Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI: Seattle as a Panoptic Playground

illustration by Gary Mills

We live in a truly bizarre time. The ubiquity of technology, the omnipotence of megacorporations, and the smothering hand of the surveillance state have brought us all to the point where—sometimes complacently—we find ourselves in a constant state of being eavesdropped on and exploited. We’ve all had that all-too-familiar experience, that pang of fear and recognition when an advertisement for something you’d only just mentioned aloud or over text suddenly pops up on your smartphone. (It may sound paranoiac, but I swear that this has happened to me with things I’d merely thought about.) More so than any film in recent memory, Steven Soderbergh’s 2022 thriller KIMI gives voice to universal anxieties around modern technology with alarming accuracy. What makes KIMI particularly resonant for me is its setting: a COVID-ravaged, socially and economically imbalanced Seattle—a metropolis teetering on a razor’s edge that is, perhaps counterintuitively, the country’s largest hub for the booming tech industry. It also happens to be the city where I’ve lived my entire life.

When Soderbergh and crew brought their production to Seattle in the summer of 2021, the city was still reeling from the events of the past year; as you’re likely aware, a militarized Seattle Police Department clashed with peaceful protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers for nearly a month. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, who presided over the SPD’s abuse of power whilst doing little to squelch Seattle’s exploding homelessness crisis, was still in office when Soderbergh’s cinematographer (the auteur himself, under one of his pseudonyms, Peter Andrews) picked up his camera in Seattle’s downtown district. Like KIMI’s protagonist, Angela Childs (brilliantly portrayed by Zoë Kravitz), in May of 2021 my brain was aswim in a cocktail of prescription medication, and I feared leaving my apartment, which was located just a couple blocks from where, months earlier, the clamor of smoke grenades detonating nearby had been my daily (and nightly) soundtrack.

While the premise of KIMI is a simple but compelling one, it’s the context of the film that lends it real depth: the setting of a volatile and ever-changing real-world city, the invasive proliferation of technology into our private lives, and our own compliance with this violation—and the pall of a global pandemic hanging over everything. The latter was not originally built into the screenplay by writer David Koepp, but turned out to be an unfortunate (if narratively beneficial) real-life circumstance. Kravitz’s Angela works as a “voice stream interpolator” for a monolithic tech giant called Amygdala. Whether you want to read the company as analogous to the Seattle-based Amazon (or Facebook or Microsoft or Google) is ultimately irrelevant; it’s no coincidence that they all have massive campuses based in the city or its suburbs.

Angela’s job requires her to listen in on ostensibly private conversations between individuals and the titular IPA (Intelligent Personal Assistant), which conspicuously resembles Amazon’s Echo, a device that uses voice-activated prompts to connect to Amazon’s all-seeing, all-knowing Alexa AI.1 Angela’s professional responsibility isn’t to snoop; it’s to weed out errors in the accuracy of the software’s responses. As Bradley (Derek DelGaudio), an Amygdala higher-up, puts it in the film’s opening scene, “We are flagging miscommunication so KIMI can better understand you.” Apart from providing an all-too-rare onscreen representation of a young woman in STEM, Angela’s vocation positions her in KIMI as both a voyeur and the subject of voyeurism herself. 

 KIMI invites obvious comparisons to forebears like The Conversation and Blow Out, and also borrows liberally from the atmosphere and shot composition of Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeurism ur-text, Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, Soderbergh has cited those films—along with his colleague David Fincher’s Panic Room, and Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac—as inspirations for his work on the film. KIMI’s plot kicks into motion when Angela clocks what she believes to be a violent assault recorded—likely unintentionally—by an anonymous user’s KIMI mic. As Angela attempts to bring this evidence to the attention of her Amygdala superiors, she’s stymied at every turn as she slowly works her way through the corporate rolodex and up the ladder in hopes of exposing the truth. With its shady corporate cover-ups and one-person-against-the-world narrative conventions, KIMI functions as something of a sister film to Soderbergh’s excellent 2013 potboiler, Side Effects.

As with Side Effects, there’s a pharmaceutical component to KIMI. Stemming from an unspecified incident that occurred at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Angela suffers from a raft of mental maladies. While never explicitly stated, Kravitz’s studied, twitchy performance suggests that Angela lives with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and agoraphobia (on her bathroom sink, we see bottles of Lorazepam, Zolpidem, and Trazodone), the latter no doubt exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Not for nothing, my own nearby battleground of Snohomish County had the United States’ first reported case.) Soderbergh depicts Angela’s erratic mental state—itself reflective of the unease of the city at large—with dramatic Dutch angles and wobbly handheld photography. 

KIMI is the third film that Soderbergh has released since the onset of COVID, and he notably led an ad hoc Director’s Guild committee on how to navigate the challenges and limitations of moviemaking during this era. (Let’s not talk about the disastrous 2021 Academy Awards ceremony that he co-produced.) His attention to detail in depicting the realities of Life Under Plague-time are well-observed: Angela’s key bowl is always stocked with individually-packaged sanitary wipes, she has a clearly-practiced technique for compulsively cleaning and drying her hands, and she has her regular therapy sessions over teleconference. DelGaudio’s character gives a television interview over livestream in a suit and tie, but we see that his dress shirt is rumpled and untucked over a pair of pajama bottoms and slippers. Andy Daly, in another example of Soderbergh shrewdly employing comedians in supporting roles (see also: the criminally underrated The Informant!), has a scene over Zoom with Kravitz where he tries desperately to quash Angela’s crusade while simultaneously yelling at his raucous children in the background to quiet down. 

