KIMI shows the impact isolation and big tech have had on our mental health

KIMI shows the impact isolation and big tech have had on our mental health

Introduction

Hey Kweens and Kings,

This is a review for Kimi. Kimi is a thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh and set during the COVID-19 pandemic. This movie is available on HBO Max right now. I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, I thought it was a really tight 90-minute thriller. It’s maybe the first time I’ve seen any semblance of my life throughout the pandemic portrayed in film. There are three things I want to talk about with this movie: I want to talk about the relatable plot elements. I want to talk about its efficient narrative. I also want to talk about the look of the film specifically the costume design.

Background

This review marks a minor landmark for me. I used to do these movie reviews in my car and I got progressively higher production through to March 2020, when I decided to expand the scope of this channel by doing deeper analysis on movies that are not new releases, but older movies I love and want to talk about. The first movie I talked about with this new scope was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I think you can guess why I picked it at the time. That movie came out in 2012 and depicted what life might be like during a pandemic, so Kimi is a good companion piece as a film set during the actual pandemic we all experienced.

Soderbergh is one of the best directors working today. He is a workhorse and uniquely unpretentious about his relationship with the medium. He makes mass market films with big stars like Ocean’s Eleven, but he also makes independent films shot on iPhones such as Unsane and High Flying Bird. He’s made comedies and dramas before, but I really like his thrillers. Kimi may be one of his best thrillers. I saw a tweet in reference to this film that said “Steven Soderbergh has never wasted my time.” I think that’s an excellent summary of his career’s work and this film specifically

Premise

Kimi is set in a modern day Seattle with the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. This film is not about the pandemic, but its influence on the story is obvious. The main character is Angela Childs played by Zoe Kravitz, who is an employee of a corporation that makes a smart device known as “Kimi.” The Kimi devices are identical to an Amazon Echo or Google Home, you talk to it to give it commands. Angela’s job is to troubleshoot misunderstandings between the device and its users. She listens to hours of people asking the device to do something, then getting frustrated and screaming at it for hearing them wrong. Angela’s job is to go in there and with her human touch and resolve the issues, thereby making the device better over time.

One day Angela hears a voice log that appears to be evidence of a crime. She feels compelled to report the incident, but her employer is not supportive of getting authorities involved. She decides to take matters into her own hands. This story has a lot of similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. That film was about a man with a broken leg seeing a murder in another apartment from his rear window. This movie has a similar premise but with a modern twist.

Relatable Plot Elements

One of the reasons I was so engaged by this film is because of its setting in the modern day. A strange phenomenon of the modern era of art is how the reality of the audience’s life has not been portrayed in art. We experience rising anxiety and depression rates, supreme skepticism for new technology, an impending sense of doom, and historic cynicism for the future, but a lot of films are going on as if it’s 2010. To give one example, our relationship with smart devices has dramatically transformed our society but with the exception of Black Mirror or maybe Eighth Grade, I rarely see that reality implemented into modern film. We have known since Edward Snowden all our devices are listening to us, but that is also ignored in mainstream art. Kimi is very clearly set in a world with these factors in play which was a refreshing novelty.

It was nice to see a lot of current trends represented in the plot elements of the film and the most evident examples of that are in the main character Angela. A significant portion of this film takes place in Angela’s apartment because she is a remote worker in a city with lockdowns in place. Her remote work is kind of a bullshit job. I got the impression this company is employing hundreds of thousands of young workers in this dead-end job where they don’t develop any meaningful skills with really crap pay. I think that’s relatable to many people today. Although there was a disconnect for me between Angela’s job and the vast luxury of her apartment. It’s a single bedroom but it must be over $3,000 a month. I don’t know how she could afford that place.

Anyway, another relatable element of Angela’s character is her growing anxiety. She has been isolated and indoors for so long she’s developed an intense anxiety for going outside — verging on outright agoraphobia. Since she doesn’t go out much, she’s developed a relationship with her neighbors who are visible from her window. She also has few video calls throughout the story with key people in her life. All of this is very relatable to my own experience throughout the pandemic and I think that will be true for many others. I should say there’s nothing about making a setting relatable that makes it inherently better than any other setting. I enjoyed Kimi’s setting because although it is simply “in the modern day” it is a more honest portrayal of the modern day compared to other films. I think that makes it unique, which is good.   

