Steven Soderbergh is one of the few directors working today who still makes films that are acutely spatially oriented, even if they are ultimately about the devolution of lived space in the wake of widespread digital technology. In fact, Soderbergh’s return from retirement, and his shift to “late” work, has been marked primarily by his drive to re-embed the camera in physical, public space. Ironically, this has often required him to incorporate digital devices into his filming process, from the iPhone cinematography of High Flying Bird and Unsane to the interactive platform that was Mosaic’s original home. Throughout all these projects, he has tested the thresholds between digital and physical space in ever more experimental ways, producing a body of work that evokes a time when we live oddly suspended between the two.
Kimi is the next step in that process, and the first of Soderbergh’s films to explicitly thematise the pandemic, which he presents as ushering in a new and more precarious threshold between physical and digital space. In fact, Soderbergh presents the pandemic as a spatial shift on the scale of Cold War, suffusing his film with references to North by Northwest and The Conversation, two films that evoked the decline of public space at the start and end of that conflict. In doing so, he draws upon one of the most distinct genres to come out of the COVID-19 lockdowns, which were too overwhelming and confronting to produce a genre in real time, especially since at their height these periods shut down film production as well. The closest we came to a lockdown genre shot and distributed during lockdown was Doug Liman’s Locked Down, a dour affair that encapsulated the impossibility of lockdown cinema rather than paving the way for a new genre. It was an anti-genre, a disincentive to further discourse.
Interestingly, the final stages of Locked Down, when the two protagonists finally ventured out of their house, felt like a Soderbergh film. In the same way, the first post-lockdown genre also has qualities that are akin to Soderbergh’s universe. This is the genre of what might be described as the “window” film – stories of characters, usually women, who are isolated, either alone or with a partner, and start to construct morbid narratives about what they can see from their window. This genre doesn’t coincide, literally, with the end of lockdown, but instead registers a world that has been inexorably shaped by lockdown. Much as Soderbergh’s films capture a time when we live precariously suspended between our digital and physical selves, these post-lockdown films register a future in which we can move freely in physical space, but are still shaped by the virtual dramas that evolved over extended periods of lockdown. The genre includes films like The Woman in the Window and The Voyeurs, and was robust enough to generate a parody, The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, which extended the format into a Netflix serial, and permitted its protagonist to move around freely, thereby marking the shift to a post-lockdown milieu as a comic effect.
Kimi is a riff upon this formula, occurring much later in the piece than any of its predecessors, but also revolving around a character, Angela Childs (Zoe Kravitz), who has suffered acute agoraphobia since before the pandemic. Like Sawyer Valentini, the protagonist of Unsane, Angela’s agoraphobic is a symptom of Soderbergh’s spatial scheme, which is enhanced, but not exclusively created, by the conditions of the pandemic. Agoraphobia was also a trait of mid-century melodrama, which we see remediated here as the product of a partially digitised world. As occurs in so much melodrama, Soderbergh and Angela fixate on the thresholds of the home, which in this case is an apartment in downtown Seattle. In the wake of Covid, these have become sanitary thresholds – Angela keeps her keys, masks and wipes in a bowl beside her door, and sanitises after any interruption to her personal space, whether or not there’s a Covid risk. Her obsessiveness captures the profound sense of safety and security that came from being inside during lockdown, along with the instinctive drive back towards exterior spaces, which she expresses as a series of propulsive trajectories towards her door whenever she is trying to summon the courage to go out. Soderbergh embodies these in a series of equally manic tracking-shots, which end before they have to time to accelerate, and often feel like physical space itself combating a new digital threshold brought on by the pandemic.
As occurs in so many of these window films, Angela is largely left along with her own unconscious, which becomes hard to distinguish from her virtual and remote communication with her friends and neighbours. Most of her interactions occur with people who are very close physically (across the street, on the street, in the apartment upstairs) even though they’re virtual in nature. Soderbergh emphasises this virtual-physical cusp sooner than most other films in the genre, most notably in a panning shot that spans the street between Angela’s apartment, and the opposite block, where her romantic interest, Terry Hughes (Byron Bowers), lives. Just when this shot is building to a sweeping sense of place, Soderbergh overlays it with a text exchange between Angela and Terry, situating us at an awkward and almost ugly nexus between physical and digital lifeworlds. Likewise, Angela’s first social conversation emerges from a phone call about a broken modem, and ends just as bathetically.
However, this threshold between physical and digital space is most acutely intensified in the title character of Kimi, who isn’t a human being but a Siri-like smart speaking device. On the one hand, Angela reserves most of her conversations for Kimi, who she uses to curate and protect her physical space. On the other hand, Angela works for Kimi as a voice stream interpreter, and spends most of her days trawling through and correcting errors that have been reported by Kimi users. In an endless feedback loop, she mainly talks to Kimi to arrange her physical space, and spends most of her time correcting Kimi’s mistakes to make her (or it) a tighter digital product. It’s at this Kimi-threshold that the spatial violence of the pandemic bleeds into the broader digital erosion of space that has preoccupied Soderbergh’s late work.
