Steven Soderbergh’s newest tech thriller, KIMI, raises one of the more interesting questions I’ve had to ask in recent cinema. Namely, how unlikable can you make your ostensible protagonist before the viewers start rooting for the bad guys to win? Because, wow, just wow did I hate this lead character, so much so that an altogether intriguing and suspenseful concept comes off as chintzy, pulp trash due to how far she brings down the proceedings.
The film unfolds in what would normally be a quite brisk 90 minutes, were it not for the fact that we spend at least half that time establishing the myriad flaws of Angela Childs (so immature that she’s literally called a child about a third of the way through), played by Zoë Kravitz. She carries the vast majority of the film, to the point that the second-billed actress, Rita Wilson, only has one scene on camera and a phone conversation. I will say that Kravitz plays the role well. She is certainly a convincingly bad character and she fully commits to the conceit, but that doesn’t change the fact that Angela is an objectively horrible person.
Set in Seattle in the present day, pandemic and all, Angela works as a tech analyst for a company called Amygdala (named after the fear center of the brain, a meta joke that’s really clever if you’re a first-year film student), which manufactures the titular AI digital assistant, and is preparing for its initial public offering on the stock market due to the device’s success.
Already we’ve encountered the first major problem, as this film takes place in a COVID environment (likely a side effect of having to film under pandemic restrictions), but one where a new piece of personal technology has become ubiquitous, even though in reality, no such thing has come to pass. As such, until they made it absolutely clear that this was the here and now, I was left to ponder what sort of universe we were in, whether the film was set in the near future or some sort of parallel world. Because to simply accept this literal plot device — one that is introduced as a competitor to the likes of Siri and Alexa rather than as a parody or commentary — is an extraordinarily large ask from the movie mere moments in. This expectation of immediately taking everything at face value is unfortunately a trend that continues throughout.
Anyway, Angela, sporting bright blue hair that would rival Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim (her changing it to blonde later feels like an insult to people who make fashion choices independent of personal trauma), is an absolute mess of a person. She’s a shut-in to the point of being agoraphobic. This manifests itself in moments like bailing on her fuck buddy, Terry (Byron Bowers) for a “date” at the food truck literally parked in between their respective apartment buildings, and demanding that her dentist simply write a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers when in reality she needs a root canal, but absolutely refuses to leave the house and go to his office. She is an addict, self-medicating from tons of different pill bottles, and if that wasn’t obvious enough, she works out to Billie Eilish’s “Oxytocin.” In an obvious reference to Rear Window, she openly spies on her neighbors from her living room, and is in turn monitored by others. She’s so afraid of germs that half of her scenes involve her obsessively putting on hand sanitizer and waving her palms like a tiny bird. Her house key chain is the puzzle piece symbol for autism.
Now, all of this could work if Angela’s behaviors were ever dialed down from their constant level of “bitch on wheels.” Sadly, they are not. She is curt and rude with everyone she talks to, even when their sole purpose is to help her. In addition to telling her dentist how to do his job, she shows up late to an online therapy session, only to pull the computer equivalent of the “oh no, you’re breaking up” phone excuse to cut things off the moment her shrink dares mention the possibility of finding ways to cope with her issues and move forward with her life. She insists on everything being done on her exact terms with no flexibility, be it a construction crew working on the unit upstairs from her during normal business hours (she insists they only work outside of them, even though most of her work involves wearing noise-cancelling headphones) or her own booty calls, scolding Terry for coming up to her apartment without buzzing the doorbell first because someone let him in as they were passing, then rather than talk to the man post-coitus, she strips the bed to wash the sheets, a non-verbal command for him to leave the moment he’s satisfied her needs. She demands total adherence to every condition of her mere participation in the goings on of the planet, but offers nothing in return. And we want her to survive whatever’s coming?
Even more infuriating is that we get no explanation for any of this behavior until the halfway point of the movie, and even then it’s problematic. I’ll get to that shortly, but it really is unnerving that so much time is spent establishing how god-awful of a person she is, yet the film still insists that we root for her. Everything else from the first 45 minutes is just setting up moments to come later that are painfully obvious. We’re not talking Chekhov’s Gun here, but an entire arsenal. Hell, there’s an absolutely meaningless scene where Angela drinks something from a glass bottle, then sets it precariously on the edge of her kitchen counter, only for the camera to linger on it so that we know it’s there when it inevitably falls off and shatters on the floor a few minutes later to make her jump. It serves no purpose other than what I’m sure is an unintentional one of telling us just how blatant all of our payoffs will be down the road.
So, back to the story, and if you’re upset that I’ve spent so long ignoring it for tangents about Angela, imagine how bad it was to watch. Her job with Amygdala is to manually adjust KIMI’s algorithm whenever an error occurs. This is how the personal assistant differs from its counterparts, as explained by CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGuadio) in an opening expository zoom interview. KIMI has a literal human element that can be corrected, rather than self-altering code. There is the briefest inquiry about the implications of this system, as it essentially creates a delayed surveillance state via a corporate entity, but bafflingly, it’s never really explored. Instead, we see Angela performing more mundane tasks like writing lines of code to explain slang terms to the system, or to enable it to recognize a request for “Me” by Taylor Swift as a call for an individual track rather than creating a personalized Taylor Swift playlist for the user. Again, an interesting avenue for commentary — if nothing else than to show that anyone who would request that song should have their tech access limited to a baby’s teething ring — but again, it’s just a demonstration of the most basic capabilities of the app, coupled with jokes about how it always responds with its trademark, “I’m here” every time you say the name, regardless of context. I mean, who would want to truly understand the thing that the movie’s named after, right?
