninterested in the realm of hyper-reality. The plot moves forward with convenient ease to serve a purpose that is less profound and incisive than it is didactic. Occasionally effective, “Kimi” occasionally reflects a trite phenomenon of older directors creating “provocative” art within the narrow confines of liberal politics.
In the years following the commercial success of his films, Soderbergh has refined and distilled his scope into morsels of clarity. Yet, there are enough elements in “Kimi” to slightly knock it off-kilter. The film’s conspicuous product placement makes more sense as a celebration of late capitalism than an indictment of it. It’s this inconsistency that drives the nail into the coffin, with the same zeal as Angela aiming her nail gun.