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Space invaders

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published May 16, 2022 5:00 am

Home invasion. It’s one of cinema’s most durable tropes. But during the past few years, what with COVID and financial peril everywhere, the genre has taken a few twists and turns.

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Kimi (shown on HBO Max), focuses on Angela Childs, a young data processor played by Zoë Kravitz who suffers from various anxiety disorders in the midst of the COVID lockdown. Basically, she’s quite happy to be shut inside, terrified of mingling with other humans in the mask-wearing world outside her window. (Why becomes clearer later.)

Zoë Kravitz plays Angela Childs in Steven Soderbergh’s shut-in thriller Kimi.

The Kimi of the title refers to one of those smart speaker systems (like Alexa or Siri) made by the tech company Angela works for, Amygdala. It’s designed for home users to bark out their search requests, and Angela is one of the people behind the scenes, tapping keys to improve the functioning of the search algorithm.

You know those service people who pop up in chat windows and try to fix your phone or cable problems via dialogue chat? (“Hi, I’m Melissa, how can I help you today?”) Did you ever wonder if you were actually dealing with a human, or an algorithm? Angela’s one of the humans behind the scenes, solving customer complaints, monitoring the conversation and chat threads and tweaking data errors for her daily reports.

Pictures shows director Steven Soderbergh, left, and actor Zoë Kravitz on the set of "KIMI. 

It’s a perfect setup for someone who enjoys the lockdown rituals of having her food and groceries delivered to her door, drinking tea or coffee before an array of laptops and computer screens, and never having to step outside her apartment. 

Until, that is, she hears a disturbing message from a Kimi user — one that sets off alarm bells of possible rape or murder — and decides to trace the data streams behind the call. As her inquiries draw closer to the truth, she realizes that some people in Amygdala would prefer that the audio message in question disappear down a memory hole.

Soderbergh is quite good at techno thrillers in the Hitchcock vein, and the script (by David Koepp) hits a bunch of trendy buttons. Even Kravitz’s hair is trendy, shifting from blue to green and other hues as she settles in to the role of panic attack-prone survivor. There’s a bit of a Rear Window feel to Angela’s Seattle apartment, where neighbors in the brick building across the street are as interested in her daily shut-in activities as she is in theirs. Kravitz is great at playing deadma characters with a determined streak (check out her Catwoman), and the twists are satisfying, if laden with unbelievable coincidences, as it becomes clear the company, which has designed a sketchy algorithm, wants to make everything about her case go away.

What makes Kimi feel new is its focus on an agoraphobic character with a touch of OCD (the way she fans her hands in the air after spritzing on alcogel, for instance) who is forced to go to bat for someone else, facing her fears and venturing out into the pandemic-era city.

And then there’s the home invasion angle. Think of Wait Until Dark (blind Audrey Hepburn beset by drug-smuggling Alan Arkin in her apartment) crossed with Quentin Tarantino, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Soderbergh, who seems pretty low-key these days but still makes intelligent, entertaining films, pushes all the right buttons here. A plucky young woman willing to do battle with all her demons seems to be the kind of heroine that the times call for.

Jason Segel, Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins play out a wry, bungalow-style noir in Windfall.

And speaking of sketchy algorithms, Jesse Plemons plays a nameless CEO who designs one that helps corporations downsize their employees in a cold, bloodless fashion in the home-invasion thriller Windfall (shown on Netflix). Jason Segel plays “Nobody,” a disgruntled former employee who was axed due to the algorithm in question, and so decides to take up residence in the CEO’s orchard ranch home while he’s not there. And just to make it an anonymous trio, Lily Collins plays Plemons’ nameless wife, a former assistant who put aside her own career dreams to marry her boss — probably one of the most unpleasant, repulsive high-tech CEOs in recent history (though the jury is still out on Elon Musk).

Segel, surprised in the midst of his home-invasion vacay by the unexpected arrival of the couple, decides to hold them hostage and finally settles on a ransom of $500,000 before releasing them.

Home invasion. It’s one of cinema’s most durable tropes. But during the past few years, what with COVID and financial peril everywhere, the genre has taken a few twists and turns.

The logistics of all this are kind of dubious in Windfall. The CEO apparently has to wait a day and a half before his assistant back in the city can pull together that kind of cash (even though he’s supposed to be richer than Croesus or even Jeff Bezos). But that just gives us time to hang out with Segel, the most inept kidnapper ever, and Plemons’ peerlessly arrogant a-hole of a CEO who can’t help giving snotty advice to the clearly in-over-his-head kidnapper. Collins is the wild card here, instructed by Plemons to “get this guy to trust you” so the couple can make some kind of a getaway attempt.

Plemons shows a capacity for playing awful characters not displayed to this level before (there was his dead-eyed Todd in Breaking Bad, who was arguably creepier; his CEO is just a rich, white megalomaniac in comparison). Segel loses sympathy points as the plot progresses, but it’s Collins who surprises most, carrying off a noir turn that her Emily in Paris skills never even hinted at. 

The script by Charlie McDowell, who is (surprise!) the husband of Collins (and incidentally the offspring of Malcolm McDowell), has some nice, vicious lines and plays out like a stage drama (fittingly, because it all takes place in a bungalow-style ranch house). The home-invasion trope is subverted here because it’s quickly made clear that the high-tech marrieds are not so happy together — there are frictions, bad communications, past indiscretions, etc. Hell, he even forced her to have an ankle tattoo removed. So controlling!

Eventually, Windfall winds its way towards a modern reading of toxic masculinity and general white male indifference to the rest of the planet. There’s a noirish angle to Collins turning the tables here: neither male in the movie sees her as anything more than an object. So it’s not too surprising that the wife in question resorts to some serious, er, reparations in the name of #MeToo and independence.

And that’s perhaps the prerogative of today’s cinematic Final Girl, pitting herself against an increasingly dangerous and unbalanced world as it comes a-knocking at the door.