One day, while clearing her log of erroneous streams, Angela comes across a recording of loud music, through which she can faintly hear what appears to be a woman screaming. Using a closet full of audio equipment that is definitely not part of her work station but is given no explanation for its existence, she’s able to isolate the people talking, revealing what she believes to be a violent crime on the level of sexual assault and murder.
Determined to help, she forwards the audio on to coworkers and supervisors (played by Andy Daly and Alex Dobrenko), who warn her about the danger inherent in what she’s doing, because she’s asserting criminal behavior well outside the purview of her job, herself using questionably legal means to do so. Speaking to Terry, he advises her to call the FBI, but she won’t do so until the person in charge of handling sensitive matters at Amygdala (Wilson) convinces her to come into the office and have a meeting with a third party who will contact the authorities.
When she finally ventures out of her house, scuttling around like a fugitive to avoid people as she makes her way to Amygdala headquarters, Angela is dismayed by the fact that she has to go through a retinal scan to get in, even though she never gave one to her employers in any official capacity that she’s aware of. Once again, a good point for exploration, but instead it’s another hand-wave joke about not reading the terms and conditions of the app.
The meeting with her boss does not go well, as she requests that Angela simply turn over the data she’s recorded and reneges on the third party due to a semantic technicality. When asked why Angela is so sure of what she heard, she initially uses the same line she’s used in multiple situations up to now, “because I said it was,” before revealing the real motivator for all her actions thus far, that she was the victim of a sexual assault and her attacker got away with it. All those monstrously illogical decisions and inexcusable behaviors for the past 40 minutes was building up to a #MeToo moment, which defeats its own purpose because it renders Angela as an unreliable narrator.
While the suits trying to find ways to dismiss the issue to avoid negative PR ahead of the IPO is an all-too real and sad statement on corporate America, it is once again a bit of one-off lip service to issues that need full explorations. But setting that aside, the questions Angela is asked are reasonable ones in a vacuum. Essentially she’s being asked to provide proof of a situation that, let’s face it, is imagined based on an audio recording, and instead of sharing that evidence (even on her own terms) all she’ll say is, “I said so,” and insist that it be enough, even though her assertion holds absolutely no weight, because she has no established credibility. She turns out to be right, because the movie needs her to be right in order to happen, but the case is far from ironclad. And given her personal history and accompanying intransigence, she ends up tacitly admitting to a bias that prevents her from being objective in this situation. As such, the first half of the film feels completely wasted, and I kind of want the character to have some comeuppance for the time suck.
Anyway, once all that bullshit is out of the way, the actual movie happens, with Angela being pursued by “thugs” (seriously, that’s how they’re credited; there are like, five named characters other than Angela) and assassins using surveillance technology and hacking abilities to track her down, attempting to silence her before she can go public. Imagine how futile this would be if she had just called the FBI right from the off as Terry suggested? This leads to an intriguing climax where Angela suddenly has to become a badass of self-defense, and cleverly use the established props to save herself.
If this were the entire film, I would have loved it, but unfortunately, we spent way too much time learning everything we never wanted to know about Angela (almost none of which is relevant to the story’s resolution) to establish nearly enough about the stakes of the situation, how KIMI truly factors in, or what facets of technology are useful for good, evil, and everything in between. We don’t even get enough time to enjoy the fact that in a climax that revolves around a staged home invasion, Angela’s peril is joined by her other peeping tom neighbor, played by Devin Ratray, best known as Buzz from Home Alone, and his name is KEVIN! That’s a great meta reference, especially considering the outcome of the story, but there’s no time to give it any meaningful attention.
In most cases, a 90-minute chase thriller would be just the right tempo, executed at a breakneck pace to match the digital speed of the tech that endangers and redeems Angela. Instead, we got a character study for someone who in hindsight didn’t deserve one, leaving us to rush through the end so fast that when it was over, I literally exclaimed, “Wait, that’s it?!” No explanation for how the crime was recorded (there’s a montage that implies a cause, but nothing concrete), no tangible connective tissue between the victim and the perpetrators (again, just a verbal statement that we’re supposed to assume is true), no background on the assassin (Jaime Camil) who sounds like Tommy Wiseau, no reason for Angela’s nameless mother (Robin Givens) to exist other than as a cheap ex machina to trigger the ending. Normally I’d be happy for a movie like this, one that knows what it needs to do and gets it done efficiently. Here, I was more thankful about how mercifully short the movie was given how little substance it cared to delve into. There are so many good ideas here, but just like his disastrous turn directing the Oscars last year, Steven Soderbergh decided to put all his eggs in one flashy basket hoping it would pay dividends, and it most certainly did not.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How reliant are you on your tech? Seriously, why wouldn’t she just call the feds? Let me know!