Of course, of all the big-name Hollywood filmmakers you’d expect to thrive in spite of COVID-era production troubles, Steven Soderbergh has been thriving the brightest. Three decades into his career, Soderbergh still conveys a playfulness and adaptability that have got to be near impossible to maintain in an industry that’s increasingly hostile towards anything that’s not pre-established, multi-billion-dollar IP. While most legendary auteurs have struggled to get no-brainer projects off the ground, Soderbergh remains a scrappy, resourceful innovator who’s still making exciting work at the margins of the industry – the kind of movies you’d expect out of a director in their twenties with something to prove. Adding the circumstances of the COVID pandemic to his already unstoppable filmmaking routine is just another obstacle for Soderbergh to navigate his way around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was genuinely delighted by the challenge. Two years into the pandemic, he’s already made and distributed three feature films, making it look disgustingly easy while most of the Hollywood machine feels like it’s still on pause. I’m halfway convinced that he’ll be up to four COVID-era features by the time I finish typing this paragraph.
Although Soderbergh has already delivered other experiments in COVID-era cinema (all for HBO Max), his latest dispatch, Kimi, is the first that feels like it was produced during the pandemic. While Let Them All Talk & No Sudden Move would’ve felt right at home in any other year of Soderbergh’s post-“retirement” era, Kimi directly acknowledges the ongoing pandemic and integrates it into its narrative. It initially plays like Soderbergh making an easy exercise out of updating Rear Window for the COVID era. Zoë Kravitz stars as a low-level surveillance tech who reviews and solves technical issues for an Alexa-style personal assistant gadget called Kimi. An agoraphobe whose anxiety about leaving the apartment is only worsened by the pandemic, she’s limited almost all of her in-person social interactions to physical communication with the tenants of the apartment building opposite her window. Given how most COVID-era productions have shifted to screenlife thrillers contained to laptops and single-location living spaces, you’re trained to expect the entire movie to play out in this one beautiful, but restrictive Seattle apartment. Instead, Soderbergh turns that familiar set-up into an excuse for a totally Unsane remix of The Net. While working her surveillance data-collection job, Kravitz discovers evidence of a violent crime. Reporting it puts her in danger of suffering a similar fate of the victim she’s trying to save, as the corporate suits at Kimi will literally kill to prevent the resulting public scandal. So, she has to go on the run outside her apartment to escape violent, corporate thugs, which is really just an excuse for Soderbergh to play with the unique anxieties of what it feels like to exist in public right now.
The brilliant thing about Kimi is that it feels like a throwback to mid-budget tech thrillers of the 1990s like Sneakers and The Net—the exact kind of movies that most Hollywood studios neglect to make anymore—even though it has distinctly modern sensibilities in its technophobic satire & production circumstances. The film’s paranoia about the illusion of online privacy, its dual use of the Kimi tech as both a weapon & a punchline, and Kravitz’s e-girl haircut are all firmly rooted in modern internet culture, but they’re treated with a retro Hollywood thriller sensibility in the film’s plotting. Meanwhile, Soderbergh is having fun playing with his filmmaking toys, as always. He shoots Kravitz’s nervous escape on the streets of Seattle with a sped-up skateboard video aesthetic that recalls the anxious discomforts of Unsane. He stunt-casts comedians David Wain & Andy Daily in bit dramatic roles that recall similar casting pranks in The Informant. Most importantly, he continues his reign of filming the ugliest, drabbest office settings in the biz, depicting our current corporate hellscape as a fluorescent-lit nightmare we’d all be lucky to wake up from at any second. If there’s anything that unifies Soderbergh’s filmmaking sensibilities beyond his continued playfulness in craft, it’s that all his films maintain a sternly anti-Capitalist political bent – capturing the cruelty, tastelessness, and absence of Life in our soul-drained modern world like no other filmmaker working today. It’s all very honest about the exact corporate power structures that are crushing the few good things left in this world, while also recalling the phoniest blockbuster thrillers of Hollywood past. Exciting stuff.
I have no idea how much longer COVID will continue to disrupt the production logistics of traditional Hollywood filmmaking. I’ve stopped trying to predict the future after these last two years of watching a global health crisis get unnecessarily prolonged in a game of profit-over-people politics. Still, I can say with full confidence that Soderbergh will continue to make movies as long as he’s alive on this planet, and his movies will continue to confront those exact misanthropic politics for what they are. They’ll also continue to be wonderfully entertaining; he’s always dependable for that, even if his modes of professional survival are forever in flux.