Beyond Angela’s character, the broad strokes of the film’s plot are centered around the dismal morals of a major tech company. This is a story that is very caught up with the times and it’s not simply window dressing. There are pivotal sources of tension that are the result of the modern technology in this story. There’s one sequence toward the end of the film where Angela gives the Kimi device a string of commands that switch a situation in her favor. The narrative beats in Kimi are influenced by what’s possible with modern technology. This isn’t a story that could’ve been told at any point in time in anywhere else in the world. It uses the modern plot elements effectively. That may make this movie very dated in a few years, but for right now it’s pretty good.

Efficient Narrative

A significant factor to the freshness of this film is how efficient it is with its narrative. It feels like no single utterance is wasted by any of the characters. Almost everything set up about Angela’s character is used at some point in the film. The nature of her work, her anxiety, her background, and her relationships all influence the outcomes of her situation. I’ll give an example of this that doesn’t spoil the movie. There’s one scene where Angela is talking to a character and she sets a drink down on the counter and you can tell it’s really not in a stable position, but we move past the drink and think nothing of it. Soon after that conversation, Angela uncovers some information that is distressing to her, and the moment is made so much more impactful because the drink finally loses its balance and crashes to the floor. The loud disruptive sound creates a crescendo to a point of tension that would otherwise not have one, and it’s from a bottle that really has no significance otherwise. This movie is so good at stringing you along an ebb and flow of building tension and releasing it and it’s because of its efficiency redeploying these seemingly throwaway plot elements and integrating them back into the film for maximum effect.

Knowing how to use tension is a necessity for any thriller film, but what makes Kimi so good is how the film builds tension at such a small scale. I’ve personally grown tired of movies increasing the stakes for their universe. Like how Fast and the Furious began with stealing DVD Players and now they’re going to space. Not everything needs to be about saving the world. Early in this film, Angela makes plans to meet someone at a food truck which becomes a significant undertaking because of her anxiety for leaving her apartment. The way this film sets up this moment is so stress-inducing because the sequence is edited to show Angela is already very late for the meeting, but it continues to string us along while she rushes to get ready in time. Then when we’re already agonizing about how late she is, that’s when we see her anxiety kick in. We feel her anxiety because we can feel how rushed and late she feels. This sequence is a great example of building tension on a small scale, and it really takes a craftsman of the filmic language to create such a visceral impact on the audience over something that is otherwise inconsequential. Like she can just reschedule the meeting. But it doesn’t feel inconsequential because of how the film is made. A lot of Kimi is like this. I was very engaged by the film even when it’s establishing smaller details because it felt like everything had a purpose, which I would describe as an efficient narrative. 

Look of the film

The last thing I want to say about this movie is it has really beautiful shot composition. I think a lot of my love for the composition is the costume design around Angela’s character. Her signature look is the slate green jacket with the orange hoodie, and it just looks so damn cool. It’s so good I want to have a comic book series or a video game starring this character just because the look makes such an impression. That one outfit is the one that leaves a lasting impression, but really throughout the movie Angela wears these bright-colored outfits that really aid the color palette for each shot. The strong colors and high saturation are rare in the otherwise urban environment. Punching up the natural world with these unnaturally noticeable colors makes the film’s look visually distinct.

Of course, this is a Soderbergh film, so the camera movement is engaging in its own right. There’s an extended period where Angela experiences an immense amount of anxiety, and it is presented as a handheld dutch angle — conveying the unease of the character in the instability of the shot. It’s kind of an easy creative decision, but it was very effective at conveying what the character was feeling. There’s also one shot of a bird’s eye view on Angela which evokes the feeling of her being tracked by a GPS. I thought that was an inventive shot that’s thrown into an otherwise very grounded film. I’ve come to expect these high quality shots from a Soderbergh film, but I still appreciate them all the same.

Closing Thoughts

Kimi has everything you would want from a modern-day thriller. It makes use of its setting and integrates every plot element to service the narrative. It has really masterful manipulation of tension across the film. It’s also has a strong visual style, in addition to its gripping screenplay. I’ve read some criticism that this movie a hodge-podge of elements from other better movies, which may be true but I don’t think it detracted from my enjoyment. I’d give this film a 4 out of 5. It’s the exact kind of high-quality craftsmanship I’d expect from a Steven Soderbergh film. I think this story’s relevancy to our current moment is what makes it unique and so engaging for someone today. It may not be as interesting a few years from now, but as of right now it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen recently and I highly recommend it.  

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