Steven Soderbergh’s latest impersonal, production-line effort – if only he really had retired – is pretty dumb but also highly efficient. Which counts for something when mounting a claustrophobic thriller. The director previously unleashed pandemic propaganda flick Contagion on a pliant audience and has more recently applied himself to whatever safe, popular, good liberal narrative exercises tickled to his rather eclectic fancy, be they the low-fruit Panama-Papers “exposé” The Laundromat or last year’s disastrous, uber-woke Oscar Ceremony. Here, he’s servicing more of the same – plandemic backdrop; a proliferation of obedient mask junkies; nominal threat of pervasive surveillance tech as a sub for actual commentary; proactive heroine who does for the villains – but it largely delivers. That is, if you can excuse screenwriter David Koepp’s frankly ludicrous central conceit.
Koepp’s laying on the premise a bit thick as it is. It would surely be sufficient were Angela (Zoë Kravitz), pilloried by propaganda about the coof, simply terrified of leaving her spacious apartment – she must get paid a packet – but she also has pre-existing agoraphobia. And OCD. And toothache. She’s a tech analyst for the Amygdala Corporation, reviewing error responses in its KIMI device – an Alexa-like virtual assistant – and encoding solutions. When, through Blow Out-esque isolation of an audio recording and some rather naff subjective visuals on Soderbergh’s part, Angela hears what she believes is a murder, she informs her superiors. Wouldn’t you know it, though, the guy who ordered the murder is only the CEO of Amygdala (Derek DelGaudio), eager to make as much as he can from the firm’s imminent IPO. What are the chances, eh? Of all the rotten luck, that Angela should stumble on a murder by her own (ultimate) boss.
If you can get past that – and I absolutely wouldn’t blame you if you can’t – Soderbergh ratchets up the tension as Angela ventures out into terrifying, coof-infested Seattle, only to be confronted by something even more terrifying. That’s right, her (immediate) boss is none other than Mrs Guantanamo Hanks herself, Rita Wilson – there’s no way she can be good! True to form, she reneges on her promise to Angela (“I thought that you said we would do it in the presence of the FBI”), and it isn’t long before the latter is hotfooting it through the streets, pursued by a couple of armed assassins (Jacob Vargas and Charles Halford).
There’s a top-notch sequence in which Angela is strong-armed into a waiting van, a crowd of Stop the Sweeps protesters coming to her aid (what the protesters’ presence is about is unclear: a genuine concern raised by Soderbergh, or looking forward to no one owning anything – like their own houses à la Nomadland – and being happy?) In due course, she makes it back to her apartment, where it turns out the overweight nosy neighbour (Devin Ratray) is not a sinister peeper at all. Or maybe he is, but he can still be a hero. Angela manages to turn the tables on her assailants in a manner as unlikely as her accidentally discovering her CEO is a murderer, but this nevertheless makes for a satisfyingly ramped-up denouement.
Kravitz sports blue hair throughout, suggests she’s auditioning for The Fifth Element or Run Lola Run. Although, in this case, the hair seems there to distract from her lack of personality; it’s also a great aid to any unassuming assassins in the vicinity, as you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Soderbergh is careful to include lots of loving shots of Kravitz in her skimpies. But forget about that: his messaging on the dangers of unchecked tech is about as ground-breaking as his earlier acclaim for covering the energy industry’s environmental pollution and the war on drugs. It could even be argued that KIMI is instrumental in Angela winning out, so perhaps AI’s our friend? Nevertheless, she is outraged to discover her bosses know her mental health history (“Why is that in my file?”) and that she gave permission for her data to be recorded in aid of a retinal scan (the old terms-and-conditions ruse).
Soderbergh is as preoccupied with Angela’s mental state as the thriller mechanics, perhaps unsurprising, given his previous forays Side Effects and Unsane (and before that, Kafka and Schizopolis). Her brain-care specialist (Emily Kuroda) is evidently tired of her patient’s shit and reminds her of the dangers of obsessiveness, of “thinking about something to the exclusion of all else, like the virus. Like Evergreen”. This is then mentioned again (“What happened to you at Evergreen?”) There can be no coincidence that Koepp and Sodebergh dropped this in – well, about as much of one as discovering Angela’s boss is the murderer – so the question is what we’re supposed to divine from it. The instant assumption must be that Angela has previously cried wolf, that she has a history of “false” or conspiratorial mindset claims. That seems to be the allusion, as the reference is surely intended to dismiss the idea the Evergreen vessel in the Suez Canal was involved in child trafficking.
So… Angela is right this time, but she was wrong on that occasion (let’s not forget Contagion, where MSM-in-indie-clothing Soderbergh vilified the alt-medicine view via Jude Law’s self-promoting truther)? Or should we believe her Evergreen story too? Isn’t that the credo of #MeToo? After all, that would support the assumption she’s a reliable witness who has a history of being falsely accused (“I was assaulted, and the police put me on trial instead of him”: a kind of extreme inversion of #MeToo) Unless her remarkable adeptness with a nail gun – Koepp relying on Chekov’s Upstairs Building Work for her weapon of choice – as she comes on like some kind of T2 Sarah Connor or Halloween 2/9 Laurie Strode, is meant to suggest she has history of putting down toxic men. No, I suspect not.
Either way. KIMI’s message seems to be that, in order to get over one’s agoraphobia, one ought to kill two or three people. Never fails. The picture features an unenviable cameo from Erika Christensen. I wonder how that conversation went (“Hi Erika. Last time we worked together, you played a junkie. Now I want you to be horribly murdered. It will only take up two minutes of screen time. Deal?”)
When asked about his work in the ’90s, the director commented “I wasn’t sure what kind of films I wanted to make”. You’d be forgiven for assuming very little had changed. Since coming out of “retirement” in 2017, Soderbergh’s movies have been largely missable – at least, those I haven’t missed – and I suspect KIMI’s built-in obsolescence (no one will want to be reminded of the good old coof days) will do it no favours in that regard. Mostly, it’s standard Soderbergh: methodical, clinical, austere, coolly calculated and distancing. The sort of thing a KIMI would shoot if it were a filmmaker.
First published by Now in Full Color on 13/02/22.