Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 28, 2022

A pandemic-era thriller, Kimi is a critique of surveillance capitalism

By JULIA ALUMBRO | March 1, 2022

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DAVID SHANKBONE/CC BY 2.0

Kimi, starring Zoë Kravitz, critiques technology amid an increasingly corporate world.

2022 is Zoë Kravitz’s year for playing lead female roles in cinema. While most people are anticipating her appearance in The Batman this March, Kravitz has received a lot of praise for her performance in the new HBO Max thriller Kimi. The movie, which was released on Feb. 10, is set in a dystopian pandemic world where surveillance capitalism is at its peak.

The story centers around the virtual assistance of Kimi, which is an at-home device similar to a Google Nest or an Amazon Echo, sold by tech company Amygdala. In fact, it begins with Amygdala CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) setting apart the product from its aforementioned competitors. What makes a Kimi special is the presence of real people behind the device, deciphering the commands of its owner.

Kravitz’s character Angela Childs is a voice stream interpreter responsible for sifting through Kimi streams and adhering to the personal commands of random users. Amid pandemic life and the constructs of her job, Childs has developed a fear of the outside world. She regularly checks outside her window, often watching neighbors from the building across from her. Additionally, she socializes solely on digital platforms.

There are a lot of unique directorial choices that effectively communicate Childs’ paranoia. Director Steven Soderbergh utilizes long shots and crooked framing to establish a frenzy that imitates the chaos inside Childs’ head. There are also scenes that are purposefully sped up to reflect her anxiety.

Later in the film, trouble ensues when Childs deciphers a stream that implies a crime may have occurred. While decoding a noisy Kimi message, Childs isolates a clip of a woman screaming in the background, and after further investigation she finds more recorded clips with the woman feeling discontent.

Overcoming her fear of the outside world, Childs travels to the Amygdala headquarters and attempts to report the issue to authorities. In doing everything she can to help the woman, Childs learns about the horrific extent to which companies are willing to cover up scandals for the protection of their reputation.

One consistent activity in the film is stalking. Not only is Childs watching her neighbor from her window, but she herself is being watched by Kimi and the third-party personnel that Amygdala hires as security. This theme of watching is a critique of how our society is making devices like Kimi marketable and accessible, contributing to the rise of surveillance capitalism.

In reflection of Kimi with our own virtual assistants, there have been reported incidents of Alexa and Echo recording conversations and sending them to people on a contact list. 

In an interview with Thrillist, Soderbergh talked about the film’s implications.

“For me, the appeal of it is that it’s a real thing, and we should demand more accountability and transparency, especially when it comes to corporations and the people that run them that have more power politically than countries do... and nobody — except for people in the inner circle — nobody really knows what their five-year plan is and what it will do to us,” he said.

Aside from its holistic critique of technology, the film also spotlights the flaws of powerhouse corporations on the basis of security. If news were to get out about a Kimi scandal, Hasling and his company would lose everything, so the report of a crime via Kimi would be detrimental to the company.

The unfolding of Childs’ investigation is, sadly, common when it comes to dealing with a large corporation’s agenda. Things can get dangerous when you’re trying to expose the dark secrets of a business, which is why the story draws on similarities with agribusiness, illegal harvesting and trade.

Kimi poses many interesting questions about society, ranging from technology to politics to business. Do the benefits of virtual assistants outweigh their dubious nature? Is there any way to regulate laws surrounding products like Kimi? How might we, moving forward, carefully track the progression of surveillance capitalism?

The ideas that inspired Kimi are what makes the film most interesting. It’s thought-provoking and important to use as a reflection on why our world functions the way it does. I’d highly recommend Kimi, and you can find it streaming on HBO Max.

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