Producers: Michael Polaire and David Koepp   Director: Steven Soderbergh   Screenplay: David Koepp   Cast: Zoë Kravitz, Byron Bowers, Jaime Camil, Erika Christensen, Derek DelGaudio, Robin Givens, Charles Halford, Devin Ratray, Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, Emily Kuroda and Alex Dobrenko   Distributor: HBO Max

Grade: B+

Steven Soderbergh gives us another reason to be thankful that his “retirement” from filmmaking was so short-lived with this tidy little thriller, a homage to “Blow Up” and “Blow Out,” with a bit of “Wait Until Dark” and “Rear Window” thrown in for good measure and refitted for the age of the IVA and the COVID-19 pandemic.  Blessed with a cunning script by the equally prolific David Koepp that fits the pieces together like a perfectly designed jigsaw puzzle, “Kimi” plays on the themes of pervasive corruption, the modern electronic invasion of privacy, pandemic isolation and the paranoia they all elicit to raise good old-fashioned genre goosebumps. 

Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) is a tech worker for Seattle-based firm called Amygdala, whose owner Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) is about to make zillions in an IPO backed by its virtual assistant Kimi (a cream-colored, glowing plastic bowl voiced by Betsy Brantley), which is superior to its more famous rivals in that it uses humans to respond to miscommunication glitches in the device’s interactions with individual users.  They refine the operational algorithms to improve efficiency for every customer, and so through their intervention, Kimi is continually learning to interact better with each purchaser.

The job is perfect for Angela, a petite girl with bangs in her blue hair who’s also deeply agoraphobic, the result, it’s eventually revealed, of an assault and now reinforced by COVID fears.  (Her ritualistic daily regimen also suggests an obsessive-compulsive disorder.) She has a boyfriend of sorts in Terry (Byron Bowers), who lives across the road—she can watch him through the windows of her expansive loft apartment, and he occasionally visits for bouts of intimacy, but she’s incapable of going into the street to share breakfast with him at a food truck. 

Angela also communicates with her mother (Robin Givens) and therapist (Emily Kuroda) via computer, and when she’s suffering from a toothache demands that the dentist (David Wain) treat her long-distance, though he insists she needs to come to the office.  She also complains solely by phone to her building’s manager about the noise being made by construction workers with their nail guns.   But she’s apparently not alone in her lifestyle: she notices that there’s another neighbor in Terry’s building, whom we’ll come to know as Kevin (Devin Ratray).  He seems as housebound as she, spending his days peering out his window with binoculars always at the ready.

Soderbergh (who also acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and as his own editor under the name of Mary Ann Bernard) works with Kravitz and production designer Philip Messina to create a mood of understated tension in these opening scenes, which convey a sense of claustrophobia even though the apartment is big and bright.  The economy with which he accomplishes his aims here, and Koepp’s skill in inserting items that foreshadow later plot turns, are remarkably acute.

The major disruption comes when Angela discerns unsettling undercurrents in data streams that she monitors, images and snatches of conversation that suggest the sexual assault and possible murder of a woman she identifies, with the help of an amorous Romanian hacker named Darius (Alex Dobrenko), as Samantha Gerrity (Erika Christensen).  When she tries to report the matter to company executives, she’s told that she must do so personally to one Natalie Chowdhury (Rita Wilson), which necessitates her finally leaving the apartment even though Seattle is riven with demonstrations protesting the city’s pandemic-associated plan to relocate its homeless population.  And when she finally meets with Chowdhury, it becomes all too clear that the company is reluctant to call in the FBI and that Angela is now in personal danger herself: she’s being pursued by a trio of fixers led by oily Antonio Rivas (a smoothly malevolent Jaime Camil).

“Kimi” doesn’t withhold its plot secrets for one big revelation at the end; it doles them out gradually, and straightforwardly, so that what’s happening isn’t terribly surprising from moment to moment, but builds tension relentlessly.  There are some bravura scenes—as when Angela barely escapes being carted off in a van by Rivas’ men (Charles Halford and Jacob Vargas)—and the introduction of a master Russian hacker named Yuri (Beka Sikharulidze) takes the narrative even deeper into the realm of extreme surveillance.  The finale, in which Angela must outwit and outfight her potential killers, is as implausible as all such sequences are, though it’s made cleverer by the flowering of seeds that Koepp has planted earlier on.

What keeps the picture humming through all the convolutions and coincidences are Soderbergh’s amazing skill in all three of his capacities, which (bolstered by Cliff Martinez’s edgy score and Larry Blake’s creepy sound design) lends narrative tautness and visual imagination to each scene, and the physicality of Kravitz’s performance; watching her skitter about nervously as she’s forced from the security of her apartment into the fearsome world outside reflects today’s pervasive social concerns in miniature.  Even the predictable coda of the heroine revitalized comes across as satisfying rather than hackneyed.

“Kimi” doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel; it’s essentially an expert genre exercise.  But its repackaging of the tropes of old-style paranoid thrillers in high-tech modern trappings proves irresistible.