Rather than physically seeing a crime outside her window, as occurs in most other window films, Angela hears a crime while reviewing one of her Kimi tapes. Kimi thus effectively replaces the window, or makes the window redundant, which has drastic consequences for cinema, insofar as we tend to think of cinema as being a window into another world. From Rear Window to Body Double to The Woman in the Window, window films (in the broadest sense) have used windows to contemplate what cinema means at any one time. In the case of Kimi, this window is no longer visible, and not even especially audible, since the crime is overlaid by a thick layer of digital murk. Instead, Soderbergh takes the lurid erotic core of the window film (for there is a narrative core to this recording, however garbled and remote) and condenses it to a series of verbal fragments that cannot be seen, and can only barely be heard.
This effectively shifts the focus of the window film from the crime itself to the threshold between physical and digital space where the crime occurs. Angela attempts to traverse this space by heading into Kimi headquarters, only to realise that the crime has been perpetrated by someone high up in the Kimi organisation. Rather than the crime being incidental to Kimi, it’s inherent to Kimi, whose regulation of physical and digital space now crystallises into a form of violence that Angela has to escape. She starts by fleeing Kimi headquarters, producing an unusual chase sequence in which she’s not moving through space so much as trying to recover an older kind of public space. The first part of this chase takes us through the most anonymous parts of the Kimi precinct – the executive suites, the data hub, the service entrance and finally the blithe blandness of the corporate park. Although we’re technically “moving” through these various zones, they’re all so airbrushed, and indistinguishable in their drab corporate emptiness, that they quickly erode any sense of progression or momentum.
This anonymity only intensifies when Angela hits the street and starts heading for the FBI. While she now has a tangible destination in mind, Soderbergh seems to seek out the blandest backdrops and infrastructure, as if to eschew anything that specifically situates us in Seattle. We see this same placelessness in Angela’s own apartment complex, which is one of the millions of “5 over 1” or “1 plus 5” residential developments that have sprung up in America in the wake of the recession. The further and faster Angela moves, the more public space dissolves in her slipstream, forcing Soderbergh to resort to almost amateurish camerawork and overegged Dutch angles to reiterate that the camera is indeed occupying a physical space here. The last threshold in this spatial crisis is a mass demonstration about public housing, led by a group of activists who are hitting back at the corporatisation of space in the city. These protestors rescue Angela from the Kimi hitmen who are pursuing her, in a standoff between two different conceptions of space – one public and democratic, one digital and corporate.
Yet this opposition between public and corporate space is ultimately false, since the entire process is tracked by a Kimi executive in precisely the residential space that the protestors are gunning for. In the film’s one trace of an older bourgeois domestic world, this anonymous surveiller sits at a bank of computer screens that are eerily dissonant with the warm lighting, tinkling piano and cosy interiority of what appears to be a suburban family home, right down to a Lynchian grandmother sitting comfortably in the corner. By contrast, Angela’s abduction takes her to a spatially dissonant zone, bound in the back of a van, where she watches more bland buildings pass by outside by craning her neck for a perspective that takes the canted angles of the chase to their logical conclusion. Soderbergh overlays this final glimpse of the outside world with a montage sequence that is part Hitchcockian dream, part digital dissolve.
Nevertheless, the compressed third act of Kimi turns out to be one of Soderbergh’s more defiantly optimistic moments in recent years – or perhaps one of his most anachronistic, as Angela proves that you can indeed manipulate the system against itself, as so often seemed possible in the dystopian tech films of the 90s. Bound by the Kimi executives back in her apartment, Angela uses Kimi to turn off the lights, turn up the music and shut down her computer, giving her time to flee from her captors, retreat to a storage closet, and climb up a manhole into the physical recesses of the roof into the apartment above, which is under construction. This emphatic resurrection of physical space continues when Angela descends, nail-gun in hand, and literally embeds these Kimi bodyguards into the physical structure of the building. This is the last we see of Kimi, whose command over digital space is exhausted as Soderbergh cuts to a long tracking-shot around the empty apartment that fulfils the frustrated trajectories of the early parts of the film, as physical space finally reasserts itself.
It’s a defiantly old-fashioned ending, in some ways, as Elastica plays over the soundtrack and the film ends with a freeze frame that is completely confident in physical space being continuous enough to freeze in the first place. If the pandemic has accelerated the devolution of public space, Soderbergh seems to be suggesting, then that very acceleration has provided us with better tools to discern and fight it – and Kimi is ultimately one of those tools, the latest in Soderbergh’s late period demonstrations of what it means to live in a post-spatial lifeworld.