One of my first big undertakings during lockdown was to fill the gaps in my knowledge of other shot-on-location Seattle films. KIMI eschews the impulse to indulge in the region’s natural splendor (see: the fun exploitation films McQ and Hit!), opting instead to focus on the city’s oftentimes oppressive urban center (Cinderella Liberty, House of Games, The Slender Thread). There’s also a case to be made that KIMI shares common DNA with Alan Rudolph’s 1985 oddity Trouble in Mind and the anarcho-punk B-movie Class of 1999, both of which treat Seattle as a dystopian battleground. (Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle, about the 1999 WTO riots, could be seen as a kind of connective tissue). 

Soderbergh’s film wholly embraces the city’s fraught state circa summer 2021. Allusions to Seattle’s mishandling of the homelessness endemic are not accidental, and for a tense scene set against the backdrop of a protest outside the mayor’s office—decrying the city’s ongoing sweeps of encampments—the production actually reached out to a grassroots community called Safe Seattle, who were doing exactly that already, only off-camera. Some 200 or so background performers held aloft signs bearing the phrase “Stop the Sweep” and chanted, “Homes, not jails,” both of which were real slogans used by activists in opposition to then-mayor Durkan. A local Seattle news station even reported from an unverified source on Facebook that the KIMI production was responsible for a sweep of homeless encampments in our Pioneer Square neighborhood, something its unit publicist expressly denied. It’s no wonder, to this Seattleite anyway, that Angela’s character should be distrustful of civic authority and the local police, to say nothing of her corporate tech overlords (most chillingly embodied by an expertly-cast Rita Wilson, one of the first and most prominent celebrity COVID survivors).

Commitment to the reality of the city’s situation aside, Soderbergh was not afraid of altering the Seattle landscape to suit the milieu of his film. KIMI does take some liberties with the city’s geography, as did Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedies Say Anything and the grunge-era Singles. More importantly, he populates the film with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it KIMI advertisements on billboards, train stops, and light rail stations. (If Washington Filmworks is reading this and has one of these sitting in a closet somewhere, call me.) The ubiquity of the advertising and of the product itself in characters’ homes only serves to underline the movie’s theme of surveillance and invasion of privacy: KIMI is inescapable. Daly’s character says the devices “pick up things…lots of things…and our policy is it’s not our business,” echoing an actual criminal trial where prosecutors tried, and failed, to invoke Amazon Echo recordings.

Koepp—no stranger himself to nervy, confined bottle thrillers, having directed 2004’s Secret Window—looked to the 2017 case of Arkansan James Bates as a jumping-off point for KIMI’s exploration of voyeurism through a technophobic lens. In 2015, Bates invited friends over to watch football and stay the night. In the morning, one of them was found dead in his backyard hot tub. During their investigation to determine if Bates was responsible for the man’s death, local police confiscated an Amazon Echo device in Bates’ kitchen, believing that it may have surreptitiously heard and recorded incriminating audio. An Echo is supposed to work just like KIMI: it’s only on after being verbally cued with its name. But many users claimed that Echos would activate without their consent, or by misinterpreting an overheard phrase. In the world of KIMI, Angela is supposed to be a mediator of such glitches. But in doing so, she inadvertently becomes the flesh-and-blood target of Amygdala’s efforts to cover up their dirty laundry. 

KIMI evokes other portrayals of the invasion of privacy. Not only does Angela lustily observe the man who lives across the street (George Evans, credited only as “Neighbor Husband”) from her improbably swanky apartment, she’s also routinely spied on by another next-door tenant played by Devin Ratray, in another thread of Soderbergh and Koepp’s Peeping Tom tapestry. After a tryst with Neighbor Husband, said suitor scrolls through Angela’s Instagram feed, interrogating her about where and when she’d been at local clubs. Even if the machines aren’t watching us, the current digitized age—enhanced, surely, by the conditions of stay-at-home-mandates—has made voyeurs of us all. Furthermore, when Angela finally and bravely ventures to Amygdala headquarters in the standard quarantine uniform of sweatpants and UGG boots, she’s only granted access to the building after consenting to a retinal scan (a not entirely subtle touch, to be sure). When Angela confronts Wilson’s Natalie Chowdhury about having never provided the company with a retinal scan, Chowdhury matter-of-factly states that they pulled the information from surveillance cameras—proving that they’re truly watching our every move, every moment of every day.

At the conclusion of the aforementioned The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is a broken man, having solved the film’s central mystery but perhaps been forever cursed with the feeling that he’ll never be truly safe, unseen, or unheard. KIMI offers Angela no such validation in terms of learning the whole truth of the twisted scheme she’d become ensnared in. She merely survives, and that’s enough. What she does get, that Caul doesn’t, is a relatively happy ending; the film even ends on a freeze frame right out of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid playbook. In one of the film’s closing shots, we see flowers from Neighbor Husband on her dining room table in place of where her KIMI device was. The camera zooms out of her loft apartment’s window; we see her happily outside, enjoying a sunny date with her beau at a food truck. Both of the socially-distant Caul and Childs characters end up rejecting the technology that made their lives hell, but one ends up doomed and the other liberated.

It’s a pyrrhic victory for Angela, however. What KIMI ultimately makes evident is this: in this time of COVID and civic unrest—in the Emerald City and beyond—you can take certain measures to protect yourself against a virulent disease, but you ultimately cannot do the same when it comes to the voyeurism and overreach from the hardware in your home or the software on your phone. You’re always being watched, monitored, and monetized; even the relative anonymity afforded by an N95 face mask can’t protect your identity in these unprecedented times.

  1. If you’ll allow me an aside: the look of the KIMI device was dreamt up by Soderbergh himself, who, despite his polymath reputation, doesn’t usually muck around in the business of production design. And, in a particularly cheeky choice, none other than his ex-wife Betsy Brantley provides the unnervingly chipper voice of KIMI.